Undrafted free-agent linebacker Howard Jones showed a nose for the ball, a nose for the goal line and an ability to make impact plays on special teams in the preseason opener Saturday night against the New York Giants. That’s a good first step for a rookie trying to unseat a veteran to get on the 53-man roster.
Jones scored the Steelers’ only touchdown on a 28-yard fumble return in the fourth quarter. He recovered another fumble on a punt in the third quarter and made the first tackle of the game on the opening kickoff.
“It was pretty good, pretty new,” Jones said of his first NFL game. “It was surprising.”
Jones was a little-known prospect from Division II Shepherd University when the Steelers made him one of their priority free-agent signings immediately after the draft in May. Jones, who played defensive line in college, is making the transition to outside linebacker this summer.
At 6 feet 4 and 238 pounds, the rookie players call “HoJo” has the prototypical body type of a 3-4 outside linebacker, though he admittedly has to add a few more pounds to his frame.
“I feel like I learned a lot and still have a lot more to learn,” Jones said. “As far as adjustments, the speed of the game is very fast and you have to learn very fast.”
Jones likely has to beat out veteran Chris Carter to make the 53-man roster. There is a chance he could clear waivers and be placed on the practice squad, but the Steelers were not the only team that wanted to sign Jones after the draft. Others had the same idea and might claim him if he is cut.
Jones not only has to make the transition from defensive line to linebacker in his first professional season, but he also has to learn how to play special teams. Shepherd coaches did not ask him to play on those units in his four seasons of college.
Jones knows he must pick it up fast to make the team.
“Special teams are definitely different, but I’m definitely capable and willing to do it, so it’s not that big of a deal,” he said.
Good first impression
Another rookie who made a favorable first impression against the Giants was sixth-round draft choice Jordan Zumwalt. It’s a good thing, too, because Zumwalt didn’t have many chances to open eyes the first two weeks of camp; he missed most of the practices with a groin injury.
Zumwalt didn’t show much rust. He played mostly in the fourth quarter and made six tackles in 25 defensive snaps.
“It was so exciting and exhilarating,” said Zumwalt, who played at UCLA. “It’s what you think it would have been like. It was my first opportunity. Regardless of having been in or out, being able to play my first NFL game was exceptional.”
Zumwalt knows he must stay healthy and produce in games if he wants to make the 53-man roster. The Steelers have depth at inside linebacker with Sean Spence, Vince Williams and Terence Garvin serving as reserves behind Lawrence Timmons and Ryan Shazier.
One thing that could work in Zumwalt’s favor is his ability to play outside linebacker and special teams, although he did not see any time on the latter against the Giants.
“I have to take advantage of every opportunity I get,” Zumwalt said. “Having opportunities taken away was really frustrating. Moving forward, I need to take advantage of every opportunity.”
Spence ‘at peace’
Spence played it low-key late last week as his first game in nearly two years approached. But afterward, he admitted he had to work through some emotions leading up to the game.
Spence, attempting to come back from a major knee injury, played for the first time since the fourth preseason game of 2012.
“Once I got out there, I felt at peace, at home,” he said.
Spence started in place of Shazier, who did not play because of a knee injury. He was credited with three tackles. “I think I did OK,” he said. “But I think I can still get better.”
Shazier returned to practice Monday in a limited capacity. … Nose tackle Steve McLendon and receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey, who dealt with concussions last week and missed the game, returned to practice, as well. … The Steelers did not sustain any significant injuries coming out of the game. Safety Mike Mitchell and tight end Matt Spaeth sat out practice Monday with what coach Mike Tomlin called “bumps and bruises.” … Tight end Michael Palmer (ankle) and receiver Justin Brown (thumb) also missed practice and are being monitored by the training staff. … Running back Jawan Jamison was released.
Ray Fittipaldo: email@example.com and Twitter @rayfitt1.