Steelers notebook: Rookie linebacker Jones displays big-play capability
Howard Jones — many probably didn't know the name until Saturday night — passed his first NFL test by recovering two fumbles and returning one for a 28-yard touchdown when everyone else had given up on the play.
Jones, an undrafted rookie free agent linebacker from Shepherd who earned an invite to the NFL Combine last winter, pushed his way into the 53-man roster competition by making the kind of plays the Steelers lacked so often in 2012 and 2013 — takeaways.
Jones, 24, is relatively old for a rookie because he didn't qualify academically to play at Virginia or Virginia Tech coming out of high school in Woodbridge, Va.
He ended up at Shepherd, where he was a finalist for Division II Defensive Player of the Year. He was expected to go in the late rounds of the draft, but he was not selected.
As soon as Le'Veon Bell had gains of 9 and 8 yards on the Steelers' first drive, LeGarrette Blount replaced him. Is this how the Steelers might use the power-running Blount — to supplement Bell during a drive, rather than playing him every third series or so?
“I don't necessarily know how they're going to (split up playing time), but it will be something of that nature, I'm assuming,” Blount said. “Ain't nobody going to sign me to sit me.”
The Steelers signed Blount to a $3.9 million, two-year deal after never finding an effective backup to Bell last season or an effective running game at all in 2012.
McCullers makes mark
It's hard to miss Steelers rookie nose tackle Daniel McCullers, who is 6-foot-7 and nearly 360 pounds. It also was hard to miss how much he played in his first preseason game. He estimated it was more than 20 plays.
Some players believe the Steelers badly missed Casey Hampton's size and strength in the middle last season. Despite being a sixth-round pick, McCullers is an intriguing prospect.
“It was my first NFL game, and it was a great experience,” McCullers said. “I thought we did good overall, myself included. … I'm going to continue to work and get into great condition.”
The Steelers are 0-5 in the preseason since 2012. Maybe the games don't count, but some players said last year the winless preseason might inadvertently have carried over into the 0-4 start of the season.
Mike Tomlin won't change how he manages his players in exhibition games just to get a victory. But he said the Steelers do care about winning in August.
“I'm less concerned about style points and more concerned about the bottom line,” he said. “My emphasis in that regard was geared toward winning.”
The Steelers went 4-1 in Tomlin's first preseason with the team (2007). They went 3-1 each of next five preseasons before going 0-4 in 2013.
The Steelers offense lacked precision. Ben Roethlisberger, in only one series, Bruce Gradkowski and Landry Jones all failed to produce a touchdown on offense. The Steelers were 2 for 14 on third down.
Another big play
Maybe the Steelers should keep repeating, “It was only a preseason game.”
But Rashad Jennings' 73-yard touchdown run through the middle of the Steelers' defense was a flashback to 2013, when the Steelers allowed 11 plays of 50 yards or more.
“We're going to have runs that break out every now and then,” Tomlin said. “We have to get it on the ground in the secondary. Sometimes those things break free, but they've got to be 8-, 10-, 12-yard runs, not (73-yard) runs. … When these things do occur, we (need) to do a good job trying to minimize the explosion play.”
Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @arobinson_Trib.
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