Backup QB Devlin Hodges comes off bench, leads Steelers past Bengals
CINCINNATI — Devlin Hodges injected some life into the Pittsburgh Steelers offense in the second half Sunday, coming off the bench to direct a 16-10 come-from-behind victory against the winless Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium.
The question is this: after helping produce 13 second-half points, will the rookie quarterback get the start in seven days when the Steelers get their much-awaited rematch with the Cleveland Browns?
Tomlin could be tempted to stick with Hodges given the Steelers will be facing the Browns for the second time in 17 days. And everyone knows how the first encounter ended for Mason Rudolph, who threw four interceptions before his fight with Myles Garrett in the waning moments.
Tomlin was coy when asked about which quarterback he will start next weekend.
“I may have it as I stand here right now,” he said minutes after the Steelers improved to 6-5. “But I’m not going to share it with you guys.”
Hodges threw a 79-yard touchdown pass to James Washington on his third snap to give the Steelers a 10-7 lead in the third quarter. Supported by a running game that had a season-high 160 yards, Hodges led two drives that resulted in Chris Boswell fourth-quarter field goals that helped the Steelers move back into the No. 6 spot in the AFC playoff race.
“Duck came in and provided us with a spark and made a couple plays,” Tomlin said. “We’ll see what next week holds next week.”
Hodges finished 5 of 11 for 118 yards but, most importantly, no interceptions. He completed two of his final eight attempts.
“I didn’t have any expectations,” said Hodges, who deferred to Tomlin when asked whether he should start against Cleveland. “The only expectation that I have is when my number is called: stay ready and be ready.”
Starting 10 days after the debacle in Cleveland, after which he was accused by Garrett of using a racial slur and then was fined $50,000 for his role in the fight, Rudolph didn’t provide the rebound performance the Steelers were anticipating.
He completed 8 of 16 passes for 85 yards and an interception for a 39.6 passer rating.
In six possessions, he led the Steelers to three points.
“We’ve got to come out faster, start faster as an offense — and that starts with me,” Rudolph said. “I have got to make some adjustments, but I think it’s correctable stuff.”
After the Steelers went three-and-out on the opening drive of the second half — Rudolph was sacked for a 13-yard loss on the second play and threw an incompletion on the third — Hodges began loosening up on the sideline. Rudolph sat on the bench with offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner.
“He’s the one who told me, ‘Hey, we are going to go a different route,’ ” Rudolph said. “So I’ve just got to handle it and move on.”
Hodges entered with 12 minutes, 36 seconds left in the third.
“I saw enough of what I needed to see,” Tomlin said.
His deep pass to Washington, in which the wide receiver delivered a stiff-arm to cornerback B.W. Webb that sprung him for the final 30 yards, provided an instant jolt.
The Bengals came back on their next possession with Randy Bullock’s 27-yard field goal that tied it, 10-10.
Thanks to three Bengals penalties, including back-to-back pass interference calls on Webb, the Steelers moved into position for Boswell to kick a go-ahead, 47-yard field goal with 11:59 to play.
In danger of going a second consecutive game without a takeaway, the defense produced two in the fourth quarter. With the Bengals driving for a potential tying — or go-ahead score — Devin Bush slapped the ball out of Tyler Boyd’s grasp, and Minkah Fitzpatrick recovered with 8:45 left.
Boswell’s 26-yard field goal with 3:31 left gave the defense some breathing room. Bud Dupree ended any late suspense with a strip sack/fumble recovery at the Bengals 21 with 2:38 remaining.
The Steelers finished with four sacks and held the Bengals to 2 of 12 conversions on third downs.
“It’s weird being on a team with a defense this good,” guard David DeCastro said. “To be a defensive team like we are makes us not want to have turnovers, control the game, run the ball. Our defense doesn’t need a lot of points the way it’s playing.”
With the Steelers missing three Pro Bowl players — James Conner and JuJu Smith-Schuster to injuries, Maurkice Pouncey to suspension — and despite the quarterback change, the offense managed one touchdown for the fourth game in a row.
Still, they pieced together a capable running game.
Benny Snell capably replaced Conner and gained 79 of his game-high 98 rushing yards in the second half. Kerrith Whyte, making his NFL debut eight days after being signed off Chicago’s practice squad, had 43 yards rushing on six attempts.
The Steelers attempted 38 runs — four running backs got touches — and possessed the ball for more than 34 minutes.
“It was good to get a rhythm,” DeCastro said. “Last week was tough. There was a lot of stress with all that happened, so it was nice to get that out of the way, get this behind us, get a nice win to clean it up — and move back to the same team again.”
That, of course, will be the Browns, who are nipping at the Steelers’ heels with a 5-6 record.
“We can’t let it slip away, let them come in our house and take a win,” Dupree said. “We have to make sure we put our foot on the gas and push it to the limit.”
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .