Kevin Gorman: Mike Tomlin sends message to Steelers: Don’t let quarterbacks kill us
Mike Tomlin wasted no time in announcing Duck would start at quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday, and his reasoning for the choice was just as succinct.
The Steelers coach leaned in toward the microphone Tuesday afternoon at his weekly news conference at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex and spoke slowly and softly for dramatic effect.
“He has not killed us,” Tomlin said, with a smile.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, on what QB Duck Hodges has done to earn the starting nod against the Browns. pic.twitter.com/35BR1e8Lpc
— Kevin Gorman (@KGorman_Trib) November 26, 2019
This is where the Steelers are, down to starting undrafted rookie Devlin Hodges in a pivotal AFC North game against the Cleveland Browns and 2018 No. 1 overall pick Baker Mayfield on Sunday at Heinz Field.
Tomlin’s directive to the Steelers offense and defense against the Browns sounds the same: Don’t let the quarterback kill us.
From the periphery, there are myriad of reasons why Tomlin and his coaching staff chose Hodges over Mason Rudolph relating to their rematch with the Browns only 17 days after the last-minute melee in a 21-7 loss at FirstEnergy Stadium.
It starts with the struggles of Rudolph and the spark Hodges provided in leading the Steelers to a third-quarter touchdown and two fourth-quarter field goals to rally for a 16-10 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday.
But it could have something to do with the circus surrounding Rudolph. Since replacing the injured Ben Roethlisberger as the starter, Rudolph has had a rough go of it: He was knocked unconscious from a helmet hit by Baltimore safety Earl Thomas, had his helmet pulled off and was hit in the head with it by Cleveland defensive end Myles Garrett, was accused of using a racial slur by Garrett in an NFL hearing last week and treated as a pinata at tailgates by Browns fans.
Any or all of those things might have contributed to Rudolph getting benched. Mostly, it was his poor play the past two games, when Rudolph completed a combined 31 of 60 passes (51.7%) for 306 yards and only one touchdown.
More than anything, it was for turnovers.
While Tomlin professed his patience for young players, he made it clear he has little tolerance for turnovers. And Rudolph didn’t protect the ball — with four interceptions and a fumble against the Browns and one pick against the Bengals — and was sacked five times for minus-56 yards.
For a third-round draft pick to whom the Steelers gave a first-round grade, Rudolph appeared indecisive and inaccurate. A number of his throws were above or behind his intended targets, leaving them vulnerable to big hits. Against the Bengals, Rudolph panicked under pressure and drew an intentional grounding penalty on one series and took a 13-yard sack on another before getting the hook.
In other words, he was killing the Steelers.
Tomlin made a lot of excuses for why the offense had “bogged down” under Rudolph, from the shuffling of the offensive line to the absence of Pro Bowl players in running back James Conner and wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster. Where Rudolph’s surrounding skill players were a cast of rookies, backups and newly signed players against the Bengals, Mayfield has the luxury of handing off to running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt and throwing to receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry.
But most impressive is Mayfield’s poise in the pocket. Tomlin was outspoken about how Mayfield’s mobility killed the Steelers in the first meeting, especially by escaping pressure with scrambles and rollouts to complete 17 of 32 passes for 193 yards and two touchdowns and run for another.
“We better work to keep him in the pocket, but that’s no easy task,” Tomlin said. “He’s as good in the pocket as he is outside the pocket. That’s why he was taken in the draft where he was taken. He’s just a quality player.”
Hodges, on the other hand, wasn’t drafted out of FCS Samford. When asked about what Hodges showed the Steelers that compelled them to keep him, Tomlin quickly reminded that Hodges wasn’t on the final 53-man roster out of training camp and wasn’t re-signed until after Josh Dobbs was traded to Jacksonville.
A moment of levity when Steelers coach Mike Tomlin is asked what he likes about QB Devlin Hodges. pic.twitter.com/yfR1RRs3PA
— Kevin Gorman (@KGorman_Trib) November 26, 2019
“We didn’t keep him in the first place,” Tomlin said of Hodges, to laughter. “He’s been really consistent, in terms of his approach. At every turn, he’s proven that those circumstances aren’t too big for him, that he doesn’t act funny in any way.”
Hodges might have a funny nickname, but Tomlin even attempted to quell his budding cult-hero status by continually calling him “Devlin” after his initial revelation “Duck” would start. Tomlin has no intention of adding any pressure to Hodges, other than providing a spark and protecting the football — and not necessarily in that order.
“There’s going to be enough pressure on Devlin in just performing so I’m not going to add to it by talking about expectations,” Tomlin said. “I expect him to not kill us.”
Tomlin just has to hope he’s not expecting too much.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .