Steelers ‘duck’ comeback by Chargers, ride rookie QB to much-needed win
CARSON, Calif. – An undrafted free agent, a player not even on the roster to open the season, made his first NFL start Sunday night, yet it was the Los Angeles Chargers who were duck soup against Devlin Hodges and the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Backed by a suffocating defense for three quarters, a strong running game and a pro-Steelers crowd at tiny Dignity Health Sports Park, Hodges’ debut on a national television stage was all it was quacked up to be as he helped engineer the Steelers’ 24-17 victory Sunday night against the Los Angeles Chargers.
Nicknamed “Duck” because of his proficiency as a champion duck caller, Hodges got the start because of Mason Rudolph’s concussion – he remains in the NFL protocol – and calmly executed the Steelers’ conservative game plan.
Hodges completed 15 of 20 passes for 132 yards, one touchdown and one interception while not being sacked or hit once. He received one of the game balls handed out after the game.
“It was awesome,” Hodges said. “That’s something that I’ve dreamed about. That’s something that I’ve always believed that could happen and just to kind of live it out was amazing.”
James Conner scored two touchdowns – one rushing, one receiving – and had 119 yards from scrimmage before leaving with a quad injury. Benny Snell chipped in with a game-high 75 yards on 17 attempts. Linebacker Devin Bush returned a fumble for a touchdown and also had an interception.
“We knew we couldn’t give Duck a lot of exposure to that defense so we had to do some things in other areas,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said.
The Steelers head into their bye week with a 2-4 record and remain two games behind first-place Baltimore in the AFC North. The Chargers also are 2-4.
“We needed this,” Tomlin said.
When the Steelers return from the bye, will Hodges be the starting quarterback or will Rudolph be back under center? A quarterback controversy is something the Steelers never worried about in Ben Roethlisberger’s first 15 seasons.
“I ain’t getting into that,” Tomlin said.
Neither would Hodges.
“I don’t know,” he said when asked whether he deserved another start. “All I care about is the game today and that we got the win.”
The Steelers took a 24-0 lead into the fourth quarter but watched Philip Rivers throw two touchdown passes to tight end Hunter Henry, the second one pulling the Chargers within seven points with 1:29 remaining.
Cameron Sutton’s interception with 41 seconds left – the third turnover created by the Steelers – denied any chance of a miraculous comeback by the Chargers.
The crowd that filled the 30,000-seat soccer stadium, which is the Chargers temporary headquarters, was overrun by Steelers fans that turned out by the thousands to cheer a team that was trying to snap a 1-6 West Coast funk under Tomlin’s watch.
“That’s something we kind of anticipated happening,” Hodges said. “Our fans travel so well. In pregame warmups you could tell it was going to be like a home game.”
The accolades for the defense grew louder with each big play the Steelers created, starting with the fumble that Bush scooped up and returned nine yards for a touchdown barely four minutes into the first quarter.
Bush intercepted a deflected pass later in the quarter, which led to a 14-0 advantage. Bush has four fumble recoveries and two interceptions this season, putting him among the leaders in the defensive rookie of the year discussion.
“What coach talked about was engineering a win,” Bush said. “The plan was to set up a short game for Devlin and keep things simple for him and not make things erratic for him and put points up on the board early.”
The Steelers defense entered the game minus starters Mark Barron (hamstring) and Steve Nelson (groin). Defensive end Stephon Tuitt left in the first quarter with a pectoral injury, cornerback Joe Haden exited in the second half with a groin injury and outside linebacker T.J. Watt didn’t finish with an oblique injury.
“I think that’s the story of the night,” Tomlin said. “The guys stepped up and stepped up in a big way.”
Leading 21-0 at halftime, the Steelers took the second-half kickoff and took almost seven minutes off the clock before Chris Boswell increased the advantage with a 20-yard field goal.
The Chargers overcame a 16-0 halftime deficit against the Steelers last year, but this hole was too deep. They ended the Steelers bid for a shutout with 14 minutes remaining when Chase McLaughlin kicked a 38-yard field goal.
Hodges threw his first career interception on the next series, and the Chargers turned it into a touchdown with 7:13 remaining that cut the Steelers’ lead to 24-10. Rivers threw a 5-yard touchdown pass to Henry at the back of the end zone to complete a 70-yard drive.
The Chargers got the ball back with 3:53 left, and Rivers threw his second touchdown pass to Henry with 1:29 to play.
Sutton recovered the onside kick by out-jumping several Chargers players for the ball. The Steelers couldn’t get a first down, but Jordan Berry’s punt pinned the Chargers at their 1. Sutton intercepted a Rivers deep pass, and Hodges took a knee to end the game.
“We knew that we had to have a good game defensively and that’s what we tried to do — help Duck out as much as possible,” linebacker Vince Williams said.
The Steelers converted 8 of 13 third downs while rushing for 124 yards on 36 carries. Conner led with seven receptions for 78 yards, and the leading receiver was Dionte Johnson with two catches for 14 yards.
After throwing an incompletion on the Steelers first snap, Hodges completed his final eight attempts of the half for 70 yards. He threw a 26-yard touchdown pass to Conner on a swing pass to put the Steelers ahead, 21-0, with 6:34 left in the half.
“Honestly, they were dropping down there, and we were hitting the check-downs, and James Conner had a great night,” Hodges said. “Anytime you can check the ball down and get 10-15 yards every time, it’s huge.”
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .