We know that since the Pittsburgh Steelers have safely secured the AFC North Division Championship and the conference’s no. 3 seed with a 10-5 record, this regular season’s finale against the Cleveland Browns will be entrusted to backup quarterback Landry Jones in effort to let Ben Roethlisberger rest up for the playoffs. We also know Jones’ contract with the Steelers expires after this season, very well meaning it could be his last start in Pittsburgh.
With that said, Jones isn’t expected to merely babysit the remaining players who will be called into duty to replace the other resting starters Sunday. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley still has high expectations for Jones’ performance.
“I’m looking at it as he’s got to get us a W,” Haley told Bob Labriola earlier in the week on Steelers Nation Radio. “We’ve been on a nice roll here. We break it down in quarters, we got a chance to finish 4-0 in this quarter and that’s a big goal and one that we want to accomplish. So, Landry’s in there to win.”
The irony of Jones’ 1-2 record as a starting quarterback is that his lone victory came in a game where he played only the first two series before leaving with an injury and giving way to then-emergency quarterback Roethlisberger, who threw for 379 yards and three touchdowns in a 30-9 victory against the Browns last November. But this time, Jones gets another chance to start and finish the job.
Jones’ two most memorable performances as a Steeler both came at Heinz Field, which shouldn’t come as a surprise given his track record at home is noticeably better than on the road. He has completed 44 of 69 passes (63.77 percent) for 551 yards and three touchdowns with only one interception at home, good enough for a passer rating of 97. Among that collection of numbers is October 18 of last season, where he threw for 168 yards and two touchdowns in relief of Mike Vick in a 25-13 win against the Arizona Cardinals.
Three weeks later, Jones replaced an injured Roethlisberger and completed, arguably, the most critical pass of his pro career: a 57-yard catch-and-run by Antonio Brown on a short slant route that put the Steelers in field goal position to set up Chris Boswell’s 18-yard, game-winning field goal to beat the Oakland Raiders and keep the Steelers in playoff contention.
Earlier this season, Jones gave a mixed bag performance in a start against the New England Patriots, leading the Steelers to four scoring drives (one touchdown, three field goals) and a potential fifth (missed field goal) between the second and third quarters. But it was the first three possessions of the game (three-and-out, interception, three-and-out) and the last four (three-and-out, missed field goal, three-and-out, turnover on downs) that were ultimately his undoing.
During this red zone interception against the Patriots, Jones does almost everything right. He identifies man-to-man coverage after Jesse James pinches against the formation in motion, leaving Brown one-on-one with Malcolm Butler on the outside. Jones gets to his proper depth and gets the ball out of his hands before the pass rush gets to him, but he doesn’t get enough on the ball and Butler gets position underneath it for an easy interception. Instead of the Steelers drawing first blood, New England went on to score touchdowns on their next two possessions, creating a 21-point swing that the Steelers never recovered from despite coming close multiple chances in the second half.
On the Steelers’ first drive of the second quarter, Jones does everything right this time: he reads the Patriots’ man coverage again when Brown comes across in motion. He also exploits the single high safety coverage when Devin McCourty doubles down on Brown on the short out route, leaving Darrius Heyward-Bey in single coverage against Eric Rowe. Jones sees Heyward-Bey gain separation on the flag route and finds him in the end zone for a touchdown pass that brought the Steelers within a touchdown.
On the very next drive after a three-and-out by New England, Jones is in another 3rd and short situation in the red zone, but once again does everything right: Butler follows Brown in motion, indicating man coverage. McCourty, the single high safety, double-teams Brown again. Using double crossing routes by Heyward-Bey and Jesse James, Jones sees Heyward-Bey open underneath and hits him in stride, allowing Heyward-Bey to get the remaining yards after the catch and into the end zone. But the play was nullified by a holding penalty on Chris Hubbard, and Boswell eventually missed a 42-yard field goal attempt, rendering the entire drive fruitless instead of tying the game before halftime.
If this is indeed Jones’ last chance to play in a Steelers uniform, it has the potential to be a well-written final opus, if only because of his growth within Haley’s offense and an ability to recognize what to do when given the opportunity. But it will be up to him to make the best of it.