But thanks to Devlin Hodges, Devin Bush and James Conner, that’s not a certainty just yet. There still are possibilities for the Steelers in 2019 as they enter their bye week, thanks to a 24-17 triumph Sunday night in Carson, Calif., over the Los Angeles Chargers.
Roethlisberger, the two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback, was nowhere to be seen. He didn’t make the trip after undergoing season-ending elbow surgery. Mason Rudolph, his replacement, was on the sideline after suffering a concussion a week earlier on a hit by Baltimore Ravens safety Earl Thomas that put the brutality of football, even in its current safety-enhanced version, on vivid display.
So the Steelers were on the road (allegedly) with a rookie third-string quarterback making his first NFL start as they attempted to keep their record from plummeting to 1-5.
No problem, as it turned out.
Hodges gave a solid performance. Bush, a dynamic rookie linebacker, and Conner, the third-year tailback who was a Pro Bowl selection last season while Bell sat out in a contract dispute, more than did their parts. The Steelers raced to an early lead and held on late.
“I felt calm, cool and collected,” Hodges told NBC after the game. “There’s a couple plays I wish I had back. The interception, I wish I could take back. But at the end of the day, we got the win. And that’s all that matters.”
Steelers fans were waving their Terrible Towels as they took over the cozy Dignity Health Sports Park. They watched the Steelers seize a 14-0 advantage in the first quarter as Bush, the 10th overall selection in this year’s NFL draft out of Michigan, scored a touchdown after picking up the ball off the turf on a backward pass by Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, then set up a touchdown with a tipped-ball interception.
Hodges is a far lower-profile NFL newcomer, as an undrafted rookie out of Samford playing only because of the injuries to Roethlisberger and Rudolph. But he threw for more than 14,500 yards in college and broke Steve McNair’s FCS record for career passing yards.
He received more pregame attention for being a champion duck-caller given the nickname, naturally, of “Duck.” But he was poised in the pocket and accurate with his throws Sunday in a 15-for-20, 132-yard passing performance. He threw a touchdown pass to Conner and played mistake-free football until a fourth-quarter interception. The Steelers took a decidedly low-risk approach with him.
“My mind-set going into the game, with it being Duck’s first start, was I just had to up my level of play to try to make the game as easy as possible for him,” Conner said on NBC afterward. “We had to score on defense, which we did that. I had to just play big to make the game easier for him. That’s what the game plan was.”
Conner also ran for a touchdown as the Steelers improved their record to 2-4. Rudolph presumably will regain the quarterback job from Hodges after the bye. But Tomlin now knows that he has some enviable depth at the position.
This has been a different sort of season for an organization so accustomed to stability and success. There have been reports that the Washington Redskins, after firing Jay Gruden as their coach, could make an offseason run at Tomlin.
But whether Redskins owner Daniel Snyder is an admirer of Tomlin, the Steelers’ history under the ownership of the Rooney family is that they simply do not get rid of coaches. Tomlin has two seasons left on his contract after this season. The likely outcome is that Tomlin remains in Pittsburgh and the Steelers, whether they get back into playoff contention this season, retool with Roethlisberger back in the lineup next season and try to recapture their past Super Bowl success.
Tomlin and his staff did a masterful job Sunday making things work with Hodges. It didn’t hurt that the Chargers, whose record dropped to 2-4, gave a feeble performance for three quarters.
The Chargers were expected to be a top AFC contender this season after reaching the playoffs last season. Now they can’t even win at home against a rookie third-string quarterback. They trailed, 24-0, in the fourth quarter before finally getting going with a field goal and two touchdown passes from Rivers to tight end Hunter Henry, who was playing his first game since suffering a tibial plateau fracture in his knee in the season opener.
The Chargers, after a Steelers punt, got the ball back at their 1-yard line with 1:03 remaining and no timeouts left. Rivers threw an interception with 41 seconds to play to seal the outcome, much to the delight of the home-away-from-home crowd.
“I don’t know if this is a road game,” Hodges said. “I mean, Steeler Nation really came out.”
And, thanks in part to the play of Hodges, all those Steelers fans were delighted with what they saw.
