Pittsburgh Steelers leaning on defense in visit to Arizona Cardinals
TEMPE, Ariz. — There’s no question that the Arizona Cardinals and Pittsburgh Steelers each enter their Sunday meeting with respective uncertainty.
How does Steelers undrafted rookie Devlin “Duck” Hodges perform in another game without key weapons? Receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and starting running back James Conner were both ruled out on Friday.
How well do the Cardinals respond from a clunker of a loss against the Los Angeles Rams a week back? Does their running game ramp back up, and can the defense show up?
If you’re more into betting on sure things, there’s no doubt the Pittsburgh defense is the surest heading into a Week 14 game at State Farm Stadium. Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said in a conference call this week that he’s not surprised the unit has buoyed the 7-5 team that’s right in the playoff hunt despite injuries threatening to derail the season.
“We’ve got quality players,” Tomlin said. “Guys like T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree have played together now for a number of years. I think it’s reasonable to expect them to gain that type of cohesion that can produce quality play.”
In this case, quality play for the duo is combining to produce 21 of the team’s 43.0 total sacks this year (third in the NFL) and adding nine forced fumbles.
Watt and Dupree are the identity of the NFL’s most prolific defense when it comes to forcing 30 turnovers so far in 2019.
Their dominance has helped the backend record its fair share of takeaways, too. Safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, a midseason trade acquisition from the Miami Dolphins, has five picks.
“Very tough team, mentally tough, physically tough,” Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury said. “Defensively, since acquiring (Minkah) Fitzpatrick, they’ve really played good defense. They just find ways to win. They’re winners. That franchise is known for that.”
All of that is especially concerning as Arizona rookie quarterback Kyler Murray comes off his worst game of the year, in which he threw a pick-six and went 19 of 34 for 163 yards without a passing touchdown.
The good news is that Arizona still ranks third in the NFL with nine turnovers this year.
“(Murray’s) ability to take care of the ball is really impressive for a young guy, particularly with some of the circumstances he’s been in,” Tomlin said.
That trend will certainly be tested.
Duck is up
Hodges will make his second start in a row since his promotion over 2018 third-round pick Mason Rudolph. It will be his fifth appearance this year overall.
“I’ve been very impressed,” Kingsbury said of the undrafted Samford product. “Having been in a similar situation, kind of that third-team practice-squad-type range, for him to step in and the poise he shows and protecting the football, you can tell those guys really play hard for him, and they believe in him. He moves around, makes some plays, and he’s been really sharp.”
Hodges, whose nickname comes from his background as a duck-calling champion, has completed 67% of his passes for three touchdowns and two picks. His passer rating of 97 is higher than that of Murray’s of 88.4.
Murray’s overall quarterback rating, however, is 59.6 to Hodges’ 50.4.
Hodges playing has led to good things for the Steelers.
The team has won all three games in which he’s had more than 10 passing attempts and in the other game in which he appeared, Pittsburgh took the Baltimore Ravens to overtime in a loss.
“I just think that every step of the way, he’s made you pause,” Tomlin said. “The moments haven’t been too big for him. I think that characterizes every step in the process for him, whether it was rookie mini-camp or OTAs or training camp or preseason games and now even as we get into the regular season.”
Friday Cardinals notes
— Kingsbury suggested that running back Chase Edmonds could see a bigger role this week. Edmonds only got special teams snaps in his return from a hamstring injury last week.
“It was unfortunate when he got injured and now we’re trying to get him back going,” Kingsbury said. “He’s practicing well. I think he’s full-go and I’d like to find a way to get him more incorporated because I think he’s earned that throughout the season.”
— Safety Jalen Thompson cleared concussion protocols earlier in the week and is good to go Sunday. He left Sunday’s loss to the Rams after hitting his head and was replaced by fellow rookie Deionte Thompson.
— Right guard J.R. Sweezy and center A.Q. Shipley both appeared on the injury report this week due to illness. “I think it’s been more a 24-hour type GI virus, is what I was told,” Kingsbury said. “Guys have just been in and out. I think everybody is good as of now.”
— After waiving veteran DB Tramaine Brock to begin the week, Cardinals rookie Byron Murphy (calf) and fellow nickel/corner Kevin Peterson (shoulder) were both limited during practice on Friday. They are questionable to play.
Kingsbury said the team is still determining cornerback roles after starting corner Patrick Peterson.
“Still working through it,” he said. “Kevin Peterson, Chris (Jones), Murphy — we’ll have a rotation going in there and see how those guys are playing.”