Kevin Gorman: Devlin Hodges the only feel-good story for Steelers in loss to Ravens
Devlin Hodges had dreamed of playing quarterback in the NFL since he was a kid and defied all odds to become the backup for the Pittsburgh Steelers as an undrafted free agent rookie.
His dream came true only after a nightmarish scenario as Mason Rudolph was knocked out cold when Earl Thomas’ helmet hit the quarterback’s chin in the third quarter Sunday at Heinz Field.
“For a minute, he was just laying there and wasn’t moving,” Hodges said. “That’s something that’s tough to look at.”
Instead, Hodges did what backups do: He threw down his headset and grabbed his helmet. As the medical staff attended to Rudolph, Hodges warmed up on the sideline.
Suddenly, the Steelers had no choice but to turn to the quarterback Mike Tomlin dubbed “Duck Dynasty.”
Hodges is an unbelievable story. The 6-foot-1, 210-pounder was a record-setting passer from Samford and national champion duck caller who was signed after a tryout and didn’t make the final cut out of training camp. He was signed to the practice squad in Week 2 after the Steelers traded Joshua Dobbs to Jacksonville, became the backup six days later when Ben Roethlisberger suffered a season-ending elbow injury and made his NFL debut against the Baltimore Ravens.
“I thought he represented himself well,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “He gave us a chance. You have to tip your hat to him. You are talking about a guy that didn’t make our opening 53 and all those things. We know his story.”
Hodges was on the cusp of adding another amazing chapter to his story — “Duck Tales,” if you will — after leading the Steelers to a touchdown and a field goal to take the lead. But the Ravens left a cruel twist to his comeback, as Justin Tucker’s 46-yard field goal clinched a 26-23 overtime victory.
“We didn’t hold back at all,” Hodges said. “We just went out there and played the game. I just wish we’d won.”
Hodges didn’t hold back at all, either.
“It sucks. We lost,” Hodges said. “No matter how you lose, you hate losing.”
And that’s where the feel-good story ends.
The Steelers are in serious trouble, not just because they are down to their third-string quarterback. The overtime loss dropped their record to 1-4 going into their game at the Los Angeles Chargers, a sign this could be a long season.
“Obviously, it doesn’t look good on paper,” Steelers running back James Conner said, “but everybody’s hand is in the pile.”
The sad truth is, the Steelers don’t look good on paper — or the field — and the losses are piling up. They are proving to be a team that snatches defeat from the jaws of victory. Three of their four losses are by four points or less, and they just fumbled away a chance to win a critical division game at home.
Now, a coaching staff that showed so little confidence in Rudolph it resorted to running the wildcat formation is down to Hodges and Paxton Lynch, a former first-rounder cut by Denver and Seattle who is on the practice squad.
Other than that, everything is perfect.
Seeing Rudolph lying motionless on the field was scary, a momentary flashback to Ryan Shazier’s spinal-cord injury at Cincinnati in December 2017. When left tackle Alejandro Villanueva waved frantically to the sideline to signal that Rudolph required medical attention, you knew it was serious.
So, it was a relief to see Rudolph sit up, then walk off the field with assistance, weird as it was that his facemask had been removed. Rudolph clearly was concussed, so there is no set timetable for his return to playing football.
Hodges was stunned to see this from the sideline, hoping a player he described as one of his “closest friends on the team” was going to be OK while preparing for his NFL debut.
“I hate the reason why,” Hodges said, “but I’m glad I’m in this situation that I’m in and have the chance to play.”
Hodges played, despite not taking first-team reps in practice all week. He played wearing the full gameplan on his left wrist and knowing he might as well have been wearing a bull’s-eye, as the Steelers were down to their last active quarterback.
If anything, Hodges provided some positivity by completing 7 of 9 passes for 68 yards. He converted a third-and-8 with a 13-yard pass to Diontae Johnson and a 14-yarder to tight end Vance McDonald to set up Conner’s go-ahead touchdown run.
Hodges wasn’t perfect. He floated a pass over the middle that was intercepted but got a break when it was negated by a Ravens holding penalty. Late in the fourth quarter, Hodges scrambled 21 yards to the Baltimore 18. But his third-and-5 pass to Jaylen Samuels went for a 2-yard loss, and the Steelers settled for a field goal and a 23-20 lead with 2:37 remaining in regulation.
“He’s here for a reason,” Conner said of Hodges. “He’s on our 53-man for a reason. He’s active, so I believe in him. The whole team believes in him. It’s the way this game goes. We have to be all-in and have each other’s backs.”
But the Steelers didn’t have Hodges’ back. They gave up a nine-play, 45-yard drive that saw Tucker kick a 48-yard field goal with 10 seconds left to force overtime.
The Steelers stopped the Ravens, forcing a punt to give Hodges a chance to be the hero. But JuJu Smith-Schuster’s fumble — Hodges misplayed the bouncing ball near the Steelers sideline — was recovered by the Ravens in range for Tucker’s winner.
Now, it’s up to the Steelers to show the start of “Duck Dynasty” isn’t the end of their season.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .