Undrafted Steelers LB Jones makes a splash
LATROBE, Pa. – Howard Jones realizes if he wants a roster spot with the Pittsburgh Steelers, it will have to come through his special teams work.
Consider the undrafted rookie linebacker’s pursuit of a spot on the 53-man roster off to a rousing start.
Jones provided a pair of attention-grabbing highlights during Pittsburgh’s 20-16 loss to the New York Giants in Saturday’s preseason opener, recovering a pair of fumbles and scoring a touchdown.
“I feel like I learned a lot and still have a lot more to learn,” Jones said. “Just the speed of the game, I have to be very fast and I have to be able to learn very fast. The intensity of every single play has to be your best every single play. No plays off.”
Jones was alert early in the fourth quarter, scooping up a fumble caused when linebacker Vic So’oto broke up an attempted lateral and returning it 28 yards for the Steelers’ only touchdown of the game, giving them a 16-13 lead.
“We were all kind of looking, like ‘should we pick it up or is it a dead ball,” Jones said. “Somebody started yelling ‘pick it up and run,’ so I picked it up and ran with it.”
Earlier in the game, New York’s Charles James muffed a punt and Jones used his quickness to outrun linebacker Terrell Manning to the ball. The good field position led to Shaun Suisham’s 38-yard field goal.
“I just saw the ball go down the field,” Jones said. “(Manning) was to my right and I pushed him and fell on top of it.”
It was a big moment for the linebacker from Shepherd University, a small Division II college in West Virginia’s eastern panhandle. Jones, a finalist for the small college defensive player of the year award, finished as the school’s career leader in sacks (35) and tackles for loss (69.5), while recording 139 tackles, including 106 solo.
The 6-foot-4, 238-pound Jones played defensive line before transitioning to linebacker. Jones jumped on the radar as a mid-to-late-round draft pick thanks to a freakish workout at the NFL scouting combine, finishing with the best vertical jump (40.5), second-best broad jump (10-4) and third-fastest 40-yard dash time (4.60) among defensive linemen.
“I was training in Florida and they pushed us hard every day,” Jones said. “When I got (to the combine), it was time to put everything out there.”
Jones went undrafted, but was happy to sign with the Steelers, given their history of developing top pass rushers. Linebackers coach Keith Butler said Jones still has work to do.
“He’s raw, very, very raw,” Butler said. “He’s always played a defensive line position, he’s never had to play linebacker, so everything linebackers do in terms of the passing game, he has to learn from scratch, and in this defense it takes a while. It will be a big challenge because all he’s ever done has been going forward.”
Jones never played special teams at Shepherd, but he caught on pretty quick with the Steelers, making the first tackle of Saturday’s game on the opening kickoff.
“It’s pretty different, but I learned a lot from coach (Danny Smith),” Jones said. “I definitely want to show what I can do on special teams.”
That’s where the Steelers initially look for Jones to contribute the most. He’s done his part so far, nearly helping the Steelers to a win in their first preseason game.
“He’s got a lot of good things you can’t teach,” Butler said. “He runs good, he’s big and he’s got good size. But in order for him to get a place on the team, he’s going to have to play special teams.”
Backup linebackers, if they’re not good special teams players, they’re not long for this league, so he’s going to have to do that if he wants to stick around.”
NOTES: Steelers’ first-round pick LB Ryan Shazier (knee), and WR Justin Brown (thumb) worked in a limited capacity on Monday. TE Michael Palmer has an ankle injury, while TE Matt Spaeth and S Mike Mitchell missed with “minor bumps and bruises.” The Steelers host Buffalo for joint practices on Wednesday and Thursday.