The Pittsburgh Steelers, if they make a trade that does not become necessary due to injuries, are not a team to pull the trigger while giving up something relatively meaningful unless they believe there is a chance of the player they are getting back being able to become something special.
That is what they were hoping to see out of tight end Vance McDonald when they traded for him last year very late in the preseason. They didn’t get much of a chance to see it during the regular season due to his limited familiarity with the offense and his recurring injuries, at least not until he put up over 100 yards in the postseason.
They are getting a glimpse of that now. In five games, he has caught 20 passes for 274 yards and a touchdown. He is currently on pace for 60 receptions for 822 yards and a handful of touchdowns provided that he is able to stay healthy for the remainder of the season. And you can be sure that he is getting noticed.
Cameron Heyward, the team’s defensive captain, told Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that McDonald “is providing a wave of energy when he’s catching the ball and he’s making something happen”. Like a 75-yard touchdown on a breakaway after smashing a defensive back into the ground following a violent stiff-arm.
Maurkice Pouncey added, “oh my god, we’re still watching that clip”. It gets featured at home in the Renegade highlight reel at times, and probably will be for years to come.
McDonald missed the first game of the season with a lingering foot injury, but has been on the field without incident or issue for the past five games and has made it to the bye week healthy and productive, on pace for a career year.
“You see the way he’s playing, and he’s bouncing off tacklers”, Heyward said of the physical, bruising tight end. “Sometimes he’s not even just putting the stiff-arm, he’s just running through tacklers. Sometimes you need that, the way the NFL’s becoming. Heath Miller used to get a lot of concussions from those hits. Now this is Heath Miller without the concussions”.
Miller only suffered a few concussions in his career that were officially listed, but as in the cases of many players, chance are he had more than that, as well as other head traumas that did not amount to head injuries. He admitted after retiring that cognitive health was among the concerns he had about continuing to play.
As for McDonald, he is simply bulldozing through people right now, and feeling good about himself perhaps for the first time in a while from a professional standpoint. Heyward even said that last season “was a bit of a transition year for him”.
“But ever since that Tampa Bay game, you really feel like he’s starting to settle in”, he continued—that being ‘the stiff-arm game’. “He feels confident in himself. You even hear him talking now, he’s got a Twitter. He’s feeling good about himself”.
And the Steelers are feeling confident about him, too, as he becomes a crucial part of the offense as arguably the number three target in the passing game and a staple run-blocker.