Last week, ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler sent out a tweet indicating Vance McDonald will be a big part of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ short-passing game in 2018, a year after being traded and battling injuries to make his way into the starting lineup.
I’m not sure if that’s an “official’ report and if not, that’s fine. It’s pretty obvious anyway. McDonald will be counted on as a playmaking tight end with YAC ability they really haven’t had in a long time, even including Heath Miller’s prime.
Today, let’s look at three concepts the Steelers could use to get McDonald heavily involved with the short passing game.
1. TE Screens
Pittsburgh ran plenty of tight end screens last season, including for their first offensive touchdown in Week One against the Cleveland Browns. Middle/slip screens with the tight end initially blocking and then flipping around as the edge rushers comes upfield as the linemen peel off to the second level.
Jesse James’ lack of athleticism arguably hindered some of the big-play ability here. He’s not going to make many people miss and relies on his size to finish plays. McDonald should offer more after the catch and maximize these plays. The Steelers do just enough blocking with their tight ends too that one of them pass setting isn’t going to tip the defense off to anything unusual.
2. Option/Read Routes
Something pretty much any tight end worth their weight has to do. Read the leverage of the linebacker/defender and create space. Or get yourself open when the original route isn’t there. We see more of the latter here and something James has done a good job of.
Two curl routes, sitting down after five yards, but with the linebacker on him in coverage, he immediately slides and runs away to open grass. Rules are to sit versus zone, run away versus man. Basically, get open. Ben Roethlisberger finds him each time.
Again, McDonald is the better athlete and can create more after the catch and get more space as he breaks away. He’ll have to show that same football IQ though as James has done, not that I have any doubts if he can.
3. Shallow Crossers
Finally, part of the progression read if things aren’t open downfield. Steelers like to use their vertical game to open things up underneath. Run the receivers deep and if they’re not open, check it down to Le’Veon Bell underneath, who is often going to be met one-on-one if the defense is expanded vertically.
Same can be said for tight ends. They’ll flood one side of the field with the tight end coming across underneath two deeper routes. Creates leverage against the defender, who is now trailing,
McDonald’s added upside is the same. Better athlete, bigger threat in the open field.
Of course, there are a couple caveats I want to add. One, McDonald was involved with some of this last year. It’s not like he’s brand new to the system. So it’s partly just picking up where he left off. And two, we’ll see exactly what changes Randy Fichtner makes to the route distribution, though from the sounds of it, most things are relatively the same.