The Pittsburgh Steelers have been waiting for over a year to see tight end Vance McDonald become a full-fledged part of their offense. In his defense, he was only brought in shortly before the 2017 regular season, and he did have a 100-yard game in the playoffs.
But he really came to life on Monday night against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a big way, though that’s probably hard not to do when you have a 75-yard touchdown that includes the best stiff-arm in years.
That wasn’t the only time he contributed in the passing game though. Earlier on, he showed what sort of weapon he can be on a simple crossing route, displaying his speed and size in beating the safety—almost literally beating him—to the sideline for a 14-yard gain.
That safety was Chris Conte and it didn’t get any better for him. I really don’t need to make much comment on this play because we’ve already discussed it, and it was the clear highlight of the game, being rerun on ESPN all week.
An important point of playing the tight end position, however, is not just making big plays, but also making yourself available as a release valve for the quarterback. He did so here for Ben Roethlisberger, flashing open as the quarterback was under duress and converting on third and 11.
Later, in the fourth quarter, they ran an inside screen pass for McDonald. Maurkice Pouncey completely whiffed, falling before even reaching his blocking assignment, but Alejandro Villanueva picked him up inside, and it helped the tight end go for 11 yards.
There’s one play a few snaps after that I did wanted to highlight, and it may be taken as overly harsh criticism. It probably is. But while the specific play was unlikely to succeed, the scenario is important to discuss.
Unscheduled plays are opportunities for big plays, especially when Roethlisberger is the quarterback. We saw how that worked out for Jesse James last week. He had a couple of explosive plays under similar circumstances, but McDonald did not cut upfield here. At the end of the play (not shown in the gif), he signs upfield as an indication that he realizes what he should have done.