Young quarterback has small window of opportunity with Steelers


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Quarterback Landry Jones knows the Steelers offense better this spring, and he also knows the problem. His passes are not finding their mark.

It was an issue for him in his rookie preseason and remains one after five spring practices this year.

“Probably some accuracy issues,” Jones said as to what he needs to do better. “Just throwing in tighter windows, that’s one of the bigger things.”

At Oklahoma, he completed 66 percent of his passes as a senior.

“Yeah, but the windows were a lot bigger,” he noted. “Everything contracts; it’s a lot different here.”

That difference hit Jones like a piano last year. Selected in the fourth round, he became the Steelers’ highest-drafted quarterback since Ben Roethlisberger in 2004. Some boldly suggested he ultimately could succeed Roethlisberger. The Steelers insisted they merely wanted to add a young quarterback to their mix.

At 25, he is young enough. He also is waiting to unfurl his first real pass in the NFL. He did not dress for a game as a rookie, and his professional statistics all came in the preseason when he completed 30 of 66 passes (45.5 percent) for 348 yards, two touchdowns, three interceptions and a 53.1 passer rating.

He experienced some kind of adjustment as a rookie. The previous time he went a full season without playing in a real game, he was redshirted as a freshman at Oklahoma in 2008. He would go on to start at quarterback over the next four seasons, succeeding an injured Sam Bradford in 2009 and setting many Sooners passing records.

“It was difficult at first, not playing and wanting to play after doing some stuff and playing so much,” Jones said after another spring practice. “After that, you just kind of get used to it and you try to help out the team the best you can.”

Even then, it was tough because veteran backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski often led the scout team against the Steelers’ first-team defense in practice.

That wasn’t the only change.

At Oklahoma, Jones ran the spread offense, taking snaps almost exclusively in the shotgun or more abbreviated pistol formation, rarely under center. He would take that snap and quickly throw a pass, oftentimes to a predetermined receiver on a predetermined route.

Not much is predetermined in the NFL. Taking a snap under center, then going through various progressions and reads was an entirely new experience.

“It’s one of those things, you come in as a rookie and everything is moving so fast and you’re not used to the protections, you’re not used to playing under center and all that,” Jones said. “It’s just a whole different game from college.”

At least, he said, he is more comfortable in the offense this spring, taking those short snaps and making those reads. But he has a long way to go. Although Gradkowski also did not play a snap at quarterback last season because Roethlisberger was on the field for every offensive play, there is no reason to believe he will lose the No. 2 job this year to Jones.

If that form holds, Jones will be 26 this time next year and still without a regular-season statistic.

“I don’t really know,” he said of his prospects to climb up the depth chart. “I don’t try to get into all the politics of that or challenging for No. 2 or anything like that. I’m just going to try to come out here and get better and where the chips fall, they fall.”

The Steelers drafted two other quarterbacks since Roethlisberger became their starter, both in the fifth round, Omar Jacobs in 2006 and Dennis Dixon in 2008. Neither worked out, and they went for years with Charlie Batch as a backup and added another veteran in Byron Leftwich.

Jones represented something different. Sixth-rounders Tom Brady and Matt Hasselbeck aside, no quarterback chosen in the fourth round or later has become a regular starter over time in the NFL in the past 15 years.

Gradkowski was a sixth-round pick. He is with his fifth team and, basically, had one year as a starter, as a rookie in Tampa Bay.

The Steelers have had quarterbacks drafted later than the first round go on to have some success. Bubby Brister, picked in the third round in 1986, played seven seasons with the Steelers, 3½ as their starter. He played 14 seasons in the NFL and earned two Super Bowl rings in Denver. Neil O’Donnell, drafted in the third in 1990, started 4½ of his six seasons with the Steelers and helped lead them into Super Bowl XXX. He, too, played 14 years in the NFL. Kordell Stewart, drafted in the second round, in 1995, started five of his eight seasons with the Steelers and played 11 seasons in the NFL.

And like Jones, O’Donnell did not play a snap his rookie season. Unlike Jones, none of the three played behind an accomplished quarterback such as Roethlisberger.

Jones worked out this year for about 10 days with Chicago Bears backup quarterback Jordan Palmer, the younger brother of Chris Palmer who coaches quarterbacks for the EXOS draft training center in California. Blake Bortles, drafted third overall by Jacksonville last month, also was on hand, learning from Palmer.

“I just wanted to go out there and work on general stuff and get better,” Jones said. “We worked on the field and then hopped on the board and talked about some things.”

He continues that work on the South Side fields, where the passing-lane windows and opportunities might be tight but at least are not closed.

Quick hits

Roethlisberger returned to practice after missing Tuesday to attend to a family matter. … The Steelers signed undrafted rookie wide receiver C.J. Goodwin of California University of Pa., and released wide receiver Jasper Collins.


Ed Bouchette: ebouchette@post-gazette.com and Twitter @EdBouchette.

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