Week One. New England. The Steelers have the ball on their own 27, facing a 3rd and 8. Who is the ball designed to go to? Antonio Brown is gone. JuJu Smith-Schuster will draw four eyes, bracket coverage by a pair of DBs.
The man that’s gotta step up? Vance McDonald.
To be fair though, that’s not entirely accurate. McDonald was the Steelers’ go-to man on 3rd and long last year. Yes, even more than AB and JuJu.
McDonald finished 2018 with nine first down receptions on 3rd and 7+. That bested Brown (7) and JuJu (4). No other Steeler had more than one. Those nine catches were second among all TEs, trailing only Travis Kelce’s 11. Let’s breakdown some of those plays and the variety of ways McDonald converted.
McDonald isn’t always going to be the top option. But with a top five offensive line and the ability for Ben Roethlisberger to extend plays, there’s going to be chances for him to work his way open. Here, in Week Three against Tampa, McDonald is sitting down on this curl. As the play begins to break down, he does a nice job finding the soft spot in the Bucs’ zone coverage, sliding to keep vision with the QB. Roethlisberger eventually finds him. Sticks moved.
It was rare to see McDonald used out of the backfield but he was here on this third down against Oakland. Checks for the blitz, nothing comes, so he releases into his route. Makes the grab underneath then does his damage after the catch, breaking a tackle and falling over the marker to keep the drive alive.
Steelers do a nice job of expanding the field vertically and horizontally. McDonald backside in a 3×1 look versus Carolina. Mesh concept normally has the ball going to the receiver running under the pick but McDonald has open grass. The flat route by the back to the bottom helps expand the DB and open him up. Again, he does his damage after the catch, avoiding two defenders before getting flipped down for a good gain.
Beat Man Coverage
McDonald can win vertically, too. Seam route in the same game against the Carolina Panthers. Luke Kuechly may have thought there was a pass rush, and maybe he’s right, but it’s a no-call. Work the seam, stemming wide initially then breaking over the top to stack the LB, find the ball, and high point it with plus body control. Touchdown on third and long, a killer for any defense to allow.
Here he is on the strong safety. Square out while playing New England. Good route, didn’t round it off, works straight down the line, and boxes the corner out to make the play. Big conversion to get out of the shadow of your own end zone.
Knowing how defenses will force JuJu to be taken away on these obvious pass situations, guys like McDonald must continue to make plays like these. It’ll be up to OC Randy Fichtner to be creative with him too. Let him act like a receiver. Make him a top progression and use route combinations that will create space and force defenders in conflict. On 3rd and long in 2019, McDonald needs to hear his number called a lot.