Consistency and chemistry are the keys to keeping the Pittsburgh Steelers playoff hopes alive. Devlin “Duck” Hodges celebrated his third consecutive victory Monday as the starting quarterback. The undrafted rookie out of Samford remains undefeated in each of his three starts this season.
The change at the quarterback position is not the only shift in this Pittsburgh offensive scheme. Injuries and suspensions have scattered this offense, introducing a lot of young talent. Say what you will about head coach Mike Tomlin, they know how to make the best of what they’ve got. Despite distraction after distraction they are still alive in the AFC North playoff picture.
Most impressive? Their record is consistent with their 2018 performance. Their current record without last year’s superstars: Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, James Conner, and Juju Smith-Schuster. This season has come down to how Tomlin is able to cultivate a culture in his locker room.
Consistency and Chemistry Essential to Pittsburgh Steelers Playoff Hopes
Hodges is the down-home country boy turned fan favorite of the Steelers locker room. First famed for his master duck calls, he’s now become a symbol of progress for Pittsburgh. The fans and the internet alike can’t get enough of this underdog story.
Coach Tomlin made the decision to put Hodges in over season mainstay Mason Rudolph to provide the much-needed spark for a mostly dormant offense. Whether it was through his off-day hunting trips with breakout receiver James Washington or practice-day carpools with Smith-Schuster, Hodges has proven that he brings the energy and chemistry this team’s been missing.
Beyond looking to Duck as a leader for this offense, he’s managed to gain the trust of the defense as well. Bud Dupree told reporters Duck’s risky gameplay came as no surprise to the team. The linebacker said Duck’s kept the same energy from the scout team and brought it to the primetime.
“‘I’m finna shred y’all up on scout team, I’m finna shred y’all watch this, Bud.’” Dupree recalled Hodges’ trash talk. “Every time he completes a pass he looks me in the eye. So we already knew how Duck was.”
It seems like this chemistry was exactly what the doctor ordered for the Steelers locker room. They are still scraping by this season at 8-5. Without Big Ben, they stand at 8-3. They are 7-1 since Week 6 of the regular season. Under starting quarterback Duck Hodges, they inch closer and closer to the postseason at 3-0.
Consistent Game Play
Prior to his first start over a healthy Rudolph, Hodges told reporters that he knows nobody expects anything from him. The key to this newfound offensive success comes from trusting the offense around him to be the most efficient offense on the field.
The undrafted rookie found himself up against this year’s number one draft pick in quarterback Kyler Murray. Hodges remained the cool, calm, collected quarterback he’s always been and entered into the Arizona arena.
“I’ve never really thought about beating the number one quarterback taken this year or last year,” said Hodges. “I just want to go out and beat the opposing quarterback because he’s the opposing quarterback.”
Pittsburgh secured 20 first downs in 57 plays. Hodges was 16 for 19 for a total of 135 passing yards. Comparatively, Murray completed 20 of 30 for 165 passing yards. Hodges is not playing to win MVP. He’s locking in on a powerful run game with weapons like Benny Snell to boost the offense as a whole.
The AFC Special Teams Player of the Week, Diontae Johnson, was a huge difference maker in this week’s offensive match up. Beyond efficiency, the rookie brought some much needed firepower delivering two fatal blows to the Cardinals defense. The rookie was this week’s offensive workhorse. He had 60 yards for 6 receptions on the night and an explosive 85-yard punt return for a score.
In the absence of Pro Bowl talent on the offense as Conner and Smith-Schuster have been recovering from injuries, Pittsburgh has truly weaponized what most analysts would call a ragtag team of young talent. Their consistency under so much change is impressive.
Snell and in-season acquisition Kerrith Whyte finished the game with 41 rushing yards each. Another young gun, Jaylen Samuels, put up 16 rushing yards and 18 yards off receptions. When asked about the performance from this breakout offensive core Tomlin told reporters it’s important that different areas are stepping up.
“A week ago, we were standing here talking about James Washington rising up and making the necessary plays for us …” said Tomlin. “The last game, Diontae did similar things.”
Don’t Count Out the Defense
There’s definitely room for doubt with the rookie’s consistency after back to back sub-200 yard performances but this offense continues to improve week to week. The Steelers have found their formula to securing regular-season wins against inferior opponents. A short-pass offense and perfectly timed interceptions by veteran cornerback Joe Haden.
This week’s performance brings Haden to four interceptions on the season. Haden has already surpassed his 2017-2018 season totals combined. He was hesitant to take all the credit though. According to Haden, he’s not the only defensive player putting in the extra work.
“We’re seeing things, communicating, telling guys what I’m about to do and them having my back,” Haden told the press.
When in doubt, the Steelers defense shows out. This defense has been the saving grace for the franchise several times this season. With a defense efficiency rating of -17.4%, they are the third best defense in the league. To put that into context, their offensive efficiency rating is currently the third-worst in the league at -18.3%. For overall team efficiency, the Steelers are 14th in the league (1.8%).
Pittsburgh is still in the hunt for an AFC wild-card spot as they take on the Buffalo Bills out of the AFC East on Sunday Night Football. It will be up to the offense to kick this chemistry into high gear against a competitive Buffalo defense.