PITTSBURGH — The Steelers finally hit a speed bump in Week 15, but they still cling to the final wild card spot in the AFC playoff picture. Devlin “Duck” Hodges is human and how will the Steelers react to facing off against their former running back? It’s all in this week’s “11 Things I Think I Think” about the Steelers.
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1. I think coach Mike Tomlin made the right call to stick with Hodges against the Jets this week. Yes, in the pivotal game that’ll likely determine the Steelers’ playoff lives, but I don’t agree with what Tomlin said at his weekly press conference about Hodges.
“It is reasonable to expect a young man to improve with exposure. He doesn’t have a lot of exposure. I acknowledge that," Tomlin said. "I look forward to giving him an opportunity to rebound. I think it is reasonable to expect growth from young players from exposure.”
Sunday exposed Hodges for the limitations he has as an undrafted rookie. There are certain things he can and can’t do at this point of his career and while it is reasonable to see growth, the key for said growth is to make sure he’s put in advantageous situations. For as abysmal of a game the rookie had, the play calling was also to blame. There’s no reason why Hodges should’ve thrown 38 times. Absolutely none. Tomlin said that’s the way the game unfolded because they were behind. Ummm, no you weren’t. The game was tied until 7:55 left in the game. Point is, run the stinking ball. Figure out the “division of labor” with the running backs and stick with it. Put Hodges in manageable situations and then growth will be seen.
2. I think the running back situation has to be solved, and quickly. James Conner returned Sunday after missing five of the previous games with a shoulder injury. He appeared like the guy seeking contact rather than the guy trying to protect a shoulder held together by duct tape. But he only got eight carries against the Bills. Benny Snell? Just two. The rookie filled in admirably in Conner’s absence, as well as, Kerrith Whyte. The Steelers deployed a rotation, albeit in a small sample size, against the Bills, but that’s not what Mike Tomlin typically does. He rides one back and that’s it. What should they do now? He acknowledged that was an issue in game planning for Buffalo. Let’s hope it’s not when it comes to this Sunday against the Jets.
3. I think I like the Steelers chances to get into the playoffs when you look at who the Titans have on their schedule (Saints & at the Texans). The Steelers have the Jets and Baltimore on the road, however the Ravens are likely to sit their starters in Week 17 with the #1 seed wrapped up, or should be, this week when they take on the Browns. Plus, the Titans have Ryan Tannehill playing QB. His streak of decent play was a mirage and will prove in the season’s final weeks.
4. I think Mike Tomlin is still the favorite to win the NFL Coach of the Year, despite a clunker of a game against the Bills. Many are quick to be "down" on him any chance they can, but let's not lose sight of the big picture. There's no reason why this team should even be sniffing the playoffs with all the injuries they've endured, but here they are, knocking on the door of the tournament.
5. I think a Pro Bowl nod, the 1st time to be voted in, is only the beginning of awards and notoriety for T.J. Watt who continues his stellar 2019 season. He filled up the stat sheet again Sunday and I'm running out of ways to describe his dominance so I'll just leave these ridiculous numbers and you judge for yourself if he deserves to be the Defensive Player of the Year. He's the first in Steelers history with back to back 13 sack seasons and only 3 shy of tying James Harrison's single-season record of 16.
6. I think the Le'Veon Bell reunion is going to be fantastic theater. After once proclaiming he and Bell spoke everyday, Mike Tomlin has made a complete 180 when it comes to the former Steelers running back. "I have none," Tomlin said about a relationship with Bell. "I don't communicate with him. He's a New York Jet." Bell got the guaranteed contract, but has largely underwhelmed in New York, although it shouldn't come as a surprise, because, well, he plays on the Jets. His 676 rushing yards rank 24th in the NFL and his 3 touchdowns, not good. I'd expect there to be a few on the Steelers defense wanting to bring the heat after he stood them up last season and the way they were frustrated with their own run defense last week against the Bills.
7. I think the "Wildcat" should be a thing of the past for the Steelers. Why in the world is that the best option from 1st and goal from the Bills 10 yard line? Anyone? Five running backs were dressed and Diontae Johnson, a receiver with fumbling issues, gets the ball. And he fumbles. That was a key moment of the game that took points off the score board and can't happen this week, if the Steelers hope to beat the Jets. Line up and run the ball. It's not complicated, yet for some reason Fichtner and Tomlin made it so last game.
8. I think JuJu Smith-Schuster will miss his fifth-straight game, but I'd gladly like to be wrong. He says he's going to practice this week, but isn't certain of his status. I understand his frustrations with the injury, longest in his career at any level, but it's imperative he isn't rushed back to the field. Whether he's a true #1 receiver or not, he's the best the Steelers have and needs to be 100% healthy for a fruitful and lengthy career. Him being back in the final week's of the season isn't worth potentially harming his future.
9. I think Jordan Berry had a bad time to have a bad game. His 22-yard punt against the Bills lead to a touchdown. He's largely had a nice season, but when this team has such a small margin for error, he has to be part of the solution, not the problem.
10. I think Maurkice Pouncey deserves so much credit for everything he's done with his charities. He doesn't seek the spotlight when he does "give back" to the Pittsburgh and Lakeland communities and to me that's what charity is all about. He's the Steelers nominee for the Walter Payton Man of the Year award and I couldn't think of a more deserving person. He's all class, if you ask me.
11. I think we’re in for an exciting end to the 2019 season and I’m not just talking about the Steelers. I, for one, can’t wait to get to New York to see if Duck can bounce back and lead this team to the playoffs, but what about some of the other teams in the postseason? Will anyone be able to stop Lamar Jackson and the juggernaut that are the Baltimore Ravens? Are the 49ers for real? Is this the swan song for Tom Brady and the Patriots? So much intrigue and nothing would be more spectacular than seeing a Duck do his thing with the NFL’s best in the playoffs.
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