CINCINNATI – It’s not one of Vince Lombardi’s more well-known sayings, that’s for sure. Not like the one made famous by NFL Films: “What we’re trying to do is get a seal here and a seal here, and run the ball in the alley.” Nor is it as oft-repeated as, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”
But this one speaks to this 2019 Steelers season, particularly the 16-10 victory here over the Bengals on Sunday. “The measure of who we are is what we do with what we have.”
The Steelers have been living that ever since they got the news about Ben Roethlisberger needing season-ending surgery on his right elbow, and since the second half of their second game of the season roster turmoil has turned into a daily occurrence. Starting with that move of Roethlisberger to the injured reserve list on Sept. 16, the Steelers have made 59 moves that included adding and subtracting players from their practice squad, trades, signing players off other teams’ practice squads, yo-yoing players from the practice squad to the active roster and back, releasing guys, and putting more players on injured reserve.
When the ball was placed on the tee at Paul Brown Stadium for their 11th game of the season, the Steelers were about to embark on that particular challenge without Roethlisberger, Maurkice Pouncey, Stephon Tuitt, James Conner, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Rosie Nix, Ryan Switzer, and Sean Davis. A few of those names could be back in the lineup at some point in the future, but more than half are finished for the season. And while some of those names might elicit a “no big deal” from a faction of observers, all of them either were starters or holders of significant roles on the day the Steelers boarded their charter flight for a trip to Foxborough to begin a season many prognosticators saw ending with them winning the AFC North Division.
But a lot of that milk has been spilled and there’s no use crying over it, because it wouldn’t do any good and nobody cares about their tears anyway. In the present, it’s mostly about survival from one week to the next, one game to the next, with players and coaches working to cobble together a plan and the execution of it that will allow the team to get out of whatever building they’re in with a victory. And today, at 6-5, they’re the No. 6 seed in the AFC, which means a spot in the playoffs.
Holding onto that spot became a little trickier based on the events here yesterday, because now the Steelers have a quarterback issue that goes beyond being without Roethlisberger. In his previous outing, Mason Rudolph threw four interceptions, and even worse than that has made no consistent progress in the area of being decisive in the pocket. Early in the second half against the winless Bengals, after the Steelers first possession of the third quarter to be precise, Coach Mike Tomlin had seen enough. After watching Rudolph complete half of his 16 attempts for just 85 yards to that point in the game, with one red zone interception and a couple of intentional grounding penalties, Tomlin told Devlin Hodges to warm up. Even though the move had the potential of adding the angst of a looming quarterback controversy to the list of this team’s issues, Tomlin decided it had to be done anyway.
It would be nice if the move had a fairy tale ending, with Hodges riding in on the proverbial white horse to save the day and make the job his for the foreseeable future. But a more accurate description of his day’s work was that he didn’t mess it up and reaped the good fortune of James Washington turning an intermediate completion into a 79-yard touchdown with a stiff-arm that put cornerback B.W. Webb on his back to clear his path to the end zone, and of Benny Snell ripping off 98 yards rushing on 21 carries, including a 13-yard gain inside the two-minute warning that sent the Steelers into kneel-down mode because he had the savvy to stay in bounds and give himself up instead of continuing on into the end zone to keep the clock running toward a victory.
For the afternoon, Hodges completed 5-of-11 (45.5 percent) for 118 yards – with 79 of those coming on Washington’s big play. He was sacked twice, but he didn’t turn the ball over, and he wasn’t the cause of any pre-snap penalties. The accurate description of Hodges’ play was that it contributed to the victory and didn’t get in the way of it.
Once again, what was driving the car toward victory lane was the Steelers defense, which held the Bengals to 244 net yards of offense, a 2-for-12 showing on third downs, forced nine punts and had two takeaways on Cincinnati’s 13 offensive possessions, and in general helped a less-than-explosive offense enjoy a nine-minute edge in time of possession. Oh, and Chris Boswell was 3-for-3 on field goal attempts, and Jordan Berry posted a 42.6-yard net average on his seven punts to help the Steelers own a consistent field position advantage.
Now, Tomlin and the Steelers will have to deal with the fallout of the quarterback switch, which can be expected to attract much more attention and be the catalyst for many more questions and debate of those answers than it deserves, because the choice between the two candidates seems mostly to be about the lesser of a couple of currently bad options.
That’s why this time this quarterback switch should be handled no differently than making a change at any other position. It’s not a referendum on either guy, and it’s not even a commitment to one of them that should last beyond the end of that particular game. With five losses already, the Steelers likely can afford one more if they want to participate in the postseason, and so whatever and whomever it takes to win each week has to be the approach.
Neither Rudolph nor Hodges has earned the right to be the full-time starter, so whoever happens to be playing better at a particular time should be on the field and if/when his hot hand turns cold he should be replaced. Unceremoniously. Without hesitation and knowing that the same fate awaits the other guy. And if it evolves into some back-and-forth-and-back-again, so be it, because as the song goes, “If you can’t be with the one you love, honey, love the one you’re with.”
If it takes playing two quarterbacks to win games, play two quarterbacks to win games. And if it means not committing to either as the starter, then don’t commit to either as the starter. Because right now, quarterback play is what’s threatening the Steelers’ chances of doing something special this season, and with what they have, making the playoffs would be that something.