Despite Appearances, Steelers Using Vance McDonald As True No. 1 TE

Some have wondered how the Pittsburgh Steelers planned to use veteran seventh-year tight end Vance McDonald in 2019, a year after having a breakout year, and with the team’s number two tight end, Jesse James, now with the Detroit Lions, where he signed in free agency for a contract far beyond what the team would have paid to keep him in that role.

If you watched the opener, you might be inclined to say, not a lot. However, if you look deeper into it, you’ll see something interesting. The Steelers ran 69 offensive plays, none of which came out of multiple-tight end sets. A full 18 of those 69 snaps included either five receivers on the field or four receivers and a running back.

Of the other 51 possible snaps, he was on the field for 49 of them. The only two snaps that number two tight end Xavier Grimble played throughout the entire game were the two plays in which they executed out of the pony backfield with two running backs, one of which resulted in a penalty that wiped out the result of the play.

In other words, if you disregard all plays in which there wasn’t even a tight end on the field, McDonald played 96 percent of those snaps. Going back to last season, in which he played 15 games, he only saw at least 49 snaps in five of them, and never in any one game last season did they play as many as 18 snaps without a tight end on the field.

I think it’s likely that we are not going to see the Steelers continue to use more than three receivers on the field together consistently for over 25 percent of their snaps, so it stands to reason that McDonald should be in for even higher snap counts as the weeks tick on, and assuming that, you know, Pittsburgh actually has a lead once in a while.

At the same time, I do have to caution extrapolating too much from this, because one has to consider the game circumstances. When Grimble was used last season, it was typically in running situations, so with the Steelers trailing so much, perhaps he didn’t play as much as he might ordinarily play in a typical game.

Still, the reality is that the Steelers are only dressing two tight ends, or at least they did in the opener, with rookie Zach Gentry a healthy scratch. That might change because of the injury to Roosevelt Nix, but that doesn’t mean Gentry will get on the field. Nix didn’t.

Now, if only they can actually get him some more targets in a competitive game. Offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner said late last week that the New England Patriots had him pretty well contained when they were in man coverage, but he had opportunities against zone defenses that they neglected.

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