I am not entirely sure why Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was not especially interested in looking in the direction of his tight ends a week ago against the Atlanta Falcons when they blew the visiting team out by a score of 41-17. It’s true that they did not throw the ball a significant amount in general, but even proportionally, the tight end position felt like an afterthought in the passing game.
The entire group combined for four catches for 35 yards in the win over Atlanta, spread out over three players, just four of 19 completions and 35 of the 250 total passing yards, 75 of which actually went to the greedy James Conner, who also had 110 yards on the ground.
I bring this up because it broke up a streak of productive games for Vance McDonald in his second season with the Steelers, which seemingly resumed it anticipated course yesterday afternoon in the team’s victory over the Cincinnati Bengals.
The sixth-year tight end caught seven passes yesterday for 68 yards, most of it occurring in the first half, and a fair amount of it after the catch, in a rather physical manner. He has continued to become the go-to tight end since his second game back on the field, in Week Three, after he missed the season opener.
The Steelers initially brought him along slowly this year after he missed training camp and the preseason with a foot injury. They were cautious enough to even hold him out of the season opener. He played sparingly in Week Two, catching three passes for 26 yards.
Then he caught four passes for 112 yards a week later, including a 75-yard touchdown in which he authored the stiff-arm of the season, one that will be featured on highlight reels for some time. a week later, he added another five receptions for 62 yards.
He has now gone over 60 receiving yards in three of his past for games with the Steelers, making the one six-yard catch he had against the Falcons seem all the more out of place. Roethlisberger likes throwing him the ball, and the crowd likes watching him with the ball in his hands—though not so much when it pops out.
That would be the one knock on McDonald. Last year, the concern was dropped passes. Now it appears to be ball security, as he has now fumbled two times over the last three games. He lost the first one, helping to lead to a touchdown for the Baltimore Ravens. Yesterday, his losing the ball likely prevented him from gaining a first down and the team settling for a field goal that ultimately forced them into a situation in which they needed to score to win the game.
In general, however, the Steelers are getting what they’ve paid for. He has 20 receptions on the season for 274 yards and a touchdown in five games. Even taking the missed game into consideration, that figures out to be about 53 receptions for 731 yards and a few touchdowns. The sort of production they have been missing since Heath Miller was last playing and healthy in 2014.