In this third part to the Devlin Hodges end of season review I’m going to talk about a number of things defenses did that took Devlin Hodges from being a QB that was able to move the ball down the field to one that destroyed his team’s chances at a playoff berth.
One important thing to realize is it wasn’t just one good defense solving Hodges, it was a culmination of work from multiple teams to take away what Randy Fichtner had been doing to support his young QBs as well as attacking Hodges weaknesses.
Taking away the Steelers attack
In my film review of the week 13 Cleveland game (Third, fourth and fifth section ) I covered how the Browns defense took away a staple part of Fichtner’s offense under Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges, short crossing routes. As the season went on Fichtner evolved these routes, but when Cleveland shut them down entirely Hodges was forced to throw deep, and James Washington went off, and the Steelers rode a series of deep completions in the second quarter to a win.
Then in week 15 (look at “taking away James Washington’s strength”) I covered how the Bills defended James Washington by playing off of him so he couldn’t beat them on deep balls like he did against Cleveland. Arizona also stayed away from physically engaging Washington, but they also just gave up anything underneath. Buffalo, with Tre’Davious White were able to keep their cornerback looking to the ball while covering James Washington. Buffalo still gave up a good bit of yardage to Washington. In the clips in my linked review you can see that James was getting to balls when the defenders had to turn and run with him, but when the defenders were facing the pass they were able to make plays on the ball. Defenders looking to jump routes and passes led to several interceptions, and our first film clip.
Week 15, 4th quarter 0:15, 2nd and 18. James Washington is lined up to the top of the screen.
The only real threat on this play is a TD, and yet the DBs are staying up on the receivers, focusing more on being in position to attack the pass than worrying about the ball getting behind them. The only throw on this play is to lead one of his receivers into the endzone, but Hodges doesn’t even try it. Hodges was very good at putting deep balls in front of defenders where he could just throw it straight, but was not nearly as accurate on balls that required some touch to drop it in behind the defense.
The Jets and Ravens would copy this strategy, and it worked, but this alone wasn’t enough to stop the Hodges offense. Against both Cleveland and Buffalo, Hodges made those throws (not as far as the above play would have required, but downfield enough to make defenses respect it) when he had a clean(ish) pocket. Against the Jets the Steelers would face a ton of blitzes to disrupt Hodges and make sure he didn’t have time and space to make those throws.
Blitzing rookie QBs isn’t a new thing in the NFL, it’s a staple approach. College defenses don’t blitz like NFL defenses do, and any player is going to struggle facing something they don’t have experience against.
Devlin Hodges threw 17 passes agaisnt the Jets, and was sacked 3 times. That’s 20 plays where he intended to pass, the Jets blitzed Hodges on 13 of those 20 plays, just under 2⁄3 of the time. Against the Ravens, Hodges would throw 25 passes and be sacked twice for 27 pass plays. The Ravens blitzed Hodges on 18 of those, exactly 2⁄3 of the plays. Compare that to 12 blitzes on 42 pass plays (28.6%) against the Bills, 10 of 26 (38.5%) attempts vs the Cardinals, and 8 of 23 pass plays (34.8%) against the Browns.
Week 17, 1st quarter 7:20, 2nd and 9.
That’s a zero blitz. No deep defenders at all, 6 rushing the QB. What really stands out here is how the DBs aren’t worried about being beat deep. They are looking to jump the routes from the snap. Hodges actually does decently here, sees the Blitz, knows his hot read, and makes the throw. The defender jumping is right in his throwing lane and forces the ball to be led too far to the middle and it falls incomplete. If you run this against Ben Roethlisberger, he’s throwing to the top of the screen and it’s probably a big gain for the Steelers. But Hodges can’t make that throw with a guy crashing his pocket and he can’t make that throw on the move, so he throws the only real pass he can.
There’s a reason teams weren’t blitzing him before the Bills figured out during the game that Hodges was going to struggle to throw over defenders on the move. Because Hodges was actually quite good against blitzes, he reads the blitz well and finds his hot route quickly and gets rid of the ball, even when the rush disrupts timing.
Week 17, 2nd quarter 7:38, 3rd and 8. Vance McDonald is right next to Matt Feiler to the top of the screen.
This is one of my favorite Hodges plays of the season. He sees that McDonald is the right throw but feels the pressure, so he spins away from the rush, reconnects with McDonald, and lets it fly. Here the Ravens fail to contain the underneath routes on a 3rd and 8 and Hodges converts it. You can see how the Ravens have a defender in front of all the deeper options, and they disrupt the QB, but Hodges can still make the play if he sees it. And that leads us to our last section, and in my mind, the most important.
Reading Hodges mind
The #1 weakness Devlin Hodges had in his rookie season was lack of experience. When defenses took away his underneath crosses, took away the jump balls to James Washington, and put him under pressure, Hodges was reduced to throwing hot routes based off the blitzes he was facing. And that’s when teams really jumped on him because they figured out his methodology for dealing with the blitz and used it against him.
