My expectations weren’t high. But I allowed myself to be pleasantly surprised.
Hey, I can do that. I witnessed the Pirates win three whole playoff games back in 2013, you know.
With my own eyes!
I had a micro-level response like that on Sunday. That’s when Devlin “Duck Dynasty” Hodges took over at quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers against the Baltimore Ravens.
When Mason Rudolph was knocked out with a concussion, my thought was, “Uh oh. Here comes the undersized, undrafted guy from Samford. He looked great winging the ball and running around against fourth-stringers in preseason games and training camp. What’s he going to look like in a real game against starters, though?”
The answer was, well, pretty darned good, actually.
No, Hodges couldn’t lead the team to victory Sunday. The Ravens won 26-23 in overtime. But he was 7-of-9 for 68 yards. He also scrambled for 20 yards and helped finish off the team’s lone touchdown drive of the second half.
Yes, he threw a pick that got called back via penalty. But the quarterback who wears No. 7 on that team has had that happen to him once or twice, too.
All in all, Hodges was impressive for a rookie fourth-string QB making his first NFL appearance. In fact, Hodges was solid enough to get head coach Mike Tomlin praising his “awareness,” “savvy” and “moxie” during his Tuesday morning press conference.
“I tell you all (in the media) each and every week that I feel comfortable and confident,” Hodges said after the game. “We didn’t hold back at all. We just went out there and played the game.”
Didn’t hold back, huh?
Sounds good to me. So maybe this week against the Los Angeles Chargers — if Hodges starts as Rudolph recovers from his concussion — Tomlin and offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner won’t be as conservative with “the Duck” as they were with Rudolph in his first start three weeks ago.
Or, then again, maybe they will be.
“I think we’ll make those judgments based on what we see during the course of the week,” Tomlin cautioned on Tuesday.
“What you do with a guy who steps into a game, in-game, is different than what you do with a guy based on six or seven days of prep time,” Tomlin continued.
We saw that effect when Rudolph came in for Ben Roethlisberger after halftime against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 2. Running what was largely the team’s original game plan that day, Rudolph was 12-for-19 for 112 yards, two touchdowns and an interception that only occurred because Donte Moncrief dropped the pass. If Moncrief had held onto it, Rudolph’s passer rating would’ve been well over 100 barring a future pick. Regardless, he still finished at 92.
That was in just one half.
The next week in San Francisco, Rudolph played a full 60 minutes and was only 14-for-27 for 174 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. Sixty-five of those yards were on the ground after JuJu Smith-Schuster snagged a short pass over the middle and busted it for a long catch-and-run.
— SteelVideos (@SteelBlitzburgh) September 22, 2019
During the win over the Cincinnati Bengals the following week, the Steelers implemented the wildcat, jet sweeps and misdirection into their offense, in part, to insulate Rudolph even more.
Elements of that approach even carried over into the Baltimore game last week before the Ravens jumped out to a 10-0 lead.
“When you send a guy in to finish a game, he has less exposure, a lot less in-helmet preparation,” Tomlin explained.
In other words, give a backup a full week of practice and maybe he out-thinks himself. If he’s sent in mid-game, there is less time to think and stress.
If you give a back-up a full week in the other team’s film room, they know what to expect, as well.
I get that. I do.
Plus Rudolph — by his own characterization — is “a big prep guy.” He is a smart, coachable quarterback, perfectly capable of painting by the numbers. So you can justify the idea of just giving him a rigid game plan and telling him to stick with it.
Although he sure seemed more comfortable when being allowed to order off the adult’s menu instead of being force-fed chicken fingers and mac-and-cheese all day, didn’t he?
That strikes me as even more the case with Hodges. He is much more improvisational and colors outside the lines. His personality is grip it, rip it, run and gun.
If Tomlin and Fichtner stick him in the pocket and have him shovel pass his way through the Los Angeles defense Sunday night, as they did with Rudolph the last time they were in California, they won’t be playing to Hodges’ strengths.
If they do so, I bet it backfires. If “the Duck” has to start, just let him fly freely.