Devlin Hodges has been a great story in a Steelers season filled with them. In fact, he might be the greatest story to come out of this season. It’s really been the kind of stuff that’s straight out of a movie script.
That said, at some point it had to end. There’s a reason guys go undrafted and then unsigned following the draft.
It wasn’t because of a lack of production in college. Hodges was a record-setter at Samford. And when you break the records of a guy such as Steve McNair, NFL teams take notice. McNair had more than enough success over a long enough period of time to show teams that if a player at the FCS level has success, you’d better at least take a look.
But at the time, no team thought Hodges should be someone they even offer a contract. The Steelers only did so after Hodges showed promise at the team’s rookie minicamp.
His limitations, however, remain obvious. Hodges isn’t blessed with great size, which is fine. But he’s also not blessed with a great arm, which isn’t. His arm just isn’t up to NFL standards. And that became apparent Sunday night against the Bills.
Buffalo flooded the middle of the field with players. The Bills put 10 players within five yards of the line of scrimmage, with only a safety deep. They weren’t going to allow the Steelers to run the ball. And they were going to make Hodges throw the ball outside the numbers down the field.
We saw how that worked out.
Hodges hit some throws against that defense, showing, as he has all along, he’s not afraid to throw 50-50 balls to allow his receivers to make a play. But in the NFL, you’re going to lose on some of those 50-50 passes, as well.
And if you can’t challenge an opponent with your arm strength, that’s what you’re going to see over and over again.
Hodges is, as he likes to say, a gunslinger. That’s great if you’ve got a rifle for an arm. But when you don’t, it’s going to lead to four-interception nights like the one Hodges had in Sunday night’s 17-10 loss to the Bills.
Hodges is a guy you go to off the bench for a spark because of his gunslinger mentality. But when he plays too much, he gets exposed.
That’s where the Steelers are at now, which is why Mason Rudolph should be the team’s starter Sunday against the Jets.
• The Steelers have known this all along about Hodges. It’s why they’ve tried to limit his exposure — at least until Sunday night.
There was a reason why the team had run the ball 35 times per game in his first three starts. There was a reason why the team was running the Wildcat and working extensively on fake punts and such. The coaching staff knew that with Hodges’ limitations and a lack of playmakers with James Conner and JuJu Smith-Schuster out, points were going to be hard to come by for this team. So anything it could do to generate points or move the ball was on the table.
Nobody was ever going to openly come out and say they didn’t necessarily trust Duck, but teams tell you what they think of their roster or predicament with the moves they make. Those never lie.
Opponents will tell you what they think of your roster or players, as well. And the Bills were showing Hodges no respect down the field. In fact, they wanted him throwing deep outs. It’s how they positioned everyone on their defense.
That’s what was “open,” or at least would have been open if Hodges could consistently get it there. He cannot.
• The biggest positive to come out of Hodges’ starts the past three games — beyond winning two of them — was the emergence of James Washington and Diontae Johnson as threats in the passing game.
Hodges was willing to throw those 50-50 balls, something for which Rudolph had been criticized.
But you can bet that Rudolph has been watching those guys win their one-on-ones and will be much more willing to give it a shot moving forward.
• It amazes me how many feel Randy Fichtner doesn’t know what he’s doing this season after having Antonio Brown traded away in the offseason and losing Ben Roethlisberger six quarters into this season. And after playing most of the past six games without his Pro Bowl running back and most of the past four without his Pro Bowl receiver.
There are certainly things to criticize. Running the ball just 15 times Sunday night was a mistake, in my opinion, especially after running the ball so much in Hodges’ first three starts.
But Fichtner is the same guy who drew up an offense in 2018 that had the highest red zone touchdown percentage in the NFL since 2003. That was all Roethlisberger, right?
The biggest thing missing from this offense this season is not Roethlisberger’s right arm, it’s Roethlisberger’s mind.
