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Steelers Film Room: Landry Jones’ improvement is now tangible and exciting

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Landry Jones has spent the last four years backing up quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, often to the chagrin of a large portion of the fanbase. After his performance against the Cleveland Browns in week 17, however, it’s safe to say he’s starting to look like he might be a solid NFL quarterback after all.

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

Maybe it was the realization that Ben Roethlisberger’s days as the Pittsburgh Steelers’ quarterback are numbered.

Maybe it was the presence of Joshua Dobbs, a rookie and another fourth-round pick with brains to spare and all the necessary physical tools to excel in the NFL.

Maybe it was simply the natural maturation process of a quarterback cursed by a bad collegiate system and constant coaching changes before going pro.

Whatever the case, something was on full display from Steelers’ backup quarterback Landry Jones on Sunday that we’ve seen changing incrementally in the past, but improved by leaps and bounds this time around. Okay, two things: poise and accuracy.

Jones, starting as the Steelers rested their top stars in anticipation of the upcoming playoffs — and despite a first-round bye — looked every bit the part of the qualityt NFL quarterback against the Cleveland Browns. Yes, a certain amount of his performance must be taken with a grain of salt, considering the Browns are no better than the third-best football team in the state of Ohio, behind the Cincinnati Bengals and the Ohio State University Buckeyes. Still, they are capable of getting after the quarterback, but they were never able to fluster a quarterback who has a previously well-earned reputation for being more skittish than a deer on the first day of hunting season when he’s faced pressure from opposing defenses.

Sunday afternoon, Jones was the one doing the sniping.

In this film session, I’m going to take a break from my normal format. Rather than look at a single play in-depth, we’re going to take a look at three throws that exemplified the way Jones played in his 23-of-28, one-touchdown, one-interception performance.

And to be clear, even the interception was more the result of a well-disguised defense than it was a poor throw by Jones.

Play One: 1st Quarter, 14:49 Remaining, 2nd & 10, PIT 28

Landry Jones accurately hits Rosie Nix on a 5-yard out route

Jones makes an exceedingly difficult throw here because of a few factors:

  • The size of the window into which he throws
  • He’s on the run
  • He has a defender in his face
  • The receiver is running away from him

You often hear a lot about quarterbacks who can “make all the throws”. One of the hardest throws is the out-route to the quarterback’s throwing side. His hips are naturally open to the play, which makes it difficult to step into the throw and get the proper torque to zip the ball in without a defender having time to adjust and make a play.

In this case, it’s a fullback swing route, it’s exacerbated by Jones being on the run. Simply put, this is a hard throw to make. Jones, however, not only threads the ball into a tight window between fullback Roosevelt Nix and the defender, he also still manages to put the ball in front of Nix such that Nix doesn’t have to break his stride. The difference was turning a one-yard gain into a five-yard gain. That was important, because of the throw Jones had to make on the very next play, which we will look at next.

One final note on this throw is the force with which Jones throws. In the past, he has looked hesitant with his throws, which results in balls that float in. This was thrown with authority, and the result was a throw that even Roethlisberger couldn’t have placed any better.

Play Two: 1st Quarter, 14:07 Remaining, 3rd & 5, PIT 33

Fitz Toussaint pulls in a well-placed pass from Landry Jones

This play was impressive for similar reasons, not the least of which was the difficulty. The play is a swing pass to the opposite side of the field from the previous throw. The difficulty of this one is raised considerably by the pressure coming from Jones’ right, and demonstrates another aspect of his maturity: poise in the pocket.

In the past, this pressure would have often caused Jones to pull the ball down and retreat away. In this case, he actually had running room to do just that, and might have gotten a yard or two. With luck, he could have even run for a first down, though the spying middle linebacker would have likely prevented it. Instead, Jones does what a quarterback is supposed to do in this situation: he simply steps up intop the pocket, looks to immediately to his “safety valve”, and delivers an on-target throw.

But what makes this one exceptional is that he does it without even having the chance to set his feet fully in the direction of the receiver, running back Fitzgerald Toussaint. Quarterbacks throwing across their bodies often result in badly placed throws, and can end up lofting like a wounded duck. In this case, though, Jones uses his hips well to create torque despite less-than-optimal foot placement. The result is a throw that leads Toussaint, and is just out of reach of the defender. Again, there isn’t a quarterback in the NFL who could have placed the ball any better in this particular situation. That’s high praise for a guy who has been called a bust by many since his first pre-season appearance four years ago.

Play Three: 3rd Quarter, 1:26 Remaining, 3rd & 4, PIT 29

Jones’ deep ball to Martavis Bryant is perfectly place to hit the WR in stride
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One of the biggest knocks on Jones’ game so far in his career has been his downfield throws. His accuracy had always been an issue, but he had been able to survive when needed on shorter throws. This throw to Martavis Bryant, though, was one of the best I’ve ever seen him make.

There are a few things to note here. First, just like with the other two plays we’ve looked at this, this ball is in perfect position, allowing Bryant to catch it in stride. Second, he throws it while the single high safety is still far enough away that he isn’t going to be able to knock the ball loose before Bryant secures it. This gives Bryant the confidence to continue across the middle to complete the catch, rather than pulling up short.

If there is anything wrong with this play, I’d say the fault actually lies with Bryant. You can’t see it well from the end-zone angle, but from the All-22 view, it’s obvious that, if Bryant had run the post route on a deeper angle, he would have been able to turn upfield and split the defenders, possibly changing this from a 17-yard gain to a 71-yard touchdown. But that’s all hindsight, and there really isn’t any reason to fault Bryant for his route. It is nitpicking at best, and attempting to rewrite history at worst.

Jones will continue to have his detractors, and he’s still no franchise quarterback. But, with Roethlisberger’s retirement likely to come sometime in the next two to 36 months, Jones has to at least be considered a solid stop-gap if there is not yet a new quarterback on the roster to be groomed for the starter role.

Against the Browns, he proved he has earned at least that much.