After West Coast win, Steelers ride depth, momentum into bye
PITTSBURGH (AP) — Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin declined to discuss whom he gave the game ball to after watching his undermanned club potentially resurrect its season with a 24-17 victory over the Los Angeles Chargers.
“I keep that business between us,” Tomlin said.
Considering what his team did Sunday night against the Chargers, maybe Tomlin should have cut the ball into 53 equal pieces. Rookie quarterback Devlin Hodges was efficient, if not spectacular, while filling in for injured Mason Rudolph. Running back James Conner rolled up 119 total yards and two touchdowns. Rookie backup Benny Snell Jr. ran for 75 yards, most of them coming in the second half after Conner left with a quad injury. The defense forced three more turnovers, two of which ended up in the hands of linebacker Devin Bush.
“We live by the creed, ‘The Standard is the Standard,'” Tomlin said. “But those are just words. The players, the guys, make that reality.”
A reality that has the Steelers (2-4) heading into a welcome bye week with something akin to momentum. Pittsburgh begins a three-game homestand against winless Miami (0-6) on Oct. 28 and considering the current state of the AFC North — only Baltimore (4-2) has a winning record — the Steelers are still somehow relevant.
“We just need to come back healthy for the next game and be prepared for the season ahead,” wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster said. “We are super excited with how we played tonight and how much we put on the board.”
That’s thanks in large part to Bush, who is looking every bit worth the investment the Steelers made when they traded up in the draft to take him with the 10th overall pick. Bush pounced on a backward pass by Los Angeles quarterback Philip Rivers in the first quarter and returned it 9 yards for a touchdown. He picked off Rivers on the Chargers’ next possession and Hodges led a 40-yard drive that ended with a 12-yard sprint to the end zone by Conner.
Bush already has two interceptions and four fumble recoveries six games into his NFL career while becoming a vital part of a defense that already has created 15 takeaways, matching Pittsburgh’s total from all of last season.
“I think it has all come together for all of us as a unit,” Bush said. “A lot of new faces out there. I think week in and week out. We keep taking our step. We learn a lot about ourselves and how dominant we can be if we are all on the same page.”
Even with the change at quarterback, the defense has found a way to keep the Steelers competitive. Bush’s maturity, defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick’s versatility — the safety moved over to corner when Joe Haden exited in the second half with a groin issue — and a pass rush that is a factor on a weekly basis has kept Pittsburgh in it even as the offense has struggled to find consistency.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
Six weeks in and the wide receivers remain underwhelming. Part of the issue is the QB situation. Smith-Schuster, for example, had never practiced with Hodges until last week. In Pittsburgh’s two wins, the pivotal plays in the passing game largely have come on short flips to Conner or Jaylen Samuels. Smith-Schuster is on pace for 67 receptions and 906 yards receiving, well off the 111 grabs for 1,426 yards he put up with Antonio Brown in the lineup last season. The biggest issue isn’t Smith-Schuster but the inability of any of the other receivers to become a problem for opponents. Pittsburgh’s other five receivers have combined for 41 receptions for 416 yards.
Hodges might not hold on to the starting gig for long. While Tomlin demurred on Sunday night when asked who will start against the Dolphins, Rudolph figures to get the job back as long as he’s recovered from the frightening concussion he suffered against Baltimore on Oct. 6. Still, Hodges proved himself in his first extended action. He hardly appeared rattled, perhaps shortening the leash on Rudolph if Rudolph runs into trouble when he returns.
A tough call when a team goes to the West Coast and wins for just the 20th time in 60 tries. Yet tight ends Vance McDonald and Nick Vannett — who figured to be featured prominently to help out Hodges — each had just one catch for 5 yards.
Defensive end Stephon Tuitt is having his finest season, but a pectoral injury on Sunday night might put his season in jeopardy. The injury could be as serious as the one defensive tackle Cam Heyward suffered in 2016, when a torn pec sent him to injured reserve. Conner’s quad issue is likely minor, but Haden’s groin will have to be monitored during the bye.
Three — That’s the number of teams — Indianapolis, Baltimore and Buffalo — currently with a winning record left on Pittsburgh’s schedule.
Getting healthy. Tuitt’s absence could be huge if he’s out an extended period. Tyson Alualu played well after Tuitt left, but Alualu isn’t nearly as effective in terms of pressuring the quarterback.