Steelers to start rookie Hodges in rematch with Browns
By WILL GRAVES
At least for now.
Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin tabbed Hodges as the starting quarterback for Sunday's pivotal meeting with Cleveland at Heinz Field, though Tomlin cautioned against reading too much into the move.
"We're singularly focused on winning this game, of putting ourselves in position to win this game," Tomlin said Tuesday. "That's where the decision lies. We'll see where we are after this game. Really, we have no intended plans beyond this one."
Given the chaotic nature of the position this season for the Steelers (6-5), that's probably wise.
Hodges came on in relief of an ineffective Rudolph in the second half against Cincinnati, throwing for a momentum-shifting 79-yard touchdown pass to James Washington on his third snap that gave Pittsburgh the lead for good.
The undrafted rookie free agent out of Samford who goes by the nickname "Duck" as a nod to his status as a champion duck caller back home in Alabama, was so-so otherwise - finishing 5 of 11 for 118 yards and the score - but he avoided mistakes and provided an emotional jolt that helped the Steelers stay in the thick of the AFC playoff race.
"He took care of the ball and provided a spark," Tomlin said of the 2018 Walter Payton Award recipient and all-time passing yardage leader in the FCS. "So we just thought it was reasonable as we prepare this week to allow him to continue to do that. It means nothing about our intended plans for the foreseeable future or the trajectory of Mason's career or what have you."
Rudolph took over in Week 2 when Ben Roethlisberger was lost for the season because of a right elbow injury and became just the eighth player since 1970 to throw at least one touchdown in his first eight career appearances but has stumbled in recent weeks. He threw four interceptions in an ugly loss to Cleveland on Nov. 14 - a game that ended with Rudolph getting into a now infamous fight with Browns defensive end Myles Garrett that ended with Garrett hitting Rudolph in the head with the quarterback's own helmet - and tossed another pick at the goal line in Cincinnati in the first half that ended a scoring threat.
After the Steelers went three-and-out to start the third quarter against the Bengals, Tomlin had seen enough, though he doesn't think the fallout from the brawl with the Browns - which included Rudolph refuting an allegation by Garrett that he used a racial slur - played a role in Rudolph's shaky performance.
"I thought he was ready to go," Tomlin said. "I thought he had a good week. I thought he was focused. But those are just my interpretations."
Tomlin added the fact the Steelers were facing Cleveland instead of another opponent played no role in Rudolph's benching.
"We've got enough issues of our own that we just need to focus on us," Tomlin said. "I say that routinely. We respect the people that we play. We acknowledge who they are for matchup and situational purposes or personality purposes. But the bottom line, particularly when you start to get in this part of the journey, (is) they're nameless gray faces."
Maybe, but starting Hodges over Rudolph removes a potentially combustible element from a rivalry that no longer feels dormant or one-sided.
Garrett is out for at least the rest of the season after being suspended indefinitely for slugging Rudolph. Rudolph, who was fined $50,000 but avoided further discipline, found himself the focal point of the ensuing firestorm. Cleveland fans used a Browns helmet to smash a pinata made in Rudolph's likeness before last week's victory over Miami and Cleveland defensive end Sheldon Richardson said he hoped Rudolph would get the nod in the rematch.
"You see him last game?" Richardson said.
While saying the Steelers love being in "hot-button games," Tomlin isn't concerned about things getting out of hand as they did in the final seconds in Cleveland.
"We're playing and playing to win," Tomlin said. "And part of playing to win is playing hard and smart and not beating yourselves. We're going to paint inside those white lines I promise you."
And Hodges will get an unlikely second chance to hold the brush. Cut at the end of training camp after getting caught in a numbers game, Hodges returned to Pittsburgh after the Steelers traded third-stringer Josh Dobbs to Jacksonville in mid-September. He played capably while filling in for Rudolph - who watched from the sideline while dealing with a concussion - against the Los Angeles Chargers on Oct. 13, completing 15 of 20 passes for 132 yards with a touchdown and an interception.
Tomlin pointed out that Hodges "has not killed us" when he's played. Given Pittsburgh's defense, which ranks second in the league in takeaways and third in sacks, a caretaker under center may be all that's required for the Steelers to remain in the playoff picture. It's an aspect of the job Rudolph struggled with recently. Now it's Hodges' turn to see if he can continue his improbable rise from "camp arm" to NFL starting quarterback.
"At every turn he's proven that those circumstances aren't too big for him," Tomlin said.
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Updated November 26, 2019