Thu Dec 5 2:11pm ET
By DAVID BRANDT
AP Sports Writer
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Devlin Hodges (6) stands on the field with a game ball after a 20-13 Steelers win over the Cleveland Browns in an NFL football game in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Dec. 1, 2019. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) The Arizona Cardinals have a No. 1 overall draft pick under center while the Pittsburgh Steelers have a guy named “Duck” throwing the ball around the field.
Yet it's the Steelers who are making a playoff push.
Pittsburgh (7-5) has won six of its past seven games heading into Sunday's road matchup against the Cardinals. It'll be the third start for Steelers quarterback Devlin “Duck” Hodges, a rookie free agent who has been steady for a team that relies heavily on its defense.
Hodges threw for 212 yards, one touchdown and one interception in last week's win against Cleveland. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin expects more of the same against the Cardinals.
“Football is the ultimate team game,” Tomlin said. “We try to live that out every day. When guys step up and deliver, it is just verification of it.”
The Cardinals (3-8-1) are stuck in a five-game losing streak and trying to bounce back from last weekend's 34-7 loss to the Rams, which was easily their worst effort of the season.
Arizona is rebuilding this season, so the team has been mostly upbeat even after losses. But players and coaches have made it known that getting embarrassed at home by the Rams wasn't acceptable. The Cardinals were down 20-0 by halftime and were never particularly competitive.
“Losing is losing, but that last game was a different type of losing," rookie quarterback Kyler Murray said.
Murray, the top overall pick in April, has been good for most of the season. He's already set a franchise rookie record with 2,866 yards passing despite a tough game against the Rams.
Most of the Cardinals problems are on defense, where they rank last in the NFL in total defense and passing defense. Los Angeles quarterback Jared Goff - who had been struggling for a few weeks - dominated the Cardinals for 424 yards passing and two touchdowns.
Arizona coach Kliff Kingsbury expects another tough challenge, even if Pittsburgh's offense hasn't put up huge numbers.
Kingsbury had a short, nomadic career as an NFL quarterback, bouncing between teams over a couple of seasons before becoming a coach. He said Hodges is making the most of his opportunity.
“I’ve been very impressed," Kingsbury said. “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."
THREE'S A CROWD
Kingsbury was excited to have all three of the team's main running backs - Kenyan Drake, David Johnson and Chase Edmonds - healthy for the first time against the Rams on Sunday.
But the Cardinals offense never got on track. Drake ran for 31 yards, Johnson ran for 15 and Edmonds didn't get a carry.
Kingsbury said he still envisions a roll for all three against the Steelers.
“The (Rams) game got away from us, got a little funky, and we got out of some things we wanted to do and went back to dropping back, which is not what we want to do in those situations,” Kingsbury said. "That’s why you have to stay on schedule and can’t get down 27-0 or whatever it was.”
If the Cardinals are going to get better defending the pass, they'll have to do it with a bunch of young players.
Arizona released veteran cornerback Tramaine Brock Sr. on Monday, which likely gives more playing time to Kevin Peterson and Chris Jones. Peterson is 25 and Jones is 24.
The Cardinals also have three rookies in the secondary who get substantial playing time, including cornerback Byron Murphy Jr. and safeties Jalen Thompson and Deionte Thompson.
MO POUNCEY, NO PROBLEMS
Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey returns to the lineup following a two-game suspension for his role in the brawl against Cleveland on Nov. 14. B.J. Finney filled in capably during Pouncey’s absence and Pittsburgh’s running game finally found some traction, topping 100 yards in consecutive contests for the first time this season. Pouncey said the unexpected break has the 10-year veteran feeling fresh heading into the home stretch.
“I feel like this is the beginning of the year,” Pouncey said. “I’ve got a lot of energy.”
HEISMAN VS WALTER
Sunday's game will pit Murray, last year's Heisman Trophy winner at Oklahoma, against Hodges, who won the Walter Payton Award at Samford.
The Walter Payton Award is given to the best offensive college player at the Football Championship Subdivision level.
“Now that you mention it, it is pretty unique playing against the Heisman winner and being the Walter Payton winner, the Heisman of the FCS. It is going to be a fun game,” Hodges said.
Pittsburgh outside linebackers T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree have combined for 20½ sacks through 12 games, the highest total by a Steelers’ linebacker tandem since LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison did it in 2008. Watt was the AFC Defensive Player of the Month for November after getting 5½ sacks last month. Watt has at least a half-sack in nine straight games, the longest active streak in the NFL. Dupree has been no slouch. His 8½ sacks are a career high and his four forced fumbles are tied for fourth most in the NFL. Though Dupree typically plays on the left side and Watt on the right, Tomlin will occasionally have them flip to give offenses different looks.
“They’re interchangeable in an effort to keep people off-balance and to give them something to think about,” Tomlin said.
Kansas City Chiefs running back LeSean McCoy, who hasn't had a touch since Week 15 and who was inactive for the AFC Championship against the Titans, said he's not ready to retire after this season. "Nah, I'm not ready to retire, yet," McCoy said. "I still can play. So, I'm not going to retire yet, but that day is coming. That day is definitely coming." The 31-year-old has taken a back seat to running backs Damien Williams and rookie Darwin Thompson down the stretch, and he's unlikely to have much of a role, if any, in the Super Bowl against the 49ers. Shady has become more of a mentor in the running back room than an on-field performer for fantasy owners.
San Francisco 49ers tight end George Kittle (shoulder) said that he's been playing through a torn labrum in his right shoulder since the start of the 2018 season. "So I dislocated my shoulder last year," Kittle said Sunday on the Pardon My Take podcast, "and my labrum is completely torn. So I don't get surgery on it -- [The protective sleeve] basically helps me, so it doesn't hurt all the time." He didn't miss any games in 2018 and set the single-season record for receiving yards by a tight end with 1,377. Kittle said there's "no chance" he has surgery in the future. The 26-year-old has been quiet in the postseason with four catches for 35 yards in two games, but the Niners haven't really needed him with their ground game humming. That could change in the Super Bowl against the Chiefs on Feb. 2.
