Kevin Gorman: Steelers revel in rivalry, as Duck Hodges plays his tail off to beat the Browns
Devlin Hodges dared to dream about the moment when he would receive a pre-game introduction as the starting quarterback, even if it wasn’t specifically for the Pittsburgh Steelers or at Heinz Field.
“Just being in the NFL and starting in the NFL, that’s the dream I’ve always had,” Hodges said. “I just knew I could do it.”
Yet when the time came, Hodges never heard his name.
The ultimate underdog known as Duck was too busy flapping his arms and reveling in the roar he received from Steelers fans as he ran through the tunnel formed by his teammates before a pivotal AFC North game.
“It was awesome,” Hodges said. “It was so loud that I don’t even think I heard my actual name called.”
It’s safe to say Hodges exceeded all expectations in the 20-13 victory over the Cleveland Browns on Sunday, as coach Mike Tomlin’s mandate was only that he didn’t kill the Steelers.
By late fourth quarter, Steelers fans were chanting Hodges’ nickname. The cheers came after Hodges completed a third-and-6 pass to tight end Vance McDonald for a first down with 2 minutes, 32 seconds remaining.
Duck! Duck! Duck!
It was a bit premature, to be sure. The Steelers were forced to punt and required a Joe Haden interception to clinch the victory and prevent the Browns from their first series sweep since 1988.
But those chants had to have been heard around the league as the undrafted rookie from Samford outdueled former Heisman Trophy winner and 2018 No. 1 overall pick Baker Mayfield in ending the Browns’ three-game winning streak and possibly knocking them out of the playoff picture.
Where Hodges completed 14 of 21 passes for 212 yards, with a touchdown and an interception, Mayfield was 18 of 32 for 196 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Hodges had a better completion percentage (66.7 to 56.3), threw for more yards and had a higher passer rating (95.7 to 71.9).
“He didn’t kill us,” Tomlin said, flashing a smile and laughing. Later, when asked to elaborate on the performance, Tomlin offered he thought Hodges “played his tail off.”
Indeed, Duck killed the Browns.
There was bad blood in this renewed rivalry after Myles Garrett hit Mason Rudolph with his own helmet in the final seconds of the Browns’ 21-7 victory on Nov. 14 in Cleveland and began a brawl that drew $730,000 worth of fines between the two teams. It only got uglier when Garrett, in appealing an indefinite suspension, accused Rudolph of using a racial slur during his hearing.
The Browns had given the Steelers bulletin-board material all week, from defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson saying they “beat the stuffing” out of the Steelers to coach Freddie Kitchens wearing a “Pittsburgh Started It” shirt Friday to see the Mister Rogers movie, “It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.”
So this was an indignity for the Steelers to beat the Browns with a quarterback who signed after a tryout, entered training camp as their fourth-stringer and didn’t make the final cut for the 53-man roster — only to rise to cult-hero status. Hodges wasn’t an innocent bystander like his starting debut at the Los Angeles Chargers in mid-October.
Tomlin said they had the “shared experience” of the victory over the Chargers in their back pocket. But the Steelers coach steered clear of Hodges this week so as not to give the quarterback the wrong impression.
“I wanted him to know that I had confidence in him,” Tomlin said. “I thought extra time and extra points of emphasis and more dialogue than normal would prove to him that I didn’t. So I was very conscious of my interactions with him. It was no more than normal because I wanted him to know that we had real confidence in him.”
Duck did it despite starting the second quarter with a 10-0 deficit. It started with the Steelers taking advantage of a free play when Richardson jumped offside and Hodges tossed a 31-yard pass along the visiting sideline. Soon, Chris Boswell was kicking a 39-yard field goal, and the Steelers were on the scoreboard.
Hodges would hit Tevin Jones for a 28-yard gain to set up a 30-yard touchdown pass to Washington to tie the score 10-10 with one minute left in the first half. Hodges connected with Washington again on a 44-yard pass along the Steelers’ sideline to help set up Benny Snell’s go-ahead 1-yard touchdown.
With every big play, the Steelers showed confidence in Hodges to make more. On a third-and-7 at the Cleveland 29, he scrambled 9 yards for a first down. Then again, Hodges fumbled out of bounds on a third-and-goal at the 3, and the Steelers had to settle for a Boswell 29-yard field goal for a 20-10 lead.
“He stayed calm the whole game, and a lot of guys could see that in him,” Washington said. “He came in and did his job and helped us get this victory.”
Hodges needed help from the defense, to be sure. On the first play after the Browns cut it to 20-13, Hodges had a pass intercepted and returned 28 yards. Cleveland had its chance for a comeback before the defense forced a punt on that drive, and Haden picked off Mayfield with 1:06 seconds left.
Late in the fourth quarter, however, Hodges received the Heinz Field hero treatment after he completed the third-down pass to McDonald and the Duck chants echoed throughout the stadium.
“It was definitely a moment,” Hodges said, “I’ll never forget.”
Neither will the Steelers, who forever will remember this as the game Duck played his tail off to beat the Browns.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .