Pittsburgh Steelers tight ends have done quite well for themselves over the course of the past two games. In Week Two against the Kansas City Chiefs, fourth-year Jesse James recorded a career-high 138 yards on five receptions, four of them going for 20 or more yards. A week later, it was Vance McDonald catching four passes for 112 yards, including a 75-yard touchdown.
What might they have in store for an encore against the Baltimore Ravens? Well, James did have 10 receptions for 97 yards the last time these two teams played back in December. McDonald also caught four passes for 52 yards. Quite frankly, it’s not often that the Steelers have two tight ends record at least 50 receiving yards in the same game.
The Steelers have talked throughout the offseason about the desire to make the tight ends a bigger part of the passing game, particularly with respect to McDonald becoming a full part of the offense after he was only added to the roster just before the start of last season.
First-year offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner has been a proponent of getting multiple tight ends on the field—at least in words—though it has been easier said than done based on came circumstances. He has surprisingly used the tackle-eligible quite a bit with rookie tackle Chukwuma Okorafor.
Without the clear emergence of a number three wide receiver in the offense just yet, I have been hoping to see Fichtner make greater usage of James and McDonald on passing downs. That has yet to come, but that doesn’t mean it’s not coming.
James Washington and Ryan Switzer are both emerging wide receiver, each of whom have caught their first career touchdown passes over the past two weeks. Washington had two big catches last week, including one on third down. But neither of them have yet proven themselves as players that need to see the field 60 percent of the time or more.
The advantage of the two-tight end set is obvious when your tight end are capable both of catching the ball and blocking. It’s something that the New England Patriots have used to great success. You are equally capable of running the ball and throwing it, which means that the defense is going to have a hard time guessing which it’s going to be on any given play. And you can dictate what you do based on what they show.
So what’s next for the Steelers’ tight ends, McDonald and James, in the Steelers’ passing attack? Will they be able to continue the success that they had against the Ravens in their last meeting? Will their recent success encouraging the play-calling to continue to shift in their direction?