It has been some weeks now, but the Pittsburgh Steelers are finally going to be getting tight end Vance McDonald back this week after he missed the past three games. He suffered an ankle injury after he was rolled up on from behind on the kick return unit during the Colts game.
Though he returned in the second half of that game and even scored his first touchdown with the Steelers, the fifth-year tight end has missed the past three games and almost all of practice. He was a Wednesday limited participant in practice the week after he was injured, but did not practice again until this past week.
With his return to the field, it makes the Steelers a more versatile offense and takes some of the pressure off of Jesse James, whom the team has seemingly attempted to handle a bit in recent weeks with respect to limiting the number of times he was directly responsible for a lead block.
It remains to be seen what kind of workload will be in store for McDonald in his first game back. While he was a full participant in practice throughout the week, and not even given an injury designation for the game, they could still ease him back into the lineup.
Previously, it seemed as though he was taking over the starting job from James. We saw that before until he suffered a knee injury, and it happened again with the ankle injury. So it seems that they are interested in him playing a big role—they wouldn’t have traded for him and his contract otherwise—but it might not come in this game.
It should at least foretell an uptick in the usage of two-tight end sets. They actually ran a decent amount compared to recent weeks against the Bengals, with Xavier Grimble in that role, but Jerald Hawkins was also used six times as a tackle-eligible out of 22 personnel.
At the least, I would expect McDonald to be a boon for the running game, as he has shown to be both agile and strong as a lead blocker, managing to both connect with and control his target assignment with relative consistency, something that has been a struggle for James.
How much of a role he plays in the receiving game has to be considered a mystery. He only has five catches on the season, albeit for 79 yards and a touchdown. All of that work came in the last three games in which he dressed, however, it should be noted.
The former second-round pick has four more games left in the regular season, plus however many games they might be afforded in the postseason, to convince the coaching staff and the front office that he is capable of being a starting tight end based on both ability and availability. Otherwise they might release him and escape his contract.