100-yard receiving games are still not incredibly common from the tight end position, but they have become a lot more prominent around the league over the course of the past decade. There have only been about 340 dating back to 1950, yet nearly 200 of them have come since just 2010.
Pittsburgh Steelers history mirrors this pretty well. The team had never seen a 100-yard game from a tight end in its long years in the NFL until 2006, during Heath Miller’s second season. He had two 100-yard games that year, including one for 171 yards, which remains by far the most by a tight end in team history.
He would go on to record two more 100-yard games in his career, once in 2014 and again in 2015, his final season, with a memorable 10-catch, 105-yard day against the Cincinnati Bengals in, if I recall correctly, a division-clinching showdown late in the year.
Free agent Ladarius Green left his one mark on the team with a big six-catch, 110-yard game against the New York Giants in 2016, including a touchdown, for the fifth-ever 100-yard receiving game for a tight end, and the third in as many years.
Now, over the span of the last four games, the Steelers have added three more, including last night’s four-catch, 112-yard game from Vance McDonald, his second game of the season after missing the opener. He had a 75-yard touchdown reception to kick things off.
That performance came on the heels of a career-game the previous week by Jesse James, who caught five passes for 138 yards and a touchdown. Four of those receptions—most of them on improvised plays—went for 20 yards or more. He had only had four explosive plays in the entirety of his first three seasons on 90 receptions.
Going back to the 2017 postseason loss, McDonald authored another 112-yard game on 10 catches, giving him two 100-yard games in his Steelers career, and the team three 100-yard games from the position over its last four games played.
This is a trend that I would certainly welcome. The Steelers have not had a lot of opportunities over the course of the season so far to really exploit the use of two-tight end sets in passing situations, but with the skills of James and McDonald on the field at the same time, this could provide valuable mismatches.
The team has not had a pair of tight ends as qualified to catch passes in a while. I’m not even sure how far back one would have to go, but I’m not including James’ first full season in 2016 or McDonald’s partial year in 2017.
In particular, James has taken his game to another level this year. He only got the opportunity to catch one pass for seven yards last night, but already has over 200 yards on the season. That’s well past the halfway mark of his previous career-high for a season.