Knowing that the team would be starting undrafted rookie Devlin Hodges against the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday, Steelers offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner and company wanted to come up with a different game plan.
Specifically, they wanted a game plan that would maximize Hodges’ throwing abilities and minimize his inexperience when it comes to reading NFL defenses.
That sounds good. But in order to do that, the Steelers needed to be able to run the ball to keep the offense on schedule and direct long drives without a deep-strike passing game.
But that isn’t something the Steelers had been able to do through the first five games of their 1-4 start, even with more-experienced and more-heralded passers at the helm.
The Steelers’ rushing totals in the first five games of the season were 32, 81, 79, 66 and 77 yards. That wasn’t going to be enough to get it done against Los Angeles. Even worse, the Steelers were playing their first game without all-purpose back Jaylen Samuels, who is expected to miss a month after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery last Monday.
But the Steelers running game came through when needed, with James Conner and rookie Benny Snell coming through for a combined 124 yards on the ground.
“We didn’t have a lot of other options,” head coach Mike Tomlin said after the game. “Some times, that’s life, when you’re backed up against it. We needed that and they delivered.”
Snell, in particular, came through with a big game, putting up a career-high 75 yards on 17 carries — more than the Steelers had as a team in three of their first five games — while Conner combined his 41 yards on the ground with seven catches for 78 yards receiving and two total touchdowns.
Conner’s ability to break tackles in open space was crucial to the team staying on track with the down and distance chains. The Steelers finished 8 of 13 on third downs.
“We were on schedule,” Tomlin said. “We put together a good plan, but those guys executed. More than anything, we were in manageable third downs. We’ve been working hard to be in manageable third downs and we haven’t necessarily done what we did [Sunday night], so I’m not taking that for granted. But largely, when you have that type of success is when you’re not behind the chains.”
The Steelers’ running game was boosted by a significant push up front, as the Steelers’ offensive line might have had its best game of the season.
The combination led to Hodges needing to attempt just 20 passes in his NFL starting debut. He also was not sacked as the line provided all the protection he needed to make his reads and get the ball out quickly.
In short, the Steelers offense needed a way to move the ball without relying heavily on Hodges’ arm. They did and they won.