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Making a case for Howard Jones

Ray Fittipaldo 10 months ago

Howard Jones was a long shot to make the Steelers 53-man roster when training camp started three weeks ago. He was an undrafted free agent. He played at Division II Shepherd College and he was transitioning from defensive line to outside linebacker.

It was a lot to overcome and maybe it still is, but Jones at least is making the coaching staff struggle with the decision.

In two preseason games, Jones, who stands 6 feet 4 and weighs 238 pounds, has three fumble recoveries, three tackles and a touchdown. He came within one yard of another touchdown Saturday night against the Bills. His fumble recovery with less than a minute remaining against the Bills set up the winning field goal.

Jones is raw, but he has football instincts. After he picked up the fumble against Buffalo and fell down he knew he was not touched down by a Bill. And when he fumbled after getting back up he had the wherewithal to recover his own fumble and stretch for the goal line before being tackled at the 1.

His natural ball skills have impressed his teammates.

“We were just joking about it earlier,” fellow outside linebacker Arthur Moats told me after the game. “Anytime the ball is out he’s getting it. He’s trying to go to the crib. That’s what you want to see. Hopefully, he keeps it up.”

I asked Jones how a former college defensive lineman can look so natural with the ball in his hands. He told me he was a receiver in high school and for two weeks in college before the coaches at Shepherd moved him to defensive line.

Now he is making the move to another position where once again his athletic skills must be on display.

“It’s definitely been a tough transition for him, but we’ve been helping him out a lot,” Moats said. “You can tell the work he’s been putting in, as far when he’s home by himself studying and stuff. Overall, he’s doing really well.”

Well enough to make the team? Well, that’s going to be decided in the next two weeks. The Steelers are set with starters Jarvis Jones, Jason Worilds and Moats as the top reserve. The fourth outside linebacker spot is up for grabs.

The coaches gave fourth-year pro Chris Carter an opportunity to start against the Bills when Jones sat out with an injury. He lost contain on a pass play on the first series and the coaches replaced him with Moats for the remainder of the time the starters spent in the game.

Carter is entering the final year of his contract and the Steelers do not have plans to re-sign him. He has experience, but he doesn’t play unless there are injuries to players in front of him on the depth chart.

Last season, for example, Carter played 85 snaps all season and all but two of them came in the final two weeks of the season. He started in place of Jones against the Packers when Jones was sick and he played 25 snaps against the Browns in the season finale when Worilds missed with an abdominal injury. Before that he never saw the field save for two plays.

Carter plays on special teams, but he has never really been an impact player on those units.

Vic So’oto is competing for that fourth spot, too. He has outperformed Jones as an outside linebacker, but there are a couple of things working against him. He is 28. And in three NFL seasons he has played for five teams and has been someone who has split time between active rosters and practice squads.

In a best-case scenario the fourth outside linebacker doesn’t play very much in the regular defense and contributes on special teams. Jones never played on special teams in college, but he had another tackle as a member of the kickoff return unit Saturday night.

That’s how Terence Garvin made the team last season. Garvin was even more of a long shot than Jones in some ways. A safety at West Virginia, Garvin was invited to the Steelers rookie minicamp and was asked to play linebacker. He was impressive enough to earn an invitation to OTAs, minicamp and training camp. He became a good special teams player and the coaches kept him. He played a total of 33 snaps on defense as a rookie last year, all in the final eight weeks of the season.

Jones might be able to perform a similar role this season. And with Jones, there is the added benefit that his raw skills and athleticism will someday allow him to assume a starting position.

That can still happen if Jones does not make the 53-man roster. He could clear waivers and get signed to the practice squad. But do the Steelers, who are facing an uncertain future at outside linebacker because of Worilds’ status, want to take the risk of exposing Jones to other teams?

When it comes down to it that might be the team’s toughest decision on cut-down day.