Kevin Gorman: Devlin Hodges gives Steelers their best chance to win
CINCINNATI — Mike Tomlin was looking for something to spark the offense, and the Pittsburgh Steelers coach had seen enough to know it wasn’t going to come from Mason Rudolph.
So Tomlin made the Duck call.
Not only did the Steelers switch quarterbacks, but they also traded the player involved in the ugliest incident of the NFL season for one of its feel-good stories by turning to the national champion duck caller and undrafted rookie from Samford.
“Coach Tomlin always says, ‘If I ever ring, if I ever dial … ” Devlin Hodges said in his Alabama twang, “answer.”
Hodges answered the call in the third quarter against the winless Cincinnati Bengals, hitting James Washington in stride for a 79-yard catch-and-run touchdown on his third play and leading two fourth-quarter field-goal drives to secure a 16-10 Steelers victory Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium.
“I didn’t have any expectations,” said Hodges, whose starting debut was a 24-17 victory Oct. 13 at the Los Angeles Chargers. “The only expectation I have is, if my number is called to be ready.”
That Tomlin made the change mid-game means the Steelers now have a bonafide quarterback controversy, though you have to wonder whether they even have a legitimate NFL quarterback.
What you really wonder is who the Steelers will start when they play the Cleveland Browns next Sunday at Heinz Field. If Tomlin knew, he wasn’t telling.
“I may have it as I stand here right now,” Tomlin said, mysteriously, “but I’m just not going to share it with you guys.”
There are many reasons the Steelers should start Hodges against the Browns — and we will get to them — but only one truly matters: He gives them their best chance to win right now.
That’s not to make too much of how Hodges played, as Tomlin suggested the position sometimes receives more credit and blame than it deserves. It’s obvious the Steelers are winning in spite of their play at the game’s most important position.
Aside from the touchdown pass where Washington did most of the work, Hodges hardly put up impressive numbers: He was 4 of 10 for 39 yards and was sacked twice for minus-11 yards, and the Steelers punted three times and settled for two field goals.
But guiding the Steelers to three scoring drives in six series is a marked improvement over Rudolph, and it resolves a major issue for a team that ranks among the league leaders in takeaways.
“With the way this defense is playing, as long as we don’t give the game away, give turnovers away and run the ball decently, convert some third downs and get a little rhythm and put some points on the board,” Steelers right guard David DeCastro said, “we’re going to be tough to beat.”
In that regard, you could argue Rudolph’s benching was overdue. His ineffectiveness over his final 30 possessions resulted in more punts (16) than points (13), and more interceptions (five) than scoring drives (three).
But Rudolph’s performance against the NFL’s only winless team made Tomlin’s decision an easy one. Rudolph completed 8 of 16 passes for 85 yards, but his six drives ended like this: punt, interception, punt, field goal, punt and punt. He also drew an intentional-grounding penalty and was sacked for a 13-yard loss.
“I just felt like our offense needed a spark,” Tomlin said. “Mason wasn’t doing enough. Duck came in and provided us a little spark, made a couple plays. We’ll see what next week holds next week.”
As much as Rudolph denied it was an issue, the previous 10 days had to be hard on him.
The second-year signal-caller was at the center of national controversy, first for his fight with Browns defensive end Myles Garrett, who pulled off Rudolph’s helmet and hit him in the head with it, and again after Garrett claimed Rudolph initiated it by using a racial slur.
It only got uglier as some Browns fans hanged Rudolph in effigy while other blindfolded Browns fans used a Steelers helmet to hit a pinata dressed in his white No. 2 jersey.
Browns defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson added insult, telling Cleveland reporters he would rather see Rudolph.
“I hope he plays,” Richardson said. “Did you see him last game?”
Tomlin could treat such talk as nothing but white noise. But the Steelers coach also could be setting Rudolph up to fail by starting him against such a hostile opponent only one week after benching him for the backup.
Then again, Tomlin said he didn’t go into the Bengals game with Rudolph on a short leash after everything he had been through since the Thursday night game at Cleveland.
“I don’t prepare for failure that way. I don’t. I prepare for success,” Tomlin said. “Like you guys hear me say all the time, I’ve always got a hard-core plan, but I’m light on my feet.”
The Steelers’ best plan for success should be to call on Hodges for another start. To choose otherwise would be to leave Rudolph as a sitting duck against the Browns.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .