Why Duck Hodges is still Steelers' best QB option for a wild-card playoff berth

Sporting News

There really was only one terrible throw. In a game as important as the Steelers' wild-card showdown against the Bills, in a game as closely contested as this one, in a period when every game the Steelers played has thus far fit that description, one was enough.

It wouldn't have been enough to serve as ammunition for those angling to generate controversy regarding the identity of the Steelers' quarterback. For that, the other three interceptions Devlin "Duck" Hodges threw Sunday night were essential. He made their case for them, even though there were mitigating circumstances.

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin was asked immediately following the game if he planned to change quarterbacks again, switching back to Mason Rudolph a month after installing Hodges at the position, and Tomlin was in no mood to discuss it.

Scroll to continue with content
Ad

MORE: How Steelers can earn AFC wild card

Tuesday, though, he was prepared to respond — and he gave the only logical answer: He will start Hodges again Sunday against the Jets, in what is close to a must-win game to keep alive the team's playoff hopes.

"I look forward to giving him the opportunity to rebound," Tomlin said in his weekly news conference. "I think it's reasonable to expect growth from young players as they get exposure. Sometimes the exposure can be negative exposure, like his was in the last game."

For the Steelers to be this close to the end of their season and dust off Rudolph makes little sense if the current starter is healthy and available. It smells of panic. Rudolph is a better talent than some contend, and certainly should enjoy a brighter future than Hodges, but his confidence was dissipating at the time he was benched.

Hodges responded by leading the team to a win over the Bengals in relief, then won starts against the Browns and Cardinals. In his next game, Hodges faced his toughest challenge to date and delivered his poorest performance in a 17-10 loss to the Bills. He completed 23-of-38 passes for 202 yards and one touchdown, but he was intercepted four times.

That last stat is the sort that only tells part of the truth, however ugly it may be.

Consider each individually, instead of looking at that glaring total:

Pick No. 1 — Thrown high down the right side by Hodges at the end of the Steelers' first possession, with the team facing a third-and-long situation, it was grabbed easily by Bills cornerback Tre'Davious White. It was a fine play by White, who is becoming one of the league's best corners without feeling it necessary to become one of the league's biggest mouths, but it essentially was a punt.

White went out of bounds on the play at the Buffalo 25. As it turned out, it was one of the Steelers' better punts in this game.

Pick No. 2 — The previously described disaster, Hodges tried to beat White on the far sideline from the near hash mark and showed again he does not have the arm to make that play. Whether it was a bad play call or Hodges' own overconfidence, White's interception and 49-yard return completely changed the game.

If you wish to say that play alone warrants abandonment of the Duck experiment, there might be a case for it. But be honest about it.

Pick No. 3 — Thrown into the end zone (and double coverage) on a fourth-and-7 play with 1:54 left from the Buffalo 23, the pass was intended for fourth-week wideout Deon Cain, a receiver Hodges never looked off as he prepared to release. Safety Jordan Poyer was in the end zone to help and broke toward the ball on Hodges' release. The Steelers had James Washington running open toward the opposite corner but Hodges never saw him — because Buffalo again was able to pressure him with a slot blitz from Taron Johnson.

Buffalo was blitzing regularly because the Steelers weren't handling it. This was one more instance.

Pick No. 4 — A strong hold by the defense gave the Steelers one more chance in the final minute at a tying score, but now they were running out of time. Hodges was able to escape the rush to the left on the final pass, but he had no one open, no clock and attempted to throw what amounted to a Hail Mary. That it was intercepted was beside the point.

MORE: NFL playoff clinching scenarios for Week 16

Hodges is not an extraordinary talent. This is not a case of a player with the apparently hidden ability of a Tom Brady or Kurt Warner being ignored or entirely dismissed by talent evaluators. His arm is such the Steelers must tear many of their pass plays out of the book when Hodges is in the game. Opponents are aware of what they're facing, and they scheme against him accordingly: overstuffing the box with defenders, attempting to bait him into dangerous throws.

The Steelers did plenty wrong against Buffalo. In the first quarter, they rushed three defenders when the Bills attempted to convert a fourth-and-6 in Pittsburgh territory. Quarterback Josh Allen had plenty of time and plenty of opportunity to find a receiver, and that conversion led to the game's first TD.

When the Steelers had a first-and-goal from the 10 just before halftime, they lined up back James Conner in the Wildcat formation for only the second time this season and asked for him to execute a challenging read-option play. A low snap started that play badly, and a botched handoff to Diontae Johnson — a wideout functioning as a tailback? — resulted in a fumble.

And still, with all of that plus Hodges' dreadful third-quarter interception, they still were down a touchdown and had two late chances to tie the game.

Tomlin was asked if Hodges would be on a "short leash" Sunday in such an important game, if a few more mistakes might lead him to follow the same trail toward the bench as Rudolph did in mid-November.

"I don't anticipate or plan for failure," Tomlin said. "I anticipate him doing great, to respond to the challenge."

This is not a time in the Steelers' season for radical change. They understand their limitations, and they have seen most of the obstacles those limitations create. It will not get any easier to overcome them.

It is not logical, though, to try an entirely different path when they are so near to their destination.

What to read next