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Backup QB battle could be brewing between Steelers' Gradkowski, Jones

| Friday, June 13, 2014, 9:36 p.m.
Steelers quarterback Landry Jones during practice Wednesday, June 11, 2014 on the South Side.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers quarterback Landry Jones during practice Wednesday, June 11, 2014 on the South Side.

The Steelers brought in free agent Bruce Gradkowski and drafted Landry Jones in the fourth round last year to provide depth at quarterback for when Ben Roethlisberger inevitably would get injured.

It never happened.

Roethlisberger played all 1,067 offensive snaps for the first time in his 10-year career, and the Steelers' backup strategy never was put to the test.

The closest thing Roethlisberger came to missing a practice was when he was limited on a Wednesday leading up to the Week 9 game in New England. He was on the injury report only once when he was probable with a sore right finger before the Week 5 Jets game.

“Compliments to Ben. Last year, he worked hard to keep his body right and to stay in shape,” Gradkowski said.

But the odds Roethlisberger stays healthy for a second consecutive year aren't good.

Although Roethlisberger has missed only 12 starts over his career because of injury, he's missed snaps in 24 others during the past decade.

“You never know what is going to happen in this game,” Jones said. “Ben was healthy last year. This year, he might be healthy again. You just have to be ready.”

That's where Gradkowski and Jones come in, and “getting ready” happens now for the two.

Spring is a valuable time for backup quarterbacks as the just-wrapped-up offseason practices and upcoming minicamp, training camp and preseason are the only times Gradkowski and Jones get enough reps to get better.

“As a backup, all you can do is keep preparing and keep working and try to get better and not get complacent,” Gradkowski said. “Just because Ben played every game last year — and you want him to play every game — I have to continue to prepare like I am playing every game.”

Being a career backup, Gradkowski is used to that.

The Seton-La Salle and Toledo graduate has taken only 31 snaps and thrown 11 passes over the past 29 months and none last year. The 30-year-old has 19 career starts in eight seasons but none over the past three.

Even though he has a big advantage over Jones, Gradkowski could get competition during training camp.

Jones didn't dress for a game as a rookie, but he has the pedigree to be successful. Jones is the third-leading passer in FBS history at Oklahoma with 16,646 yards 123 touchdowns in a shotgun-based, quick-throw offense.

Charged with learning a new offense, new formations and having accuracy issues last year, Jones struggled.

“It's just a lot,” Jones said. “It's totally different. Speed is different. Defenses are different. It is just a lot thrown at you. This year, I am comfortable and just can react and throw it.”

Roethlisberger has noticed a difference in Jones.

“He seems more comfortable back there just making the reads and making the calls,” Roethlisberger said. “Even just his command in the huddle is so much better and more confident that he was just a year ago.”

Jones has taken his share of snaps during offseason practices with the second team that not only indicate he's getting better, but also that there could be a battle for the backup job at training camp.

“I expect us to compete, and I expect Landry to make great plays because that's what he is capable of doing,” Gradkowski said.

Jones downplayed a possible training camp showdown.

“I don't know. There's always a competition with those things, but I don't want to get into that. I will just let the coaches handle that,” Jones said. “Everybody wants to play on the first team, and everybody wants to start. For me right now, I don't know if that is realistic, so I have to take my opportunities when they come.”

Mark Kaboly is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @MarkKaboly_Trib.

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