PITTSBURGH — Landry Jones has the closer role down pat. The Pittsburgh Steelers backup quarterback has done the best work of his brief NFL career in relief, throwing a pair of touchdowns to spark a victory over Arizona last month and coming off the bench late Sunday to lead a game-winning drive in the final seconds against Oakland.
"I should sprint out there like John Rocker used to," Jones said, referring to the former MLB closer.
He'll likely get the luxury of trotting onto the field as the starter next weekend against Cleveland with Ben Roethlisberger almost certainly unavailable with a left foot injury. Jones is hoping for a better performance than the one he put together in a Week 7 loss to Kansas City, when he completed just 16 of 29 passes for 209 yards with a touchdown and two picks in his first start since his senior year at Oklahoma.
If it rattled Jones' confidence, it hardly showed when he was suddenly thrust into the game midway through the fourth quarter on Sunday after Roethlisberger hopped to the sideline with his left foot in serious pain after getting sacked by Oakland defensive end Aldon Smith. Jones connected on his first three passes and his final completion turned into a 57-yard catch-and-run by Antonio Brown that set up Chris Boswell's chip shot from 18 yards with 2 seconds left.
"We're going to play to win regardless of who is in there," Jones said.
Little wiggle room: The Steelers (5-4) have little wiggle room if they want to make any headway in the crowded AFC playoff picture. While the division title is almost certainly out of the question thanks to unbeaten Cincinnati, Pittsburgh still likes its chances even with an injury list that seems to grow by the week.
"We've got to rally around Landry," defensive end Cam Heyward said. "Landry's had a couple of starts and a couple of plays in. We expect there not to be a drop-off and we're praying for Ben to get back healthy."
The schedule at least offers the Steelers a bit of a break. Cleveland and its jumbled mess at quarterback visits Heinz Field on Sunday, a place the Browns haven't won since 2003. Pittsburgh then gets a needed week off before starting a six-game stretch to end the season that includes road trips to Seattle and Cincinnati.
"If we can run the table and do some things, I think we've got a shot," Jones said.
He has playmakers: It's unlikely the Steelers will need Jones to lead the offense long-term. He might not even have to do it against Cleveland, what with DeAngelo Williams running like a guy in his early 20s instead of his early 30s and Brown apparently well over a slump that coincided with Roethlisberger missing four games with a sprained left knee. The two combined for 531 of Pittsburgh's 597 yards against the Raiders. All Jones really has to do with Roethlisberger out is get his playmakers the ball and get out of the way.
Call it part of the growth process for a player who spent three summers as a third-stringer. The Steelers were so frustrated by Jones' lack of progress they signed Michael Vick off the street in late August as insurance after Bruce Gradkowski was lost for the season with a hand injury then promptly made Vick the primary backup behind Roethlisberger.
When Vick tweaked a hamstring against Arizona, Jones came in and was electric while rallying Pittsburgh to victory. He was just as ready when Roethlisberger went down late on Sunday.
"He came in with a positive attitude," Brown said. "I could tell that he was confident."
Big Ben impression: Something that hasn't changed even as Jones struggled to hold onto his roster spot. He has studied Roethlisberger closely over the years and while Jones lacks Roethlisberger's presence, he can do a pretty uncanny impression in a pinch. He takes his time at the line of scrimmage and is quick to audible if he doesn't like what he sees.
"He makes checks with (Brown)," Steelers safety Mike Mitchell said. "You're not making that check unless you're feeling pretty confident you're going to execute it."
Jones will have a full week to get ready for Cleveland. Of course, the Browns also have a week to prepare for him. The Chiefs didn't allow Jones to get comfortable, bringing pressure frequently and sacking him twice. It'll likely be the same on Sunday. Not that the Steelers are concerned.
"We take these reps in practice with Ben, we take these reps with Landry just in case," Williams said. "I think Landry is more than capable of doing the job."
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