The Pittsburgh Steelers have a nice little dilemma on their hands at the tight end position. Fourth-year veteran Jesse James is playing as well as he ever has, but they also have Vance McDonald back up and running and ready to up his snap total after being on something of a pitch count last week.
James has continued to show strides as a blocker, particularly in his run-blocking in the first week of the season, but where he has really made a difference has been in being an outlet who has been on the same page with Ben Roethlisberger, which has led to five explosive connections in two games—more than the total number of explosive plays he had in his first three seasons combined.
Now those plays—all but one anyway—did not come by design. James was able to make those plays happen because he was able to read Roethlisberger after he went through his initial reads or scrambled out of the pocket, very late in plays when a quarterback would normally throw the ball—or throw the ball away—by that point. That’s not something that you count on to be sustainable.
But outside of a drop in Week One, James has been as reliable as ever. At the same time, the Steelers still believe in McDonald’s talent as the superior blocker and the receiver who offers more explosion as an athletic and vertical threat.
So it will be interesting to see how the coaching staff divides the workload of the two today, and if we will see, by chance, a greater usage of two tight end sets than we have seen through the first two games of the season. Much of the two tight end usage that we saw in the opener actually featured an extra lineman as one of the two tight ends.
That was a game that McDonald missed, of course, but it’s also true that James wasn’t the other tight end on the field for those plays. That was Xavier Grimble. But that was in a package that caters to running the ball, and the Steelers could expand their versatility in a two tight end package featuring James and McDonald.
In fact, if I were the Steelers heading into tonight’s game, I would try to get both of them involved early on, both as blockers and as pass catchers, because I want them to be an active presence in the minds of the defenders.
The Steelers were effectively forced by in-game circumstances last week to use personnel packages including at least three wide receivers on the field nearly 90 percent of the time, a stunning amount. They can slow the tempo down with multiple tight end looks tonight.