Mike Tomlin is in on his own joke. So let’s let him have fun with it.
To a point.
The theme expressed by the Steelers head coach going into his team’s game against the Cleveland Browns Sunday was that he simply didn’t want new starting quarterback Devlin “Duck” Hodges to “kill” his team.
That was the exact “praise” Tomlin gave to Hodges when he started — and won — a game in Los Angeles against the Chargers back in Week 6.
Similarly, Hodges didn’t kill the Steelers when he replaced a concussed Mason Rudolph against Baltimore the previous week. Actually, he almost engineered a big comeback win.
Nor did he “kill” the Steelers when he replaced an ineffective Rudolph en route to a comeback victory in Cincinnati against the Bengals Nov. 24.
So when Hodges went 14-of-21 for 192 yards, a touchdown, no interceptions and just one sack on the way to a win against Cleveland Sunday, what did Tomlin think about that?
“He didn’t kill us,” Tomlin said again with a self-reflexive laugh.
At least this time, Tomlin elaborated a bit more by way of praising the former fourth stringer.
“I thought he played his tail off,” Tomlin said. “Without over analyzing it, just a general synopsis, I thought he played his tail off.”
Agreed. Hodges seems to be making the most of his abilities, which may have flashed on the FCS level at Samford but are limited by NFL comparisons.
If I may borrow a different Tomlinism, the “Duck” is now 4-for-4 when it comes to turning in ”above the line” performances in NFL regular season games.
“I had more confidence in him (Sunday) than I did against the Chargers because our relationship is born out of our shared experiences,” Tomlin explained. “We had the experience of what he did in the Chargers game in our back pocket and that probably produced (Sunday).”
It did. Eventually.
Yet Tomlin and offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner certainly seemed to start the game with a “just don’t kill us” mentality to play calling.
After the defense allowed a 7:29 field-goal drive to open the game, the Steelers went 3-and-out via a run, run, pass attempt on their first series.
On the team’s second possession, the Steelers ran on first down again, then threw a short pass to running back Jaylen Samuels to pick up a first down. They ran on first and second downs again after the chains were reset — including a run on second-and-13 after a penalty.
Hodges’ deep pass on third-and-8 went incomplete before a second punt.
It wasn’t until the Browns got up 10-0 on their third possession that Hodges threw the ball on first down. He did so to start the team’s next series, and it resulted in a field goal, sparked by a 31-yard pass deep down the left sideline to James Washington on third-and-8.
On the fourth possession, with the clock at 1:48 to start the drive, Hodges threw on all five snaps, completing four passes, including a 30-yard touchdown to Washington to tie the game at
When the Steelers opened the third quarter, they scored for a third time in a row, courtesy of a Benny Snell touchdown from a yard away. It was set up by two throws on first-and-10 and another on first-and-15 (after a penalty).
One of those plays went for 44 yards to Washington.
I asked Hodges if the offensive game plan opened up once the Steelers got down 10-0.
“No, we stuck to the game plan,” he said. “We had to tweak it a little bit based on what they were doing, but we had a good game plan. We just had to start executing it.”
Washington told a different story.
“I felt like it opened up,” Washington said. “As a receiving corps, we were ready to go. We just needed our number called and make plays that came our way.”
Was that because, early in the game, they were trying to insulate Hodges? Trying to make him secure and establish the run early?
“Right on,” Washington responded. “Yeah. It was kinda like that. They were getting a lot of pressure. And we just needed to get the ball out quick and make plays down the field.”
None of this is to suggest that the Steelers should ask Hodges to start throwing 50 times a game. What it is suggesting is that Tomlin and Fichtner shouldn’t baby the backup quarterbacks.
Of course, the Steelers should still try to win with an effective run game — and defense — while Ben Roethlisberger is injured. But Hodges and Rudolph can’t be hidden or simply used as last resorts.
Strangely, when the offense has needed to throw to win — especially at home — that’s when the quarterbacks have been at their best. Despite the fact that opposing defenses were more prone to expect pass plays from a Steelers offense playing catch-up.
Look at how both Rudolph and Hodges performed when coming off the bench in attempts to lead comebacks against Seattle and Baltimore.
Or when the quarterbacks were trailing at Heinz Field against Miami and Cleveland. They had to throw to comeback. And they did.
Plus, don’t forget Hodges throwing the Steelers to a comeback with his 79-yard pass to Washington when they were down 7-3 in Cincinnati a week ago.
“The more shared experiences you have, the more level of confidence in terms of what you can anticipate getting,” Tomlin said of Hodges after Sunday’s win.
He should anticipate more from his current starting quarterback. And worry less about him killing the team.
Failing to let him play like a real NFL starter may kill them much more quickly.
Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at [email protected] or via Twitter. All tweets could be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless specified otherwise.