This season has been an emotional roller coaster for the Pittsburgh Steelers. There have been ups, downs, and everything in between as the Steelers have done their best impression of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, playing poorly to open the year before hitting their stride with a six game win streak and now back on a two game skid. In a wild season like 2018, many notable items from the stat sheets often get lost in the process. One item worth taking a second look at is the numbers put up by tight end Vance McDonald as he has quietly put up the best body of work of his career thus far.
McDonald’s numbers from Sunday don’t jump out at you initially, just four catches for 28 yards, but the tight end has been a huge factor in the Steelers offense’s success this season and it has resulted in his best season to date. McDonald has totaled 40 receptions for 472 yards, all career bests for the veteran tight end.
The tight end’s previous season high for receptions came back in 2015 as a member of the San Francisco 49ers when he caught 30 balls on the year. His previous high for receiving yardage came a year later, when he tallied 391 yards in 2016. The biggest difference between those two seasons and this one have come down to one factor only – health.
McDonald has never played a full 16-game season. The tight end only played in 14 games during the 2015 season when he recorded 30 receptions and a year later, he played in just 11. Just this season alone, the tight end has been able to outproduce his prior career highs in just eleven games thus far. Though he missed the Steelers’ season opening tie in Cleveland, the veteran tight end has gone on to play in every game since and has kept a clean bill of health in the process. This has resulted in McDonald developing a strong rapport with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and becoming a strong focus in the week by week offensive game plan.
The tight end’s talent has never been called into question, as the 6’4 267-pound tight end has the size and ability to be an absolute wrecking ball on the field. When the Steelers acquired McDonald prior to the start of last season, the team recognized his potential and big play ability. The coaching staff and the world got their first good look at his ability during week three this season, when McDonald set a career best for receiving yards in a game, recording 112 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. During the same game he also made sure to make every highlight reel in the country, stiff-arming his way to the end zone on a 75-yard touchdown pass and perhaps saving the Steelers’ season in the process.
In an offense full of superstars, McDonald has been just as important as the other playmakers, doing so not with eye popping numbers but with consistency. He has recorded three or more receptions in all but one game this season and has developed into a quality pass catcher as well.
While his hands have been his second biggest question mark behind his health, McDonald has turned 71.4% of the targets that have come his way this season into catches. Not only would this be another career best right now but it is also over 5% higher than his previous career high (65.2% in 2015).
The Steelers have been gushing about the play of McDonald for a year and a half now, with his health being the only obstacle in his path to success. Through three quarters of the season, the tight end that the Steelers envisioned has become reality as McDonald has been able to stay on the field, becoming a true threat and trusted option in Randy Fichtner’s offense.