Much of the story exiting the Pittsburgh Steelers‘ 19-16 win over the Buffalo Bills in their second preseason game Saturday night was how good the first-team offense looked, especially the passing game. The highlight was Antonio Brown‘s 76-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown. But beyond Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers’ aerial attack wasn’t much to look at, and there has to be concern heading into the season over what happens if Roethlisberger gets hurt at any point and has to miss games.
This concern is because neither veteran Bruce Gradkowski nor recent draft pick Landry Jones have shown the ability to be the guy who can capably step in should Roethlisberger get injured. And given the number of hits and sacks that Roethlisberger tends to take, such an absence, even if it’s only for one game, is a legitimate concern for Pittsburgh in 2014. The team has gone 8-8 the last two seasons and missed the playoffs in 2013 by the narrowest of margins. One bad game quarterbacked by Jones or Gradkowski could be enough to leave the Steelers on the outside looking in at the NFL‘s postseason for the third year in a row.
In past years, veterans such as Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch could be counted on to at least not lose a game if needed. The Steelers don’t have a quarterback who inspires that confidence on this roster for the No. 2 position. Both Gradk0wski and Jones threw interceptions last night, though, the latter’s came on a tipped pass late. Jones was also sacked twice. The duo combined to go 9-for-18 for 100 yards, Jones lost a fumble and the combined passer rating of the two was a paltry 27.1. That won’t be enough to win in the NFL, or most other leagues.
Jones is the bigger disappointment of the two, having been drafted in the fourth round of the 2013 NFL Draft as a possible long-term successor to Roethlisberger or at the very least, a reliable backup. He’s a rather pedestrian 13-for-26 for 127 yards this preseason, working against mostly backups on defense. He has turned the ball over twice, been sacked three times and hasn’t shown the kind of pocket presence yet to indicate he would be a good fit for Pittsburgh’s long-term quarterback plans.
Gradkowski, a Pittsburgh native, is 15-for-27 for 113 yards so far this preseason, and beyond the tipped pass that was picked last night, he hasn’t turned the ball over, has only been sacked once and is more mobile than the younger Jones. He does have 36 NFL starts are under his belt, but relying on him to lead the team if Roethlisberger goes down is an iffy proposition at best.
The Steelers have to figure out who their reliable backup is going to be in order to be successful this season because past history suggests Pittsburgh will need him at some point.