Cleveland Browns running back Kareem Hunt, who will be a free agent in March, emotionally admitted that he would fail a drug test to a police officer during a traffic stop recently. This was caught on video of the police officer's dash cam during the traffic stop. Hunt also admitted that the small amounts of marijuana found in the car were his, but the officer let Hunt off with just the speeding ticket. It remains to be seen if the NFL will consider a suspension for the 24-year-old from this incident. Hunt was released by the Chiefs during the 2018 season due to a domestic-violence incident, and he served a suspension before making his Browns debut in 2019. If he signs with another team this offseason and is given bell-cow duties in the backfield, Hunt could have RB1 upside.
The Los Angeles Chargers have "moved on from Philip Rivers," according to FOX Sports' Jay Glazer. Rivers is set to become a free agent in March, and the writing was on the wall when he recently moved his entire family from San Diego to Florida. Rivers will end a 16-year run with the Chargers, but it remains to be seen where he'll land on the free-agent market this offseason. The Buccaneers are a popular expected destination, but that'll only be if they move on from Jameis Winston. Rivers completed 66 percent of his passes for 4,615 yards, 23 touchdowns and 20 interceptions in 2019 for a QB rating of 88.5. He might have a few more seasons left in him, but at 38 years old his arm strength is clearly deteriorating, and he'll probably be more of a QB2 in 2020, depending on where he winds up.
Baltimore Ravens defensive end Matthew Judon is a candidate to receive the team's franchise tag and could also be traded, according to league sources. The Ravens would like to bring Judon back in 2020, but they are also likely to listen to trade offers if another team shows interest. The Niners dealt a second-round pick to the Chiefs last year for defensive end Dee Ford, who then signed a five-year deal worth up to $87.5 million last March. The Chiefs also traded first- and third-round picks to the Seahawks last April for defensive end Frank Clark, who then signed a five-year, $105.5 million deal. Judon has emerged as a high-end pass rusher with at least seven sacks in each of the last three years. The 27-year-old had a career-high 9.5 sacks in 2019 and was selected to the Pro Bowl for the first time.
Philadelphia Eagles DT Fletcher Cox was credited with a 61-yard interception return for touchdown at the Pro Bowl on Sunday, Jan. 26.
Indianapolis Colts TE Jack Doyle posted three catches for 63 yards and a touchdown on four targets for the AFC at the Pro Bowl Sunday, Jan. 26.
Pittsburgh Steelers DE T.J. Watt posted an 82-yard fumble return for touchdown in the fourth quarter for the AFC at the Pro Bowl in Orlando on Sunday, Jan. 26.
Baltimore Ravens TE Mark Andrews ended up with a game-high nine receptions for an AFC-best 73 yards and a touchdown on 10 targets at the Pro Bowl on Sunday, Jan. 26.
Jacksonville Jaguars WR DJ Chark Jr. registered two grabs for 67 yards, including a 60-yard touchdown in the third quarter, for the AFC at the Pro Bowl on Sunday, Jan. 26.
Green Bay Packers WR Davante Adams ended up with a team-high six receptions for 61 yards and two touchdowns on seven targets for the NFC at the Pro Bowl Sunday, Jan. 26.
Dallas Cowboys WR Amari Cooper finished with three grabs for 24 yards and a touchdown on seven targets for the NFC at the Pro Bowl on Sunday, Jan. 26.
Minnesota Vikings QB Kirk Cousins completed 13-of-22 passes for 181 yards, two touchdowns and one interception at the Pro Bowl on Sunday, Jan. 26
New Orleans Saints WR Michael Thomas hauled in five receptions for 92 yards and a touchdown with a team-high eight targets at the Pro Bowl Sunday, Jan. 26.
Jacksonville Jaguars DE Calais Campbell had a solo tackle, a sack and a quarterback hit in the Pro Bowl on Sunday, Jan. 26, winning the Defensive Most Valuable Player award.
Baltimore Ravens QB Lamar Jackson completed 16-of-23 passes for 185 yards, two touchdowns and one interception for the AFC in the Pro Bowl, winning Offensive Most Valuable Player. He also ran twice for six yards in the 38-33 win.
Houston Texans impending free-agent TE Darren Fells is a player the Texans will try to re-sign this offseason, but he probably will receive interest from multiple teams in free agency.
Houston Texans impending free-agent QB AJ McCarron is a candidate to be re-signed this offseason, in the opinion of ESPN.com's Sarah Barshop.
New York Jets linebacker C.J. Mosley (groin), who is six weeks removed from groin/abdominal surgery, said he is jogging "a little bit" and is on track to take part in "spring football." Mosley has also started a vegan diet after playing in just two games last season because of his injury in his first year in New York. The 27-year-old should be ready for a full training camp heading into the 2020 season, and he should give Gang Green a steadying presence in the middle of the field next season. Mosley recorded 100-plus tackles in four of his five seasons in Baltimore before signing with the Jets in free agency last offseason.
Former Kansas City Chiefs safety Eric Berry, who did not play at all in 2019, plans to play in 2020 after intentionally taking the season off to rest his body and mind. Berry was cut by the Chiefs in 2018 and has only played in three games since 2016 due to injuries and a bout with cancer. The former first-round pick in 2010 has 14 career interceptions and five touchdowns and could provide a team with a veteran presence in the secondary in 2020. However, it remains to be seen if any team will take a chance on the veteran moving forward. Berry is unlikely to be an asset in IDP leagues if he gets picked up by a team.