It wasn’t exactly the breakout game I halfway predicted, and hoped for, from tight end Vance McDonald, but the fifth-year player—in his first year with the team—did leave his mark on the game, catching two passes for 16 yards, but one of those two passes was a seven-yard touchdown reception, which led to the game-tying two-point conversion.
It was somewhat of a breakthrough moment for McDonald, the former 49ers tight end, who just won his seventh game of the season while his former team won just its first all year—against a one-win team—and its third in the past two years.
The Steelers acquired him via trade during the late stages of the preseason, giving away a fourth-round draft pick in exchange for the tight end and a fifth-round draft pick, while also taking on his fairly sizable contract. They did so because they are unsatisfied with the work that the current tight ends on the roster were turning in.
Likely to a variety of factors, not the least of which being the basic fact that he had only been on the team for a short period of time, it took the former second-round pick a while before he began to be more involved in the offense, but the team has moved well when he has been on the field.
Prior to yesterday’s game, for example, I charted the numbers on the 44 non-penalty snaps on which the Steelers used McDonald as the lone tight end on the field out of 11 personnel. They gained more than seven yards per play out of that sample size. It’s relatively small—about the equivalent of a game’s worth of 11 personnel snaps—but still somewhat significant.
He missed the team’s last game with a knee injury, and then he left this game with a lower body injury, but he returned after a few series. He caught a nine-yard pass and got out of bounds to open their two-minute drill at the end of the first half, which helped produce a field goal.
As mentioned, later on in the game, following a critical interception by Ryan Shazier that put them on the 10-yard line, Ben Roethlisberger found McDonald for the seven-yard touchdown. He was wide open, for several seconds, so much so that I yelled at the television because I was sure the window would close. It never did.
Said the tight end of that play, “I remember in my mind thinking, ‘Ben, you better look over here’”. Eventually he did, and eventually the Steelers tied the game, and eventually they won. Something McDonald hasn’t gotten to do much during his career with the 49ers.
“It’s really hard to win”, he told Jeremy Fowler, after San Francisco won just two games last year. “You really can’t take it for granted. I’m telling you, this isn’t a common thing”. After all, slightly less than half of all teams win the game they’re playing in.