Chargers make it interesting: It’s probably going to be too little, too late. But the Chargers have made it interesting with 17 straight fourth-quarter points. Philip Rivers threw a second touchdown pass to tight end Hunter Henry, this time an 11-yarder. The Chargers have all three timeouts remaining and can get the ball back if they get a stop on defense. (Steelers 24, Chargers 17 with 1:29 left in the 4th quarter)
TD for Chargers: The Chargers finally have reached the end zone, courtesy of a five-yard touchdown pass from Philip Rivers to tight end Hunter Henry. Henry is playing his first game since suffering a tibial plateau fracture in his knee in the season opener. He made a nice catch in the back of the end zone and just managed to get both feet down in bounds. (Steelers 24, Chargers 10 with 7:13 left in the 4th quarter)
Chargers get FG: The Chargers, at least, won’t be shut out. They got a 38-yard field goal by rookie kicker Chase McLaughlin a minute into the fourth quarter. (Steelers 24, Chargers 3 with 14:00 minutes left in the 4th quarter)
Bush returns to field: Rookie linebacker Devin Bush was back on the field for Pittsburgh’s first defensive series of the second half. The Steelers forced a punt by the Chargers. (Steelers 24, Chargers 0 with 6:39 left in the 3rd quarter)
FG for Steelers: The Steelers are controlling the clock and the game. They held the ball for nearly half of the third quarter and got a 20-yard field goal by kicker Chris Boswell to up their lead to 24 points. Rookie quarterback Devlin Hodges kept his cool on a third-and-goal play from the 2-yard line when the football got past him on a low snap out of shotgun formation. Hodges ran the ball down and picked it up around the 20-yard line, then managed to run to his right and avoid an intentional grounding penalty with an incompletion on a throw out of bounds. (Steelers 24, Chargers 0 with 8:12 left in the 3rd quarter)
Halftime in Carson: Steelers fans, waving their Terrible Towels, have taken over the cozy Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson, Calif., the supposed home of the Chargers. And their team has given them plenty about which to cheer, with a three-touchdown lead at halftime for the Steelers. Two rookies, quarterback Devlin Hodges and linebacker Devin Bush, and third-year tailback James Conner have led the way. Bush, the 10th overall selection in the NFL draft out of Michigan, scored the Steelers’ first touchdown when he picked up the football off the turf after a backward pass by Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers and ran nine yards to the end zone. Bush set up the second touchdown with an interception before leaving the field later in the half with an apparent ankle or leg injury. Conner scored two touchdowns, one on a run and one on a catch of a swing pass thrown by Hodges, the undrafted rookie from Samford making his first NFL start after the Steelers lost top quarterbacks Ben Roethlisberger and Mason Rudolph to injuries. Hodges has completed eight of nine passes for 70 yards. It was a dreadful first half for the Chargers, who did next to nothing right on offense or defense and watched rookie kicker Chase McLaughlin miss a 43-yard field goal attempt when the ball clanked off the left upright. They were expected to be a top AFC contender this season after reaching the playoffs last season. Instead, the Chargers are losing at home to a rookie third-string quarterback and, barring a big second-half comeback, will see their record drop to 2-4. (Steelers 21, Chargers 0 at halftime)
Chargers miss FG: Nothing is going right for the Chargers. Rookie kicker Chase McLaughlin missed a 43-yard field goal attempt when the ball clanked off the left upright. Coach Anthony Lynn opted for the kick instead of a fourth-and-six try from the Pittsburgh 25-yard line. (Steelers 21, Chargers 0 with 32 seconds left in the 2nd quarter)
Devin Bush hurt: Steelers linebacker Devin Bush left the field with an apparent ankle or leg injury. He is receiving attention on the Steelers’ sideline from members of the team’s medical staff. Bush has had a superb game with a touchdown on a fumble recovery and an interception to set up another touchdown.
TD pass for Hodges: Devlin Hodges’s first NFL touchdown pass has upped the Steelers’ lead over the Chargers to 21-0. It was a 26-yarder to tailback James Conner on a swing pass to the right. The Steelers kept the ball for 14 plays and 9 minutes, 9 seconds on the drive and they’re dominating the Chargers. Hodges, the undrafted rookie from Samford making his first NFL start, has completed eight of nine passes for 70 yards. (Steelers 21, Chargers 0 with 6:34 left in the 2nd quarter)
Steelers turn Bush interception into TD: This game has been a showcase, so far, for Steelers rookie linebacker Devin Bush. His tipped-ball interception gave the Steelers possession of the ball at the L.A. 40-yard line, and they cashed in with a 12-yard touchdown run by tailback James Conner. So Bush, the 10th overall selection in this year’s NFL draft out of Michigan, has scored one Steelers’ touchdown with a return of a fumble recovery and set up the other one with an interception. (Steelers 14, Chargers 0 with 4:29 left in the 1st quarter)
Defensive TD for Steelers: The Steelers have an early lead thanks to a touchdown by their defense on an eyesore of a play by quarterback Philip Rivers and the Chargers. Rivers, under pass-rush pressure, tried to get the football to running back Melvin Gordon on his right. But Rivers’s pass was backward and fell to the turf for what was ruled a lateral and a fumble charged to Rivers. Steelers rookie linebacker Devin Bush picked up the ball off the ground and ran nine yards for the touchdown. (Steelers 7, Chargers 0 with 10:51 left in the 1st quarter)
Bad first throw by Hodges: Undrafted rookie Devlin Hodges, making his first NFL start for the Steelers, had wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster open on Pittsburgh’s first offensive play. But Hodges’s pass was underthrown and the ball fell incomplete. Hodges did complete a third-down pass short of the first down and the Steelers punted. That came after the Chargers punted on the game’s opening possession, with the many Steelers fans in the crowd in Carson, Calif., chanting for the Pittsburgh defense. Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers limped a bit on his way off the field after absorbing a hit after delivering a throw on the opening series. (Steelers 0, Chargers 0 with 11:06 left in the 1st quarter)