Kevin Gorman: Ready to see if Steelers OC Randy Fichtner will allow Duck to let it fly
Randy Fichtner was probably thankful he was wearing a Pittsburgh Steelers baseball cap and pair of sunglasses to cover his eyes as he processed a loaded question:
What would your reaction have been if you would have known in training camp that your fourth quarterback would be starting in Week 6?
The Steelers offensive coordinator paused, pursed his lips and gave the most honest answer you could have ever imagined.
“Well, I don’t know,” Fichtner said. “I never would have thought anything of that nature.”
Join the club, Coach Randy.
That the Steelers are one step closer to starting Devlin Hodges against the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday is as much a shocker to their play-caller as anyone.
That an undrafted free agent rookie from Samford is ahead of a former first-round draft pick in Paxton Lynch tells you everything you need to know about the NFL this season.
As unique of a story as Hodges is, the Steelers are hardly alone in reaching deep into their depth chart this season.
Difference is, they’re down to a Duck.
When Fichtner kept mispronouncing his first name during organized team activities in May, Hodges told him about his history — and his hobby. Even though he didn’t know the first thing about how to become a national champion duck caller, Fichtner found it easier to pronounce Duck than Devlin.
What Fichtner does know is quarterback play, as he has coached the Steelers quarterbacks since 2010. Ben Roethlisberger led the NFL with career-highs in passing attempts, completions and yards last year in Fichtner’s first season as coordinator.
No wonder the first thing Fichtner noticed about Hodges, who signed with the Steelers after a tryout, is that he completed passes and moved the offense downfield. It didn’t take long to see Hodges has a way about him, exuding the confidence that comes with breaking Steve McNair’s FCS passing records.
“From the minute he got here, you liked the personality,” Fichtner said. “You loved his savvy as a QB.”
This season has been a learning process for the Steelers and Fichtner, who clearly never considered these would-be scenarios that led to Hodges running with the first team: Former back up Josh Dobbs traded to Jacksonville, Roethlisberger lost to season-ending elbow surgery and 2018 third-round draft pick Mason Rudolph knocked out with a concussion.
But here we are.
“It’s been a continuous change,” Fichtner said.
It’s no surprise the Steelers are 1-4, with three losses by a combined nine points. That has made Fichtner an obvious target for criticism, so we’re about to find out whether Rudolph’s play was a product of overprotective play-calling or indecisiveness.
Fichtner looked smart when he simplified the gameplan for Rudolph by throwing short flip passes on jet sweeps and relying on running out of the wildcat formation with Jaylen Samuels in a 27-3 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals.
Now that Samuels is out for a month following knee surgery, Fichtner doesn’t even have that gimmick to fall back on anymore. And that’s probably a good thing.
Despite allowing only five sacks, the Steelers rank 25th in the league in passing yards with 213.6 a game and 28th in yards per attempt (6.5). Fichtner knows that’s a reflection of their quarterback play and play-calling, both his responsibilities.
So, Fichtner is pushing the other 10 players on the Steelers offense to focus on performing to the best of their ability and playing mistake-free to take the pressure off Hodges, who completed 7 of 9 passes for 68 yards in leading touchdown and field-goal drives in the overtime loss to the Ravens.
“As far as the game-planning for a new quarterback, you can’t keep it so simple that it’s not effective,” Fichtner said. “But you better be careful and go back in time and see some things that he’s done very well.”
Hodges showed at Samford he’s not afraid to sling it, especially against superior competition.
He attempted 60 passes against Florida State last season and 69 against Mississippi State in 2016. Hodges, however, also threw a combined six touchdowns and seven interceptions in those two games.
“He’s no stranger to the forward pass,” Fichtner said. “He likes to throw the ball. I don’t think he’s ever met a pass he didn’t like.”
Neither has Fichtner, so they should get along.
Now, we’re about to find out how much their play-caller will allow Duck to throw the ball or the Steelers will throw a duck.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .