It has gone from Coach Mike Tomlin answering a question about his expectations for Devlin Hodges being, "to not kill us," to Tomlin explaining how the coaches have to work with the rookie quarterback on some of the special situations that arise over the course of a typical game.
During his weekly news conference today at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, Tomlin confirmed what was expected, that Hodges will start a second straight game for the Steelers, with the upcoming assignment being against the Cardinals in Arizona this coming Sunday. And while there certainly was no long-term commitment made to Hodges as the starting quarterback, the announcement had a different feel to it this time.
"Now we transition to Arizona," began Tomlin, "getting familiar with those guys and the challenges they present. First is just the venue. Going on the road is something we respect, particularly working with a young QB. Duck will be our quarterback again this week. He has performed well in hostile environments, but he just don't have a big sample size. I liked what I saw in L.A., I liked what I saw in the second half in Cincinnati, but he will be moving into, roughly, his seventh quarter of road work. We respect it. We have to prepare that way."
In Los Angeles against the Chargers, Hodges completed 15-of-20 (75 percent), with one touchdown, one interception, and a rating of 87.9 while executing a plan that called for him to throw the ball downfield only once. In Cincinnati, Hodges replaced Rudolph for the Steelers' second possession of the second half, and he completed 5-of-11 (45.5 percent) for 118 yards, with the one touchdown being a 79-yard catch-and-run by James Washington, no interceptions, and a rating of 115.
Those were Hodges' statistics during his two appearances on the road this season, but what earned him this start against the Cardinals is what he did last Sunday against the Browns at Heinz Field.
As for the statistics in that game, Hodges completed 14-of-21 (67 percent) for 212 yards, with one touchdown, one interception, and a rating of 95.7. But Tomlin also cited the offense's production in the final 7:34 of the first half through the opening possession of the second half as being integral to the game's outcome.
After the Browns completed a 10-play, 70-yard drive with Baker Mayfield's 15-yard pass to Kareem Hunt to put the Steelers in a 10-0 hole midway through the second quarter, Hodges soon found himself facing a third-and-9 from Pittsburgh's 18-yard line. Using a hard-count to draw Sheldon Richardson offside, Hodges took advantage of the free play to go deep down the left sideline to James Washington, who made the catch for a 31-yard gain. That broke the Steelers out of their offensive doldrums, and seven plays later, Chris Boswell's 39-yard field goal cut their deficit to 10-3.
After a three-and-out, the Steelers got the ball back at their 31-yard line, with 1:48 remaining in the first half and all three of their timeouts. After a couple of passes netted one first down, Hodges teamed with Tevin Jones for a 28-yard gain up the seam for a first down at the Browns 30-yard line. On the next play, he put up a ball to the goal line that Washington went up and got despite an interference penalty on T.J. Carrie for the touchdown that tied the game, 10-10. Then after the Steelers received the second half kickoff, Hodges completed both of his attempts for 59 yards on a 69-yard drive that ended with a 1-yard run by Benny Snell and a 17-10 lead.
But then there was his gaffe at the two-minute warning with the Browns out of timeouts and the Steelers looking for the first down that would ice the outcome. It wasn't a surprise that Tomlin decided to go for a first down on that third-and-6 play from the Steelers 47-yard line, but Hodges' mistake came when he threw the ball away after finding no one open instead of taking the sack that would've kept the clock running. The difference was that instead of getting the ball with around one minute to play following Jordan Berry's punt, the Browns got it with 1:45 to play.
"There are so many areas we need to work with Devlin on, pick one," said Tomlin in an answer to a question about the rookie's decision in that particular situation. "But specifically those moments you mentioned – certainly, because they're weighted differently. They're heavy. There's (also the situation) when you have to start taking calculated risks often times in pursuit of victory, and so there are going to be some risks maybe associated with those moments, and how do you balance that. There are just things that he's going to learn and we're going to learn in terms of managing him along the way, and hopefully we don't get any negativity in the process."
And as the process continues, Tomlin said the goal is to try to keep things as normal as possible for Hodges.
"I'm thoughtful about my interactions with people," said Tomlin. "We always say the right things, but do our actions match our words. I told Duck I had a lot of confidence in his abilities and his preparation and his talents. I wanted to display that confidence by not talking him to death, by not having a bunch of additional meetings and things of that nature. I wanted to display that confidence by going about our routine. Not only confidence in him, but confidence in our preparation process, how we go about our business of game prep. He's the starting quarterback. We're interacting with him in the ways we interact with the starting quarterback in preparation for a game."
TOMLIN'S INJURY UPDATE
"If you look at us from a health standpoint, we're getting better in that area. The two significant ones, the ones where we don't have a lot of clarity are James Conner (shoulder) and JuJu Smith-Schuster (knee). I'd probably characterize both guys as questionable as I stand here today. They have some work in front of them in terms of rehabilitation and maybe practice participation. And we'll see where all of that leads. I really just don't have an indication of what that might be as I stand here today. I saw both guys down in the training room (on Monday) working and working hard. We'll see what the practice availability looks like. Conner probably has a better chance of practicing in some capacity (on Wednesday) than JuJu. But again, we'll take it day-by-day and see where it leads us."