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Steelers 16, Bengals 10: Steelers’ fate rests more on defense than QB decision

So many people are frantically buying turkeys this week for Thanksgiving, but duck might be the Steelers’ choice.

And when Santa Claus delivers presents to children all over the world on Christmas Day, Rudolph will be guiding his reindeer through the sky.

But Rudolph might not be guiding the Steelers offense next week.

Mason Rudolph‘s nose wasn’t too shiny on Sunday. Devlin “Duck” Hodges took over for the struggling quarterback in the third quarter and threw the Steelers’ only touchdown pass in their 16-10 win over the Bengals in Cincinnati.

So now Mike Tomlin is dealing with the first quarterback controversy of his coaching career. He has to decide whether Rudolph or Hodges will start next week against the Browns at Heinz Field.

Rudolph completed eight of 16 passes for 85 yards with an interception, and after the game Tomlin said that the Steelers’ offense needed a “spark.”

Hodges provided that spark, but whether Hodges or Rudolph starts next week, this offense still will have to keep rubbing sticks together to generate points.

With the Steelers (6-5) trailing 7-3 early in the third quarter, Hodges replaced Rudolph and completed a pass to James Washington that the receiver turned into a 79-yard touchdown with a stiff-arm to Bengals cornerback B.W. Webb.

Washington has caught 16 passes for 306 yards (19.1 yards per reception) with two touchdowns over the last four games, matching the 16 passes he caught during a rough rookie season in 2018. This year, Washington is second on the team with 467 receiving yards.

Webb, who is playing on his sixth team in six seasons and contributed just two tackles in 11 games as a Steeler in 2014, was no match for the emerging Washington. By pushing Webb out of the way Washington turned a first down at the Bengals’ 25 into a touchdown and a 10-7 Steelers lead.

Even before that big play, Hodges had the popular vote in the Steelers starting quarterback campaign. With Rudolph scuffling, social media had been full of duck emojis.

However, after that pass to Washington the undrafted quarterback from FCS Samford threw for only 39 more yards. He completed only five of 11 passes Sunday and two of his last eight.

Hodges didn’t have to do much on the Steelers’ go-ahead field goal drive early in the fourth quarter.

Webb earned his Bengals stripes by handing the Steelers three points on a platter with penalties on consecutive plays in a tight game. Two straight pass interference flags provided the Steelers with 34 yards of field position. A neutral zone infraction on Carl Lawson later in the drive set the Steelers up at the 29 for Chris Boswell‘s 47-yard field goal and a 13-10 Steelers lead.

Those were all the points the Steelers would need, as once again Devlin got some help from fellow rookie Devin.

The Steelers’ lead was in peril when Ryan Finley completed a pass to Tyler Boyd, who caught the Bengals’ only touchdown, at the Steelers’ 8-yard line with nine minutes left. Rookie linebacker Devin Bush popped the ball loose and Minkah Fitzpatrick picked it up and returned it to the Steelers’ 42.

It was Bush’s first forced fumble of the year to go with his four fumble recoveries, including one he returned for a touchdown in Hodges’ one start this season, a 24-17 road win against the Chargers in Week 6.

Another rookie, running back Benny Snell Jr., ran for 98 yards on 21 carries Sunday. He gained 35 of those yards on one drive in the fourth quarter to set up Boswell’s 26-yard field goal, making the score 16-10 and giving the Steelers some breathing room with 3:18 left. Then Bud Dupree put the finishing touch on the victory by strip-sacking Finley and recovering the fumble..

Snell, who was drafted in the fourth round, and Kerrith Whyte, a seventh-round rookie signed off the Bears’ practice squad, accounted for 141 of the Steelers’ 160 rushing yards. Snell was back after missing three games with knee surgery. He’s averaged 4.4 yards per carry this season.

Let’s not forget, however, that the 0-11 Bengals have the most generous run defense in the NFL with 4.9 yards allowed per carry. Eventually, the Steelers are going to need James Conner back, and whoever starts at quarterback hopefully will benefit from JuJu Smith-Schuster‘s return.

It will help, too, when Maurkice Pouncey returns from his suspension, but without Ben Roethlisberger this offense is sitting at the kiddie table as we approach the season of holiday family dinners.

The 2019 Steelers’ destiny will depend on just how far the defense can carry the team.

This defense has two Defensive Player of the Year candidates in Watt and Fitzpatrick and a Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate in Bush.

T.J. Watt is third in the league with 11.5 sacks and tied for the league lead with five forced fumbles. Fitzpatrick is tied for first in the NFL with five interceptions. Bush’s four fumble recoveries are tied for first among defensive players. Dupree’s game-clinching sack was his seventh of the season, a career high.

So far, this defense has carried the Steelers to a 6-5 record and the No. 6 spot in the AFC playoff picture. It won’t be able to carry the team much further, however, if the Steelers keep playing the way they did Sunday

The winless Bengals were probably the only team the Steelers could have beaten with that overall performance. The Steelers haven’t been winning in ways that tempt us to ponder their NFL power ranking.

Sure, the Steelers would be in the playoffs if the season ended today. That’s nice, but they’ll worry about the playoffs if and when they get there. For now, they just have to keep cobbling together wins one way or another.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets.

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