When you watch veteran quarterbacks work, it’s more about what they do pre-snap than it is post-snap. They get their team into and out of bad plays, whether they be runs or passes. Young quarterbacks just don’t have that kind of knowledge or leeway.
And Roethlisberger has that leeway because he and Fichtner are on the same page offensively. The plays Roethlisberger would check into were plays he and Fichtner discussed during the week when studying an opponent’s tendencies.
• The defensive players were ticked after this game for allowing the Bills 17 points. They were even more ticked the Bills had so much success running the ball.
This defense prides itself in its physical play. And there were times in this game where the Bills were the more physical team.
That won’t happen again this season. It won’t be fun to be Le’Veon Bell on Sunday.
• The Saints basically knocked the Steelers out of the playoffs last season in one of the more memorable games of the past few years.
There should be a lot of Saints fans in who also happen to wear black and gold on Sundays.
The 49ers losing to the Falcons Sunday put the top seed in the NFC back in play for the Saints, who whipped the Colts Monday night to essentially knock off another of the potential sixth seeds in the AFC.
Next week in Tennessee, the Saints can knock off another one and do the Steelers another favor by handing the Titans a loss.
But even that won’t necessarily clinch anything for the Steelers.
No, the Steelers should also be big fans of the red-hot Buccaneers this week. The Bucs, winners of their past four games, host the Texans. If Tampa Bay wins, the Texans will still need to beat the Titans in Week 17 to clinch the AFC South title.
But if the Texans beat the Bucs, they clinch the AFC South title, even if the Titans beat the Saints. That would mean the Texans would have nothing for which to play in Week 17, which would be bad news for the Steelers.
The Steelers would then have to not only beat the Jets this weekend, they would also have to beat the Ravens in Baltimore in Week 17 to make the postseason.
The Ravens are unlikely to play some of their starters in that game — including Lamar Jackson — but winning in Baltimore won’t be easy either way.
• Jordan Berry picked a really bad time to have a bad game.
The Steelers’ punter had been good all season. But his 22-yard punt in this game gave the Bills the ball at the Pittsburgh 40 late in the first quarter.
Even at that, however, the defense had a chance for a stop, getting an 8-yard loss on a sack on first down.
Kudos to the Bills for converting after being in a third-and-18 hole.
First, Josh Allen scrambled for 12 yards, as many rushing yards the Steelers had given up to Baker Mayfield, Ryan Finley and Kyler Murray in the three previous games combined.
Then, he hit John Brown for a 10-yard gain against Steven Nelson on fourth-and-6 to move the chains.
So while it’s easy to blame Berry for the poor punt — and that’s fair — the defense had the Bills in a very bad spot at third-and-18. And then it allowed a conversion. And then a touchdown.
You have to hold the Bills to a field goal — at best — in that situation.
• Tevin Jones had two passes thrown his way against the Bills. He dropped them both.
Monday, he was released and replaced by Amara Darboh on the 53-man roster.
Jones received kudos from Tomlin a couple of weeks ago for a tough catch he had over the middle against the Browns. Two weeks later, he’s gone.
If you’re going to make a move like that over a couple of drops, Tomlin can certainly do the same thing at the quarterback position and go with Rudolph over Hodges.
• The more I see, the more I’m convinced the Steelers would be better off playing B.J. Finney at left guard over Ramon Foster.
Finney is the better player right now. But Foster is still the better leader. And the team is valuing that over his overall play.
It’s a tough move to make when you have a respected veteran such as Foster. But it’s one that might have to be made in the offseason.
• If I had a dime for every time T.J. Watt was held by the Bills, I’d have a pretty nice stack of dimes. Watt was getting hugged at the line of scrimmage with no calls being made.
That’s one of the reasons Keith Butler went with his big package that included three true defensive linemen with Bud Dupree essentially serving as a defensive end and Watt stacked behind the line of scrimmage.
It allowed Watt to roam freely to the ball, because the Bills were intent on not allowing that to happen when he lined up on the line of scrimmage.
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