BY WILL GRAVES
The Pittsburgh Steelers spent most of the offseason hoping its crowded backfield would sort itself out.
Thanks to rookie Le’Veon Bell’s sprained right foot and the abrupt departure of Jonathan Dwyer, the picture remains as murky as ever.
No wonder Felix Jones feels right at home. Heading into Pittsburgh’s season opener on Sunday against Tennessee, Jones figures to be the primary backup behind Isaac Redman.
It’s a remarkable rise considering Jones began training camp on the other side of the state with Philadelphia. The Steelers acquired him barely 24 hours before their third preseason game on Aug. 17. No biggie – before he had a chance to meet all of his teammates, he was carrying eight times for 29 yards while also getting some work in the return game.
“It’s the first time that I’ve ever seen it,” Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Todd Haley said. “We didn’t even have the guy on the practice field once. I met him once before a game, in a team meeting, he leads us in carries during the game and has a kickoff return.
“That in itself was impressive.”
So impressive the Steelers ended up keeping Jones when the roster was trimmed to 53 on Sunday while jettisoning Jonathan Dwyer, who led Pittsburgh with 623 yards rushing in 2012.
Jones spent the hours before the 4 p.m. deadline watching TV and waiting for the phone to ring. It did, but only with family members calling to offer him congratulations.
Sticking around, however, has never been Jones’ problem. It’s delivering consistently that’s the issue. While injuries have certainly been a part of the problem, so have circumstances.
The former No. 1 draft pick has spent his entire football life – dating all the way back to high school – trying to carve out his own niche in offenses with plenty of weapons to go around.
Growing up in Tulsa, Okla., Jones played alongside New Orleans Saints receiver Robert Meachem. During Jones’ sometimes spectacular career at Arkansas, he was the two in a one-two punch that included two-time Heisman Trophy runnerup Darren McFadden.
It’s why Jones never fixates on things like numbers or touches or why he’s been unable to establish himself as a starter in the NFL.
There are talented players everywhere. Jones just hopes to be one of them. If he ends up becoming “the guy” even better.
“I definitely have confidence in myself and what I can do,” Jones said. “Given the opportunity to go out there and make a play, that’s what I do. I just try to create something.”
Even if Jones never did it quite enough to the liking of Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who relished taking a fellow Arkansas alum with the 22nd overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft after the running back posted a blistering 4.4-second time in the 40-yard dash.
The breakout never happened. There were moments of course. He returned a kickoff 98 yards for a score in the second game of his rookie season. The average distance of his 11 career rushing touchdowns is 21.6 yards. His 5.9 yards per carry in 2009 led the league.
The home run remains a threat. It’s settling for the singles that’s the tricky part.
The Cowboys waited five seasons for Jones to become an every down back. It’s a concept he never quite grasped with two hands.
Asked to describe why it didn’t work out in Dallas and Jones shrugs his shoulders.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I really can’t say. I definitely went out there and did and gave it my best. That right there I can’t answer.”
He signed with Philadelphia in the offseason and seemed like a decent fit in new coach Chip Kelly’s uptempo offense. He never moved above the third string on the depth chart and the Eagles basically gave him to Pittsburgh in exchange linebacker Adrian Robinson, who didn’t make the team.
Jones arrived in Pittsburgh in the middle of the afternoon on Aug. 16. Barely 24 hours later, he was wearing a No. 23 jersey and trying to show his coaches that, as Jones put it he “still has it.”
Coach Mike Tomlin saw enough to give Jones an even heavier workload in the preseason finale against Carolina, when he carried the ball 14 times and caught two passes.
What looked like a longshot became an eventuality when Jones survived cut-down day. He’ll provide a change of pace when Redman needs a breather and the player who averages 32 receptions a season could find himself on the field in passing situations.
While Jones insists he can still become a starter, at the moment he’s not exactly picky.
“You have to compete every day,” Jones said. “You never know what will happen.”
NOTES: LB Jarvis Jones (chest) practiced on Thursday and is expected to play against the Titans. Jones will likely back up outside linebackers Jason Worilds and LaMarr Woodley ... FB Will Johnson (hamstring) was limited again in practice and is questionable.