A Pittsburgh passing offense that went from boom to bust may be back on track this weekend – and the Steelers may not even have their top quarterback on the field yet.
With Ben Roethlisberger still on the mend, the Steelers are preparing for Sunday’s matchup against the Kansas City Chiefs with third-stringer Landry Jones under center.
Jones relieved injured backup Mike Vick last week and led the Steelers (4-2) to a 25-13 win over Arizona, igniting what had been a stagnant offense since Roethlisberger sprained the medial collateral ligament in his left knee Sept. 27.
Roethlisberger is a possibility, however, after he was upgraded to questionable on Friday’s injury report and was a limited participant in practice for a third straight day.
Through the first two weeks, Pittsburgh ranked first in total yards per game (458.5), second in passing yards (349.5) and third in points (32.0). Since Week 3, however – when Vick stepped in for Roethlisberger – the Steelers rank toward the bottom of the NFL in total yards (295.3) and passing yards (164.0) and have averaged 20.3 points.
With Jones in as Vick nursed a strained right hamstring, and with the return of Martavis Bryant, the Steelers showed glimpses of where they started the season. Coach Mike Tomlin said his team will continue on that track against the Chiefs, who rank 22nd in the league with 372.8 total yards allowed per game.
"I think it’s prudent and appropriate right now to operate under the assumption that Landry is our quarterback this week," Tomlin said. "He is the guy that’s healthy."
Jones completed 8 of 12 passes for 168 yards and two touchdowns against the Cardinals, leading the Steelers back from a 10-6 hole in the third quarter. His favorite target was another player who hadn’t taken a snap in Pittsburgh’s first five games.
Bryant was suspended for four games for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy and also sat out a 24-20 victory over San Diego on Oct. 12 with a knee injury.
The second-year wideout started slow with Vick under center against Arizona but broke out with Jones. Bryant caught two passes for eight yards through seven series with Vick but caught four for 129 yards and two TDs through four with Jones. The big connection between the two was an 88-yard fourth-quarter touchdown that sealed the win.
Antonio Brown was second to only Atlanta’s Julio Jones with 436 receiving yards through the season’s first three weeks, but he has just 11 receptions for 111 yards without a touchdown in the last three.
Brown voiced his displeasure with his lack of targets since Roethlisberger’s injury, dropping from 35 in the first three games to 23 since. A switch to Jones, though, could do him some good as the Steelers may move to a more downfield attack.
"It’s not what you know, it’s about what you’re capable of executing," Tomlin said. "Knowledge as a third quarterback with a clipboard, or in a classroom setting is one thing, and playing in a hostile situation is another. I give him credit for rising up."
Going the other way are the Chiefs, who have dropped five straight after last week’s 16-10 loss to Minnesota. It’s the first time in 17 years an Andy Reid-coached team has started with one win through six games.
"Well, we’re sitting here and we’re 1-5. That’s real. And we’re not playing very well as a football team," Reid said. "As a coach, you’re a problem solver, and I have to solve the problems and get that done quick here."
Injuries, though, are tough to fix. The Chiefs lost Pro Bowl running back Jamaal Charles for the season to a torn ACL during an 18-17 loss to Chicago on Oct. 11. They were held to season lows in rushing yards (57) and points against the Vikings.
Free agent prize Jeremy Maclin and defensive tackle Mike DeVito are working through the NFL’s concussion protocol – Maclin passed his test Friday and should be able to play – but the Chiefs won’t use a hampered roster as an out.
"This building all has that attitude that we’re all accountable for this, that we’ve all had a hand in it," said quarterback Alex Smith, who heads the NFL’s 19th-ranked passing offense at 240.0 yards per game. "But collectively, that’s how we’re all going to get out of it."
Three of Kansas City’s losses have come by seven points or less and another by 10.
"Things are close, one play here or there that matters," Reid said. "That’s really where we have to focus… It’s a very fine line between winning and losing in this league."