PITTSBURGH (AP)Joey Porter and Broderick Jones have checked every box over the past six months.
The Pittsburgh Steelers rookies have stayed healthy. They’ve learned. They’ve tried to stay out of the spotlight – as much as any players taken in the first 32 picks of the draft can anyway – while trying to prove to the coaching staff they’re ready to take on a larger role.
Their time is coming. That much is true. It’s the when, however, that’s tricky. Particularly for a 3-2 team that has been a mixed bag heading into Sunday’s visit to the Los Angeles Rams (3-3).
Jones looked every bit like the left tackle of the future in his first NFL start against Baltimore on Oct. 8, when he filled in more than capably for injured veteran Dan Moore. Porter took another massive step forward with his first career interception in the same game, a fourth-quarter pick in the end zone that set up the winning touchdown drive.
And yet coach Mike Tomlin appears in no major rush to anoint either one of them a starting job that will eventually become theirs anyway. Jones has returned to the second team this week with the knee injury Moore sustained against the Houston Texans on the mend. Porter remains below Levi Wallace and Patrick Peterson on the depth chart even though the quarterbacks have a passer rating of 0.0 when they look his way.
Asked on Thursday if he expects to have his snap count increased in Los Angeles, Porter shrugged his shoulders.
“I really don’t know,” Porter said. “It’s always up to the coaches and stuff. I just got to stay prepared.”
Porter has certainly looked prepared whenever he’s been thrown into the mix, though defensive coordinator Teryl Austin is quick to point out they have tried to limit Porter to one side of the field (the left side) and are trying to make it a point to only put him in certain situations.
“He’s been steadily progressing each week, he’s gotten a little bit more (playing time) and has done a good job with it, so we’ll see how it goes this week,” Austin said.
It’s an approach that Porter is trying to take in stride, as tough as it can be for the competitor in him. Fortunately for Porter, he doesn’t have to look far to find a sympathetic ear.
A dozen years ago Peterson was the highly drafted rookie cornerback eager to prove he belonged. The Arizona Cardinals wanted to bring Peterson along slowly, much in the same way the Steelers are trying to do with Porter.
Fate intervened when veteran Greg Toler tore the ACL in his left knee late in the preseason, opening the door for Peterson to kickstart a career that’s seen him reach eight Pro Bowls while putting together a resume that could one day make for an interesting Hall of Fame discussion.
Peterson is now the elder statesman of the defensive backs’ room in Pittsburgh, brought in on a two-year deal in the offseason in part to help mentor a room that now includes a precious, physically talented 6-foot-2 who doesn’t lack in confidence.
The 33-year-old Peterson’s message to Porter throughout the growth process has been the same: be patient. Your time is coming.
“I understand and know that (he’s) in a position for this secondary room to be (his), … to have the keys to this car at some point,” Peterson said. “So what I want to do is, because I don’t have many miles left for my tires, is continue helping him and showing him how to find his way, showing him how to be a professional, showing them how to watch film. Because he’s going to be in my shoes one day.”
Potentially soon. Peterson has spent the vast majority of the early season working on the outside even though his speed isn’t quite what it once was. The Steelers would prefer to put him on the inside, where his combination of football IQ and still-sharp ball skills can best be put to use.
It’s a move Peterson is all for. He senses Porter’s time is near.
It’s a little murkier for Jones. Where there can be wiggle room in the secondary, there isn’t along the offensive line. Jones is trying not to get ahead of himself even though he looked up to the challenge while capably handling his business against the Ravens.
“I’m a rookie coming in,” Jones said. “Dan’s (Moore) been here a lot longer than me. He knows (things). He’s been in the game a lot longer than me at this level. Just got to continue to work.”
Moore has basically made it his job to help bring Jones along. The two worked extensively together during training camp, often taking extra reps to refine their technique. It’s one of the reasons Jones is deferential to Moore.
“I feel like I’ve grown a lot, in a lot of different areas,” Jones said. “I feel like it’s been a big plus for me to be with the Steelers and the coaching staff that we have. The players that I’m around Dan, Chuks (Okorafor), Isaac (Seumalo). It helps me play at a different level because these guys have been in the league for so long.”
It’s a position Jones will likely be in himself one day. The left tackle of the future will become the left tackle of the present at one point. That point appears to be drawing closer by the day.
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