Landry Jones Evolution as a Steelers Quarterback

When discussing the performances of certain individuals in the Steelers 30-17 loss to the Lions at Heinz Field Friday night, Landry Jones, the backup quarterback who started in place of Ben Roethlisberger and played the entire first half, has been placed in the “losers” category by more than one expert and fan.

  • That type of criticism is understandable, I suppose.

When a player completes just six of 12 passes for 55 yards and a touchdown, he’s certainly going to open himself up to slings and arrows–even in the aftermath of the very first preseason game.

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Landry Jones reads the Detroit defense as David DeCastro blocks in Steelers preseason loss to Lions. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune-Review

However, given that it was a preseason game–the very first preseason game–head coach Mike Tomlin really didn’t do Jones any favors by deactivating Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton, Le’Veon Bell, DeAngelo Williams, Maurkice Pouncey and a few other key components for the evening.

Not that Tomlin had to hand Landry Jones the keys to a Porsche with a full tank of gas (it almost seems insane to play your superstars in exhibitions games in 2016), but you might think such obstacles would give the fourth round pick out of Oklahoma in the 2013 NFL Draft a little leeway with regards to criticism.

But it didn’t.

On the surface, aside from a very pretty 29-yard touchdown pass to Darrius Heyward-Bey late in the second quarter that couldn’t have looked better if Roethlisberger had connected with Brown on the play, Jones turned in a lackluster performance Friday night.

But preseason football isn’t about judging performances at face-value. Sometimes it’s about looking at the intangibles. For instance, even though Heyward-Bey made an absolute gem of a catch when he pulled in that touchdown pass in the back corner of the end zone, you can’t forget that he also dropped a pass over the middle in the first quarter that Jones placed in-between several Lions’ defenders.

Maybe that’s why, on the heels of a bobbled bubble screen and a fumble by the second-year receiver, Jones appeared to give Sammie Coates the what for as he ran back to the huddle late in the second quarter after failing to come up with a sliding catch over the middle.

  • That also could be why Jones looked a little annoyed and irritated as he stood on the sidelines in the second half, while Bruce Gradkowski and then Dustin Vaughan took over quarterback duties.

Perhaps Jones wasn’t annoyed or irritated. It could be that he’s matured into a poised leader. But even if he was a little upset about the performances of his teammates, that’s a good thing. After all, regardless of how big of a superstar Antonio Brown is or how great of a leader Maurkice Pouncey has always been, the leader of the offense should always be the quarterback.

Remember when Alan Faneca gave his sarcastic response to the media when he learned that the then rookie Roethlisberger would be starting his first game against the Dolphins in Week 3 of the 2004 season? Faneca seemed annoyed, because, at that point, he probably envisioned having to babysit a wide-eyed rookie quarterback. Even though Faneca was in his seventh season and had long-since established himself as one of the best guards in the NFL, he probably didn’t want the added responsibility of directing traffic and being vocal in the huddle.

Jones made his NFL debut in a game against the Cardinals in Week 6 of last season, when he came on in the third quarter in place of an injured Mike Vick. Even though Jones passed for 168 yards and two touchdowns, as he led the Steelers to a 25-13 victory, his appearance wasn’t without controversy, when Brown became visibly upset after a play in-which he and the young quarterback didn’t appear to be on the same page.

  • While it’s never ideal to have those kinds of blow-ups, the natural order of things is for the quarterback to be chewing out his receiver.

If you’ve ever watched NFL Films highlights of the Steelers 21-10 victory over the Seahawks in Super Bowl XL, you may have seen veteran receiver Hines Ward sitting on the sidelines next to Roethlisberger (playing in just his second season) and urging him to “Take control of that huddle.”

Regardless of an offensive player’s stature (Ward was a decorated receiver at that point of his career and moments away from being named Super Bowl MVP), he wants his quarterback to know the plays, direct traffic and demand accountability.

  • Judging by his demeanor on Friday and the way he directed the likes of Jesse James and Coates to the correct spots right before the snap, Jones confidence in himself appears to have grown.

If that’s the case, its a far-cry from what his state-of-mind must have been last fall following his heroics against Arizona, when he told the assembled media, “I still can’t believe I got in the game and to play. I’m still kind of reeling from it.”

Jones got a ton of practice last preseason, which prepared him for the spotlight. In addition to his relief appearance against the Cardinals, Jones started his first two regular season games and had to come on in another substitute role in the fourth quarter of the wild card game against the Bengals after Roethlisberger left with a shoulder injury.

Landry Jones may never duplicate what Roethlisberger has done throughout his career (there are only about three dozen passers in the history of the league who have similar resumes), but Landry Jones evolution as a Steelers quarterback may have reached the point where his coaches and teammates believe in him.

Sometimes, such belief is all a backup quarterback needs when called upon to win an important game.

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