All things considered, the decision that Coach Mike Tomlin announced at his weekly news conference today at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex was not a surprise.
The business of professional football is one dictated totally by the bottom line, and for the Steelers the bottom line was that when Devlin Hodges replaced Mason Rudolph early in the second half last week in Cincinnati, the Bengals had a 7-3 lead, and when the game was over the Steelers had a 16-10 victory in a game they absolutely, positively could not afford to lose and were back in the AFC playoff picture.
"We met as a staff, and we decided we're going to start Duck this week," said Tomlin about the decision to start Hodges against the Browns on Sunday at Heinz Field. "And really, the decision is clear for us, and there are some really clear reasons why. Like I talked about after the Bengals game, I thought (Hodges) provided us a spark in-game, and I'm hopeful he's capable of continuing to provide that spark as we step into this stadium (on Sunday)."
One season after Ben Roethlisberger joined a select group of all-time quarterbacks by throwing for over 5,000 yards for an offense that led the NFL in red zone touchdown percentage and was among the most productive in the league, the Steelers rank in the bottom third in every significant offensive category except sacks allowed. Tomlin understands the role injuries have played in that drop-off, starting with losing Roethlisberger for the season halfway through 2019's second game.
But Rudolph throwing five of his nine interceptions in the last six quarters was too much for him to overlook.
"In recent quarters of action, we've really been bogged down, and that has been due to a lot of things," said Tomlin. "It really goes beyond just Mason and his performance. He has been in and out of the lineup, some running backs and offensive linemen have been in and out of the lineup, we missed some guys at receiver specifically in the last game, (there was) the combination of playing without Conner and JuJu (in Cincinnati), and so maybe some of those negative things have worn away at elements of Mason's play. He hadn't protected the ball very well recently like he did at the early portions of his participation.
"I have a lot of patience for young guys, but one thing we need to do is take care of the ball. That was one of the reasons why we gave Devlin an opportunity in Cincinnati," added Tomlin. "Once given the opportunity, he took care of the ball and provided a spark, so we just thought it was reasonable as we prepare this week to allow him to continue to do that."
And so, Rudolph was notified of the team's plans on Tuesday morning, and preparations begin in earnest for the rematch against the Browns on Wednesday morning. Beyond that, Tomlin stressed there was nothing more to the decision than that.
"It means nothing about our intended plans for the foreseeable future, or the trajectory of Mason's career, or what have you. We're just not of that mentality. We're not in a position to be of that mentality," said Tomlin. "We're putting pieces together on a week-by-week basis because of the adversity that the game presents with players being available to us or not being available to us. And so we're singularly focused on winning this game, or putting ourselves in position to win this game. So that's where the decision lies."
And in case that wasn't clear enough, Tomlin continued, "We'll see where we are after this game. Really, we have no intended plans beyond this one. We have to see who is available to us in terms of this game, put that group together, and in some cases learn what they're capable of doing in some new-guy instances, in an effort to put them in the most advantageous position in situations and in matchups so that we can perform."
This will be Hodges second start of his rookie season following a training camp and a preseason that were judged quite differently by the media vs. the coaching staff. This dichotomy was illustrated by one question to Tomlin about whether he has seen some of the same things recently in Hodges' play that spurred the Steelers' decision to keep him on the 53-man roster in the first place.
Tomlin's answer: "But we didn't keep him in the first place."
In fact, Hodges was among the cuts the Steelers made following the preseason finale, and he was subsequently brought back and added to the practice squad following the trade of Joshua Dobbs to Jacksonville for a fifth-round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. He then was added to the 53-man roster when Roethlisberger had elbow surgery and was placed on injured reserve.
Following Hodges' first start of his NFL career, which ended in a victory over the Chargers in Los Angeles the week after Rudolph was concussed by a helmet-to-helmet hit from Ravens safety Earl Thomas, Tomlin judged the quarterback play as good enough because it didn't have a negative impact on the outcome.
Asked about his expectations from Hodges this time around, Tomlin said, "There aren't enough plays on his resume to paint with a broad brush … there is going to be enough pressure on Devlin just performing, so I'm not going to add to it by talking expectations. I expect him to not kill us."
TOMLIN'S INJURY UPDATE
"As we come out of the Bengals game, I think that we're relatively healthy from an in-game standpoint. We have some bumps and bruises associated with play. Some of the guys who went down in the game were also able to come back and finish the game, like T.J. Watt and others. We'll watch those guys, some of them are being looked at downstairs (in the training room) and we'll let their participation (in practice) be our guide as we prepare for this one.
"The existing injuries are the ones of note, and we don't have a lot of clarity about the availability of these men. JuJu Smith-Schuster, with his knee; James Conner, with his shoulder; and Artie Burns, with his knee – all three missed the last game. I don't know what their status will be (for the Browns) as I stand here. We'll go through our normal procedures in terms of looking at those guys and seeing if they're good enough to participate in practice and then go from there. But I don't have a lot of clarity as I'm standing here regarding those three men."