Week 16, 1st quarter 5:53, 3rd and 10. Watch the defenders on the edges showing blitz.
The Jets show 7 rushers and send 5, Hodges sees the defender next to McDonald drop straight back and makes the throw to the middle of the field, where there should be a nice gap. But the Jets drop the other LB into the middle, sending him right into Hodges hot read.
Every other defender is in man coverage with a single high safety. Hodges correctly sees it is a man blitz, and he correctly sees that McDonald’s defender is giving up the middle of the field. But this is bait. Tarell Basham isn’t covering Jaylen Samuels at all, and he doesn’t make a great move to get to the ball, he just drops right where the ball is going to be, and the ball goes right to him.
The Ravens baited Hodges into several mistakes.
Week 17, 2nd quarter 6:55, 2nd and 14. look at the RB and TE on this play.
If you count up the numbers, the Steelers have 4 people on Hodges right blocking 2 rushers and 2 blockers on the left trying to block 3. That’s a scheme sack, and clearly not on Hodges, right?
Same play, before the snap.
Hodges sees the blitz coming, and changes the play. Look at the 2 LBs and the nickel corner to the top of the screen get together for a second. As Hodges is calling an audible to counter the Ravens, those three are talking. Now go watch the play again, Both of those LBs drop, right into the path of JuJu Smith-Schuster, Devlin Hodges’ hot read.
With a blitz coming, the Steelers throw their blocking to the right. And with the nickel corner giving a huge cushion, Smith-Schuster’s quick out should be wide open. But the blitz isn’t coming from the right, and Smith-Schuster isn’t open. If you look you can even see the momentary stop in Hodges feet and movement. He knew what he saw, he knows what he should be seeing after the snap, and you can see the moment he realizes he just got played.
Looking to the future
So now we have a really good idea of what caused Devlin Hodges to drop off as a QB in his rookie year. The rookie wall, for Hodges, was teams figuring out his weaknesses and trapping him in a pattern of predictable decisions. But what does this say for Hodges future in the NFL?
The first thing to remember is he’s a rookie that was on the scout team fighting to make an NFL roster in camp, therefore this is his first real off-season. We say that about most rookies, but for Hodges it is even more true than it is for a Diontae Johnson or Ulysees Gilbert III because those players were being groomed for their rookie season role from the start of camp. Hodges wasn’t. That means we are looking more at where he needs to grow as a player, and there are a number of places he needs to develop.
— Accuracy. I didn’t really cover his overall accuracy in this film room, all rookies struggle with accuracy, Ben did, Peyton Manning did, every rookie QB that starts struggles with accuracy because the speed of the game is so much faster, and those windows are smaller because of it.
— Touch. Hodges needs to be able to throw over defenders on plays like the zero blitz against Baltimore. That is going to take repetition with those throws and a little more comfort with his targets.
These first two are things that can be worked on and improved. Hodges’ arm isn’t too weak for the NFL. It’s not a plus trait, but it also isn’t bad enough to scuttle his career. QBs have started in the NFL with less arm strength than Hodges. This offseason he needs to get a good coach and work on his footwork, overall strength and throw technique just like every rookie. It stands out that during my work on this series the Steelers hired a QB coach. They know they have young QBs that need to develop, and that Randy Fichtner and Ben Roethlisberger need to be focused on getting this offense into shape to try and contend for a Super Bowl, not spending their time showing Devlin Hodges how to maintain good technique when escaping the pocket.
— Experience and learning. This, to me, was his biggest weakness as a rookie. When he had an idea of what was going on, Hodges was a tough QB to face. Once teams found out the limits of his knowledge and picked up his tendencies they were able to take gambles that paid off more often than not. If you remember Ben Roethlisberger’s early career, he was similar, and maybe even worse than Hodges in this area. Ben made plays against the blitz by breaking tackles and extending the play until he found someone open. It took Ben years to learn how to be a pocket passer. Hodges is ahead of rookie Ben Roethlisberger in reading defenses and making throws in rhythm, even if his talent level doesn’t remotely compared to what Ben was capable of when he entered the league.
Hodges ceiling isn’t a franchise QB, and it most likely doesn’t go as far as a consistent starter. I think his ceiling is a really solid backup QB who could come in and win some games for you in tough spots, and that has value. Whoever takes over for Ben Roethlisberger, I could very easily see Devlin Hodges serving as the backup, but first he has to show he can learn the things he needs to learn and develop the technique to offset his physical limitations. We’ll get a great chance to see how he develops in a few months when camps start. Personally I’m predicting fans will be calling Rudolph v Hodges a QB competition in the 2020 preseason, no matter what it may be right now.