HoJo Running With Opportunities

Howard Jones (Bridge/Getty Images)

For the second week in a row, undrafted rookie linebacker Howard Jones made the big play for the Steelers in the fourth quarter.

Always lost in the preseason hype machine are the guys who actually win games at the time when games are usually won -- in the fourth quarter.

Take Howard Jones, for example.

For the second straight game, the undrafted rookie linebacker picked up a fumble and ran a long way with it. In the first game he ran all the way to the end zone to give the Steelers a lead early in the fourth quarter. On Saturday night he ran to the one-yard line with 15 seconds left to give the Steelers their first preseason win in almost two years.

It didn't matter that Jones, or "HoJo," as he's called, was tackled short of the end zone this time. His quarterback moved the ball into the middle of the field on the next snap, and on the following snap Shaun Suisham broke the tie with a short field goal as time expired.

So the rookie's fumble recovery -- his third in two preseason games -- won the game, yet everyone was talking to Ryan Shazier.

Even in this digital age, reporters remain slaves to newspaper deadlines, and that story got underway at halftime after the starters had been pulled. It's a fact of life in the preseason.

It's also a fact of life that vets treasure anyone who can get them off the field without overtime.

"Oh, yeah," said Cameron Heyward with a hearty laugh. "I was kind of glad we finished this one out. I was a little ticked last time we were into overtime, but the defense came up with a big play tonight."

Jones and Vic So'oto again teamed for that big play. So'oto beat highly touted rookie tackle Cyrus Kouandijo around the corner, sacked QB Jeff Tuel, and knocked the ball backward. Jones beat Bills running back Ronnie Wingo to the ball, picked it up at the 19, and ran all the way to the one.

"I would be hacked," said Ike Taylor. "I would want my name on SportsCenter for the touchdown. But he helped us out. That's his second game doing that. He's got a knack for the ball."

Is it a knack?

"It is. It is," said Heyward. "And that could be the reason he makes this team. He's going to be a good player if he continues to work how he's working.

"Sometimes the ball's got to find you, and it's finding him."

Or might it just be luck?

"No," said Shazier. "My man Howard's always around the ball. That's a good trait. When you're always hustling and always running to the ball, always around the ball, good things will happen."

Jones is a 238-pound undrafted rookie out of Division II Shepherd University on the far eastern border of West Virginia. He set school career records for sacks with 35 and tackles-for-loss with 69 1/2 as a 4-3 defensive end with his hand on the ground, but last night showed fluid hips in dropping easily into coverage as a 3-4 outside linebacker.

Jones entered the game on the Bills' first possession of the second half and was on the ground two of his first three snaps. And on his fourth snap, the hard-charging Jones watched a screen go over his head for an 18-yard gain. But the ball was fumbled and Robert Golden recovered as Jones' luck, and performance, began to change.

In spite of his slender frame, Jones wasn't pushed around up front in the run game by either third-year tackle Chris Hairston or former Shepherd teammate Dominque Jones, the Bills' blocking tight end. In fact, HoJo beat DoJo at the goal line to make an apparent tackle, but Anthony Dixon thrust the ball over the goal line for the touchdown.

Jones did get beat once by his own overaggressiveness, though, as QB Thad Lewis faked a handoff on a read option and ran around Jones' end for 12 yards.

Jones showed some inside pass-rush moves, and even helped pressure Lewis into a sack by Steelers end Josh Mauro.

Yet, even with a solid showing throughout the second half, Jones wasn't noticed by the broadcast team until it reported with 4:14 left in the game that Jones had just entered. Jones then chased a quarterback into an incompletion and was held on third-and-9 to push the Bills back into deep field goal range.

They tied the game, but on the Bills' final possession Jones scooped up the loose ball and gave the Steelers the win. After he was tackled, Jones laid on the ball at the one in complete exhaustion after playing every defensive and special-teams snap in the half.

In the locker room, the soft-spoken Jones was asked about his "knack" for picking up loose balls. He just shrugged.

"Uh, yeah, I picked it up," he said. "Thanks to the help of my teammates."

When pressed, Jones credited Chris Carter, Jarvis Jones, Terence Garvin, "all the guys," he said. "I learn from them and do what they tell me."

In Mike Tomlin's seven previous seasons as the Steelers' coach, he has kept an average of 8.7 linebackers on the opening-day roster, nine the last two seasons. Right now the Steelers have four starters, four backups, plus Garvin, So'oto, draft pick Jordan Zumwalt, tackling machine Dan Molls, and Jones.

Is there room for the playmaker who might some day add 20 pounds to his ripped frame and look like an Adonis in the Jason Gildon mold? Or maybe a Joey Porter?

After all, Porter started his college career as an H-back; Jones as a wide receiver.

"I can't say what the coaches are thinking in regard to how many spots they have open," said Heyward, "but, yeah, he's got a chance. He's got to stay in his book and continue to grow. He's very raw right now, but we've got guys like J.J. and (Jason) Worilds who he can learn from. He's going to be in a successful situation."

And Jones has already shown that when put in successful situations, he can pick up the ball and run with it.

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