Druin Mailbag: How Many Chances Does Duck Have? James Conner's future, and More
Well, a lot has certainly happened since I last did a mailbag (thanks for handling that heat, Noah). Since my last mailbag, Baltimore has essentially ran away with the division, Cleveland has found their groove and the Bengals... are going to love Joe Burrow next year. Pittsburgh now finds themselves with Devlin Hodges leading the team into battle this Sunday in a crucial divisional match-up with the Cleveland Browns.
From current quarterbacks to those of the past/future, running backs and more, let's dive into this week's Steelers mailbag:
QUESTION: The Steelers clearly need quarterback help. Did they wait too long and found themselves stuck with Duck or was there enough talent on the roster to not reach out to outside sources for QB?
Donnie: I think the Minkah Fitzpatrick trade tells us Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert was sold on this team being talented enough to compete with intermediate quarterback play before Ben Roethlisberger returns (some would argue it's that level with Ben but that's an entirely different mailbag for another day). It's also interesting to note the Steelers were not at the Colin Kaepernick workout, for reasons that likely vary.
I think in this case when we're evaluating Hodges/Rudolph, we saw Rudolph (at least post-concussion) just wasn't the answer. We'll see what Hodges has. He looked great in training camp/pre-season and has led the team to two victories while losing to the Ravens by a mere three points. So whether Duck looks great or looks terrible, I think it's pretty clear to everybody watching the Steelers will likely need to look to the draft in the next few seasons to find their next franchise quarterback. However to truly answer your question, there was enough *healthy* talent on the roster when help was needed.
QUESTION: How many chances does Duck Hodges have?
Donnie: That's... a great question. You would like to think that Hodges performs well enough to eliminate any sort of controversy as this team still fights for a playoff spot, yet I'm not sure what his leash is. Tomlin said this week that the move to anoint Hodges the starter was not an indication of Rudolph's future, which leaves the door open for a potential return depending on the performance of Hodges.
I would like to think if the offense looks even half competent this week, Hodges will remain the starter the rest of the way barring something tragic. Yet with injuries nearly everywhere and a lackadaisical offensive coordinator, it'd be hard for any quarterback to compete in this environment.
QUESTION: If Benny Snell keeps pushing 100 yards per game, does James Conner come back with a simpler role to keep him healthy? Does he not come back at all until the playoffs?
Donnie: You have to ride the hot hand, don't you? If Snell finds his groove and looks like the running back he was at Kentucky, it'd be hard to remove him from his current role. James Conner is a solid runner when healthy and his more agile than Snell, so he would still see a fair amount of touches in this scenario.
Yet this all comes back to his health, and the Steelers decided they weren't so keen on wearing their running backs out after feeding Le'Veon Bell 405 touches in his last season in Pittsburgh. The gameplan was to draft a running back (enter: Benny Snell) and have a healthy rotation between those guys and Jaylen Samuels. Unfortunately, the trio has had trouble staying healthy as a unit. If I'm the Steelers, I absolutely wait until Conner is fully healthy, even if that means returning around the playoffs. He shouldn't have played in that Thursday night contest against Cleveland, as he admitted himself he wasn't fully healthy.
Conner's had trouble staying healthy essentially his whole career thus far. Give him time to return at 100% and give him a clean slate as far as injuries go.
QUESTION: Are the Steelers truly happy with James Conner after rumors of attempting to trade for Le’Veon bell at the trade deadline?
Donnie: You know, I'm going to be really honest. I don't think the Steelers called about Le'Veon Bell. He's the only person that's said ANYTHING about Pittsburgh calling him, and the Steelers have since denied it. Not a single other soul has confirmed this, which leads me to believe it's false. It just wouldn't make sense to trade for him after letting him walk.
However, that doesn't mean the team is super happy with James Conner. If the Steelers were't willing to pay Bell what he wanted, it's hard to imagine Conner seeing a second stint in Pittsburgh if he simply can't stay healthy.
QUESTION: Is the offense capable of winning this week if the defense doesn't score at least once?
Donnie: I'll throw some numbers out and we'll discuss. The Steelers currently average 288 yards per game (fifth worst in the league), while completing just 34% of third downs (bottom ten in the league). Pittsburgh currently averages 19.6 points per game (also bottom ten in the league) which includes the defense scoring three defensive touchdowns this season.
Bad news: They can't move the ball, convert third downs or score points.
Good news: They have a new quarterback who expects to bring a whole new energy to the team.
Whether Hodges will turn out to be the second coming of Joe Montana with a solid duck call is left to be seen, yet with all the outside factors (injuries, lack of depth, play-calling) I'm not holding my breath for these guys to put up 30 points a game with number six under center. The Browns have started to look like the team we once thought they would be, yet there's hope for Pittsburgh if the Dolphins were able to drop 24 against Cleveland.
This team's path to victory the entire season has been to win through dominant defensive football. It's unlikely the offense can carry this team to victory if Minkah Fitzpatrick doesn't find the endzone again, but I certainly won't rule it out.
QUESTION: Does Big Ben retire next season after such an extensive injury history? If so, who could be the next potential dynasty QB?
Donnie: That's a great question. We would like to assume players will play through their contracts, as Roethlisberger's is up after the conclusion of the 2021 season. Yet as we saw with Andrew Luck, father time loses to absolutely nobody. Luck was smart to escape before his body got the best of him, and Roethlisberger may do the same before his deal runs out. He's already been tempted by retirement once, so this injury I'm sure has sparked interest despite him saying he wanted to return next season.
For me? I'd personally love Clemson's Trevor Lawrence in a Steelers uniform. However, that appears to be a pipe dream at this point. People in Pittsburgh aren't too sure what the future looks like, but most would agree it's not Devlin Hodges or Mason Rudolph.
Thanks for participating in this week’s mailbag. There were great questions sent and with the season in full blast, it’ll be just as eventful next week. Make sure to send all mailbag questions to our Twitter and Facebook pages.