Gradkowski, Jones struggling to fill backup QB duties for Steelers
It's as difficult to measure a backup quarterback during practice as it is to judge a book by its cover. Yet, Ben Roethlisberger's backups have been an easy read after the Steelers' first two preseason games.
Incumbent second-stringer Bruce Gradkowski and second-year quarterback Landry Jones haven't distinguished themselves during the preseason. And both acknowledged there's room for improvement after the Steelers' 19-16 win over the Buffalo Bills on Saturday night.
Gradkowski, a veteran journeyman, began training camp as the No. 2 behind Roethlisberger. Again, he likely will begin the season opener against the Cleveland Browns ahead of Jones on the depth chart.
Jones failed to push Gradkowski after coach Mike Tomlin let him work with the first-team offense at Heinz Field. Jones delivered an uninspiring audition that might have left him bound for the practice squad.
“I definitely took a step backwards,” Jones said. “I wanted to play much better. I wanted to put my best foot forward and play the way I'm capable of playing. I thought I had a pretty good camp, but I've got a long ways to go.
“My emotions are all over the place right now. I'm anxious to see what the film looks like.”
It isn't likely to look any better on tape. It wasn't just the numbers — 2 of 5 attempts for 53 yards — that disappointed. It was Jones' indecisiveness, which caused him to toss an interception and fumble when sacked.
As he often has done in training camp, Jones held onto the ball too long. He was sacked at the Bills 27-yard-line. Landon Cohen recovered his fumble and returned it 59 yards to the Steelers 16 to set up Anthony Dixon's touchdown run that tied the score 13-13 in the third quarter.
“On the fumble, I held the ball too long,” Jones said. “I had Dri (Archer) on a wheel route, and I should have just laid it up to him. Instead, I missed my second read and didn't take advantage of the best matchup.
“It was probably one of the worst games I've played since I've been here, for sure. It's frustrating, but regardless of how bad I played, we were out to win.”
Gradkowski was marginally better, completing 7 of 13 passes for 47 yards. He was decisive but often inaccurate on short third-down throws. He was in position to engineer a game-winning drive late in the fourth quarter, but he was intercepted with 43 seconds remaining.
“No question, the preseason is for us to grow together and learn,” Gradkowski said. “We have to make more plays out there — no question about it.”
Questions remain about how effective Roethlisberger's backups can be in the event the franchise quarterback goes down in the regular season. If the preseason is a barometer, the Steelers should be concerned.
“There's no doubt in my mind that if I have to step in there I can get the job done,” said Gradkowski, who had a team-high 17 yards rushing on three carries. “But we have to continue to get better. Ben is a special player, so we have to step our game up.
“Collectively, we're getting better. Ben was used to Charlie (Batch) and Byron (Leftwich) for a while, so we have to gain Ben's confidence.”
Ralph N. Paulk is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.