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Kevin Gorman: Landry Jones is Steelers’ best bet as backup QB

August 24, 2018
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Steelers quarterback Landry Jones lines the offense up during practice Sunday, Aug. 12, 2018 at Saint Vincent College.

Landry Jones turned a hard count into an easy decision, drawing an offside penalty for a free play that saw him throw for a touchdown in the Pittsburgh Steelers’ preseason opener at the Philadelphia Eagles.

“That’s the goal anytime you do a hard count, to get them to jump off-sides,” Jones said of his 71-yard touchdown pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster in the first quarter of the 31-14 victory Thursday at Lincoln Financial Field. “You want to just throw it up and get a big play.”

When it comes to the battle for the backup job to Ben Roethlisberger, Jones is trying to turn another hard count into an easy decision. The Steelers will have four quarterbacks when they break training camp Tuesday at Saint Vincent but are expected to keep only three on the 53-man roster this season.

That makes Thursday’s game at the Green Bay Packers a pivotal one for Jones, Josh Dobbs and Mason Rudolph. It’s their best chance to make a big impression on the coaching staff before Roethlisberger starts playing in the preseason.

“This is probably the most critical game for anybody who is on the bubble of this team,” said former Steelers backup quarterback Charlie Batch, who serves as color analyst on KDKA’s preseason telecasts. “Why? Because the starters are playing next week, and you come down to the final cut day at the fourth preseason game.”

Jones finished with a perfect quarterback rating of 158.3 against the Eagles, going 4 for 4 for 83 yards and the touchdown. While his other completions went for 9, 1 and 2 yards, respectively, he was far from perfect. Jones was sacked twice for minus-18 yards in three series. But he was “happy” to get in, play well and get out.

“It’s a part of being a backup,” said Jones, a sixth-year veteran. “You’re not going to get as many chances as a starter’s going to get. When you get your chance, you’ve got to make the best of it.

“It’s hard, but it’s part of what you do. Everybody wants to go out there and play, and everyone wants to go out there and start. But, in reality, I’m not going to go out there and replace Ben -- they’re never going to do that -- so I have to go out there and accept my role at this period of time and go along with it.”

The big question in training camp is how much longer that role will belong to Jones. The Steelers drafted Dobbs on the fourth round last year and Rudolph on the third round this year, creating competition for the backup job and preparing for the eventual retirement of Roethlisberger, 36, who is entering his 15th NFL season.

Jones knows the score and accepts the deal. Early in his career, he was fighting for the third spot behind Bruce Gradkowski and then Mike Vick. Now, he’s trying to stay ahead of Dobbs and Rudolph.

“Every year, as a backup they’re going to bring in someone to replace you. That’s just a part of it,” Jones said. “They’re always trying to replace the backup, always trying to improve on the backup. Until you have that franchise quarterback, like we have here with Ben, they’re always going to try to improve the quarterback room.”

Both Dobbs and Rudolph had their moments against the Eagles. Dobbs completed 9 of 13 passes for 91 yards with a 29-yard touchdown strike to Damoun Patterson and an interception and ran for 19 yards on two carries without a sack. Rudolph was 7 of 12 for 101 yards, including a 35-yard pass to fellow Oklahoma State alum James Washington, with two sacks for minus-5 yards in leading the Steelers to three field goals.

It was the best we have seen of Dobbs and the first we have seen of Rudolph, who drew Twitter praise from NFL Network analyst Charlie Casserly. The former Redskins and Texans general manager said Rudolph looked like a first-rounder.

Batch said he “thought they were all solid,” noting the Steelers coaches evaluate their quarterbacks on every play, grading them on whether they made the right reads and checks, in addition to their throws.

“Coming into the game, I didn’t think Landry did anything to lose his job. I think he solidified his backup job over the course of the last two weeks. He went out there and had a great performance,” Batch said. “Everybody looks at the numbers. When you come out of it and you’re 4 for 4 with a 158.3 on the rating, I think it’s kind of hard to lose your job after one preseason game.

“Of course, he has to keep that going.”

For as good as Dobbs and Rudolph looked in the preseason opener, it doesn’t appear they are competing against each other so much as they are with Jones for the backup job. Rudolph appears to be a lock to make the roster, which would make Dobbs expendable unless he can beat out Jones.

While fans wonder whether the Steelers should be looking to the future and grooming Roethlisberger’s successor, their foremost focus should be on winning the Super Bowl. It’s worth a reminder the Eagles won the Super Bowl with a backup quarterback, Nick Foles, taking MVP honors.

Not only is Jones the only one of the three reserve quarterbacks with experience in an NFL regular-season game but if anything happens to Roethlisberger, I can’t imagine new offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner would want to turn to an untested quarterback.

Jones has played in 18 games and is 3-2 as a starter, including going 23 of 27 for 239 yards with a touchdown and an interception in a 28-24 victory over the Cleveland Browns in the 2017 finale. More importantly, Jones also has earned Big Ben’s confidence over the years as a guy “who obviously can play, can come in and get you out of a game, can start a game” and serve as extra eyes on the sideline.

Roethlisberger called Jones “someone that I trust that if I ask a question, he’s going to know the answer: ‘Hey, Landry, what was that coverage? What did you see?’ I may be looking left and I’ll ask him what was on the right side. I trust what he is going to tell me.”

That trust factor could go a long way in determining the hard-count decision the Steelers make on who will be Big Ben’s backup.

That should be Jones, who knows better than to think he will get a free pass.

The Steelers should know better than to just throw it up for a big play.

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