The Pittsburgh Steelers surely didn’t envision running for most of the season and into the playoffs working with second-year tight end Jesse James as their top tight end, but that has been exactly the hand they have been dealt this year. And really, while it hasn’t been ideal, it hasn’t been much of a handicap at all.
While he is not exactly the most impressive tight end in the league, he has shown improvement since the start of the season, both as a pass catcher and as a blocker, with the latter ultimately being the more important aspect of his game, in the long run. And that is the area that this article will focus on.
As a matter of fact, his blocking played a key role on the day, and in particular arguably the biggest play of the game, coming from the 50-yard line on the Steelers’ opening drive, on which he helped spring Antonio Brown for a 50-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown on a screen pass.
That play set the tone for the game and helped dig a hole for the Dolphins they couldn’t climb out of. On the play, Brown motioned to the left pre-snap, with James racing hard to the sideline after the snap. The receiver did an excellent job of showing patience, but the tight end was able to get out in front of the play and wall off the sideline from two defenders.
Early on in the Steelers’ next drive, the offense showed a two-tight end set, with James the inside of the two on the left side of the line. He and David Johnson did an excellent job of turning the end out of the running lane to free up Le’Veon Bell for a seven-yard gain.
Late in the first quarter, the offense showed a heavy set with three tight ends, including an extra lineman. James was on his own on the right side, however, and his down block on the perimeter and subsequent push to the second-level defender carved out a hole for Bell to push for five yards on first and 10.
Late in the first half, Pittsburgh looked to go into a throwing set, but ran the ball instead. James immediately worked to the second level and got a piece of the inside linebacker. This is an assignment, frankly, that they have asked of him a lot, and he has had a hard time finding his target.
Early in the third quarter, the Steelers ripped off one of their longer runs of the day for 15 yards, and it was James opening up a hole by sealing off the end on the left side that allowed Bell to find daylight and take off downfield.
This may have been the best all-around blocking game that James has had in his career. While he still has work to do, he has clearly made progress, and that is encouraging for his future—ideally as a number two tight end.