LOS ANGELES — For at least a moment, it felt like Ben Roethlisberger was on the field at Dignity Health Sports Park on Sunday night.
At least to Maurkice Pouncey.
Facing third-and-goal from the 2-yard-line in the third quarter of the Pittsburgh Steelers‘ 24-17 win against the Los Angeles Chargers, the veteran center had a miscue on the snap, sending the ball between the legs of quarterback Devlin Hodges.
The ball bounced dangerously away from the end zone, the potential for disaster mounting with each roll. But the rookie quarterback raced backward, taking a moment to peek around to see if he had time to pull off a save. He found that he did, picking up the ball, rolling back toward the end zone and firing a pass in the general direction of tight end Vance McDonald.
Hodges’ pass went out of bounds, avoiding catastrophe and setting up for three points on the next play.
“He looked like Ben,” Pouncey said. “I told him, ‘I appreciate you, man.’ I was up there, talking trash, and he hurried-up snapped it. I was like, ‘Oh crap.’ But he did a hell of a job of getting that ball and throwing it out. I honestly thought in my head, ‘That’s Ben.’ Ben would’ve done the same thing. It was awesome.”
In his first NFL start, Hodges helped earned his team its second win of the season by keeping his poise in situations like that one. He completed 15 of 20 attempts for 132 yards with one touchdown and one interception. For Hodges’ efforts, coach Mike Tomlin rewarded him with one of the game balls.
“We have a lot of confidence in him,” Tomlin said. “We haven’t been bashful about that. He has a lot of confidence in himself. I think that’s what makes people gravitate to him. We’re not getting over-excited. This is a guy that played good tonight, with very limited experience.
“We’re thankful to get a win, and hopefully it will be a good learning experience from him and us, collectively, as we move forward.”
The well-traveled Steelers contingent embraced Hodges, better known as Duck, in his first start, with some playing duck calls in the stadium and others wearing duck masks and carrying posters that said things such as, “Duck Season” and “Fear the Duck.”
After the game, Hodges conducted his postgame interview wearing a $5 T-shirt he bought the day before on Venice Beach with a cartoon duck that proclaimed, “I’m the boss, California.”
“Since I was 5 years old, since I threw my first touchdown pass, that’s always something I’ve kind of dreamed about,” Hodges said of his first career start. “It’s been a bumpy road, especially the past couple of months. It’s been wild to think about. I’ve always had belief in myself. I’ve had other people behind me, and it’s just amazing.”
Hodges, who came from an Air Raid system at Samford, didn’t have any eye-popping downfield completions — averaging just 5.1 air yards per attempt, according to Next Gen Stats — but he didn’t need to. The team protected him with a dominant run game and a defense that put the Steelers on the board early thanks to a strong first-quarter showing by rookie Devin Bush.
“We knew we couldn’t give Duck a lot of exposure to the defense,” Tomlin said. “So we had to do some things in some other areas. We talked openly about it last night. Scoring on defense is significant, quality special-teams play is significant, quality running game to minimize his snap exposure. And not just him, but anybody playing at the quarterback position with a limited amount of experience.”
Hodges’ first drive ended quickly with a 3-and-out and a negative net gain, after his first throw, a deep ball to JuJu Smith-Schuster, fell incomplete. But he didn’t have an incompletion the rest of the half, as the offense got going thanks to a boost in momentum from Bush’s scoop-and-score on the Chargers’ second drive and his interception to end the Chargers’ third drive.
Playing with a lead the next time he stepped on the field, Hodges directed the Steelers on a seven-play, 40-yard scoring drive anchored by running back James Conner to go up 14-0.
Conner touched the ball on every play of the drive, covering two third downs and capping it off with a 12-yard touchdown run.
“Anytime the defense scores first — anytime the defense scores when I’m on the bench — that’s big time,” Hodges said. “That takes a little pressure off. As far as converting the third downs, I mean James Conner. Checking down the ball to him sometimes and a couple of other third downs. We just did the game plan we had planned and just executed it.”
Conner got in the end zone one more time a drive later, this time turning a short pass from Hodges into a 26-yard touchdown, shaking off a defender en route to the end zone for Hodges’ first career touchdown throw.
It wasn’t all good, though, for Hodges in his debut as a starter. He threw an interception in the fourth quarter that turned into seven points for the Chargers as L.A. tried to mount a fourth-quarter comeback. His two drives after that both ended in punts and went for just 30 yards.
But that’s when the defense again came up with a big stop to boost the offense. Cameron Sutton intercepted Philip Rivers with less than a minute to go, sealing the win and giving the ball back to Hodges for the victory formation.
As Mason Rudolph continues to recover from the concussion sustained against the Baltimore Ravens, the Steelers won’t have to worry about answering the starting-quarterback question for at least another week, as the team enters its bye. After Sunday’s win, Tomlin shrugged off questions about the team’s future at starting quarterback. Hodges did the same.
“I don’t know,” Hodges said when asked if he thought he did enough to get another start. “All I care about is the game today. We got the win, and we have a bye week next week, so we’re going to enjoy the bye week.”