When Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger suffered a MCL sprain and a bone bruise against the St. Louis Rams on Sept. 27, the original prognosis was the star quarterback would miss the next four-to-six weeks.
At the time, it seemed like good news for the Chiefs. It meant Roethlisberger would likely miss the game against the Chiefs. Four weeks later, with the game finally looming on Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium, Roethlisberger has not been ruled out. But if he doesn’t play, that doesn’t mean this game would be a gimme for the Chiefs.
And not just because the Chiefs are off to a surprising 1-5 start, either. If Roethlisberger, who has practiced on a limited basis the last two days, does not start, the Steelers will hand the reigns to third-year pro Landry Jones, who relieved No. 2 quarterback Michael Vick last Sunday and led Pittsburgh to a 25-13 win over a good Arizona Cardinals team.
Jones, a 2013 fourth-round pick out of Oklahoma who was making his first appearance in a regular-season game, entered in the third quarter with his team trailing 10-6 — Vick had left with a hamstring injury — and promptly led the Steelers on a scoring drive.
Jones finished the game 8 of 12 for 168 yards passing with two touchdowns and zero interceptions. Jones’ performance caught the eye of Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton, who will match wits with Pittsburgh offensive coordinator and former Chiefs head coach Todd Haley on Sunday.
“(Jones) rallied them and did a great job of executing the offense — it looks like pretty much they let it roll out for him,” said Sutton, whose pass defense ranks 25th in the NFL at 276 yards allowed per game.
“I think it speaks well for his ability to prepare, because that’s the challenge for any guy that’s a backup — and he was actually the third (quarterback). (He) obviously stayed very much involved mentally and emotionally as he was sitting in the background there.
“He’s got, obviously, some composure — the players responded well to him. He did a heck of a job in a very difficult situation.”
Perhaps in an effort to keep Jones from getting a big head, Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin was decidedly less full of praise when asked about Jones’ play.
“He made some nice plays, he’s a professional quarterback,” Tomlin said, when asked specifically about a nice back-shoulder throw Jones made to receiver Antonio Brown. “We’re not going to throw a pep rally or a party because of it. He did what was expected.”
And this, when asked whether he was okay with Jones changing the play with a signal: “The guy’s a professional quarterback — he’s logged more snaps than anybody in the history of preseason football,” Tomlin said. “My son’s J.V. quarterback does that.”
Jones had been passed over for the backup job by Vick, who was signed by the Steelers late in preseason camp. Perhaps Jones’ struggles in the preseason — when he completed only 54.2 percent of his passes with four touchdowns and two interceptions and was sacked nine times — had something to do with it.
But if Roethlisberger, and Vick, can’t go Jones is the guy. Tomlin said early in the week that the Steelers will plan “behind and around” Jones. Haley on Thursday told the media he will continue doing the same, unless told otherwise.
Scheme-wise, Sutton does not anticipate the Steelers changing their offense much for Jones.
“I think it’ll push back to where they were with Ben because, obviously, he’s been trained in the system, familiar with it,” Sutton said. “When Michael (Vick) came in so late, he’s trying to catch up without many reps, so that puts him in a difficult position. In turn, they adjust the offense to Michael and take advantage of some of Mike Vick’s strengths.
“We don’t know exactly how (Jones) is going to play, but we have a better feeling of how they may play, if that makes sense, structure-wise.”
But the specter of Roethlisberger looms large, even if the Steelers, 4-2, might rest him for another week with a big AFC North matchup coming up against the Cincinnati Bengals, 6-0. The Chiefs have to still be prepared for Roethlisberger, whose guts in the pocket and big-game experience (two Super Bowls wins) makes him one of the game’s elite triggermen.
“Ben can extend the play in a totally different way,” Sutton said. “He stands back there and — he’s done it for years — stands back there and moves around and lets people bounce off him, then he makes the throws. He’s got great vision. And the receivers know ‘Hey, if he’s back there long enough, we’re going to get open.'”
Tomlin said Roethlisberger will need to be cleared by the medical staff before he can play, and must also pass the eye test this week in practice.
“These last couple weeks he’s been looking really good,” Jones said of Roethlisberger. “I’m not really sure what the trainers or coaches are saying. To me, he looks good.”
But Jones, himself, will be ready to go if called upon. Sunday’s game would be Jones’ first NFL start, though he insists the moment won’t be too big for him.
“I’ve dealt with noisy environments at Oklahoma, played in some big games where I had to go to a silent snap count,” said Jones. “Not really a whole lot different.”