Steelers' playoff hopes dimmed as Devlin Hodges benched in loss

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The Pittsburgh Steelers' offense, a unit that has struggled through a season marked by injuries and inexperience, took more hits in Sunday's 16-10 loss to the New York Jets as the team's playoff hopes dimmed.

Injuries to running back James Conner, center Maurkice Pouncey and quarterback Mason Rudolph -- who replaced starter Devlin Hodges in the second quarter, then left the game midway through the second half with a left shoulder injury -- contributed to the loss that leaves the Steelers with a win-at-all-costs game in Baltimore next week.

The Steelers must win next week's game to keep their playoff hopes alive. But that alone won't do it. They also need the Titans to lose to the Texans. If the Titans beat the Texans, the Steelers are eliminated -- even if they beat the Ravens. If Pittsburgh is eliminated, it would mark the second time in eight years the Steelers missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons.

"It's frustrating," lineman David DeCastro said of the loss. "Especially to have Mason come in there like that and be able to score on those last few drives and give us some great hope.

"We had a lot of hope, but the second half was bad."

Rudolph entered the game after Hodges threw his second interception on a pass intended for Jaylen Samuels in the end zone. Steelers quarterbacks now have four interceptions on throws into the end zone this season, tied with the Chargers for most in the league. Hodges is responsible for three of those picks in the past two games.

Hodges' afternoon got off to a rocky start when he was intercepted by linebacker Tarell Basham on third-and-10 as he targeted Vance McDonald over the middle. Hodges' throw into triple coverage wasn't high enough, and Basham jumped up to pick it off underneath. The Steelers went three-and-out on the next drive, during which Hodges was sacked for a 5-yard loss.

The Samford product opened up his third drive with a convincing 18-yard pass to tight end Nick Vannett. Aided by a 12-yard run by Conner and a horse collar penalty against the Jets, the Steelers reached the red zone for the first time. Instead of scoring, though, Hodges lofted a floater into a crowded end zone, and Jets free safety Marcus Maye came down with it.

"Early in the game, I threw two picks and that can't happen," Hodges said. "They are a good team. Every time you step in the stadium on Sunday, you're facing a good team. This is the NFL. We just have to do a better job."

He added: "I don't think I'm a bad player. I've just been playing bad."

Rudolph began warming up on the sideline soon after, practicing taking snaps from Pouncey.

"Like we talked about, you take care of the ball or we have decisions to make," coach Mike Tomlin said. "Devlin didn't take care of the ball early so we made a decision."

Rudolph couldn't get anything going on his first drive, but led a field goal drive on the next series. He connected with Samuels for a 27-yard catch-and-run play on that drive, eventually setting up Chris Boswell's 49-yard field goal.

Rudolph then capitalized on T.J. Watt's strip sack and fumble recovery with 28 seconds remaining in the half when he hit Diontae Johnson for a 29-yard touchdown with four seconds left, erasing the final remnants of the 10-point deficit the Steelers faced early in the second quarter.

Rudolph's success was short-lived, though. The offense was stagnant in its three third-quarter drives. The Steelers reached the cusp of field goal range at the end of the first drive, but Rudolph's third-down pass to McDonald lost 5 yards and forced a punt. The Steelers went three-and-out on the next series.

On his final drive, Rudolph completed a 14-yard pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster, one of the wide receiver's two catches in his return, but that was largely it.

The Steelers also lost Pouncey on that drive when the center went down with a knee injury on the first play. He limped off the field, but was eventually carted off from the sideline.

After the Steelers punted, Rudolph never returned. He went into the injury tent at the beginning of the fourth quarter. When he exited the injury tent, Rudolph mimed a throwing motion. When the Steelers' offense came back on the field with 13:25 remaining in the game, Hodges was the quarterback. Rudolph remained on the sideline with his helmet on, talking to a team athletic trainer.

Though he didn't throw an interception in his second stint Sunday, Hodges was ineffective. He was sacked once and had to fall on another ball when the snap from replacement center B.J. Finney was bobbled.

Hodges got the ball back with a minute and a half to go and hit Johnson and Deon Cain with two quick passes for a first down. Facing third-and-7 with a minute to go, Hodges let one fly to Washington in the end zone. The ball hit Washington in the hands, but Maye was there to break it up. With one more chance, Hodges targeted Smith-Schuster over the middle on fourth down, but Smith-Schuster couldn't come down with it, sealing the Steelers' loss.

"I make that catch, I go to the end zone and we score," Smith-Schuster said. "That's it. At the of the day, the game is on me. That's my fault. Sorry, everybody."

The Steelers also lost their top running threat in the first half when Conner went out with a thigh injury.

Prior to his exit, Conner had six carries for 32 yards, including a 15-yard gain.

Conner missed five games this season after injuring his shoulder against Miami on Oct. 28. He attempted to return Nov. 14 against Cleveland, but lasted only a quarter. After sitting out three more games, Conner played in 58% of the offensive snaps in the Steelers' loss to Buffalo last Sunday.

The Steelers now enter Week 17 with a core part of their offense up in the air. The quarterback job will be dictated largely by Rudolph's health, and injuries to Conner and Pouncey will also determine their availability.