Arguably the most significant development for the Pittsburgh Steelers this offseason pertaining to new personnel was the acquisition of tight end Eric Ebron and the windows that could open for the offense to create a greater amount of variety in their approach to the game.
Coupled with Vance McDonald, he and Ebron have the potential to make up the most potent tight end combination the Steelers have ever had, particularly with their ability to make an impact in the passing game. While Pittsburgh had Heath Miller and Eric Green in the past, neither had a true second fiddle that defenses were ever concerned with as a two-phase blocking and receiving threat.
Ebron isn’t known to be a plus blocker, though tight ends coach James Daniel earlier today said that he was showing a willingness to dive into anything they would throw at him in that regard. Mike Tomlin yesterday also said clearly that blocking is a must, so they’re not going to let him off the hook in that area.
The most significant comment came from McDonald, however, who earlier today told reporters, according to Brooke Pryor of ESPN, that Ebron represents “the missing piece” in the Steelers offense, which the veteran tight end said he told Ebron directly. “Expect me to dunk on everybody this year now that we have Eric on our team”, he said.
Vance McDonald had a big catch over Edmunds yesterday, and I asked him if he did anything differently in training. Said he told Ebron yesterday: “You were the missing link. … Eric’s the missing piece. Expect me to dunk on everybody this year now that we have Eric on our team.”
— Brooke Pryor (@bepryor) August 18, 2020
In other words, he expects Ebron’s presence to help open things up for himself and the rest of the offense. Implicitly, it also says that he believes we should expect to see a decent amount of two-tight end sets this year that will actually feature two tight ends, rather than a tight end and Zach Banner or Chukwuma Okorafor as an extra lineman, as had become the norm.
Like most teams, the Steelers’ base offense has evolved more and more annually into an 11 personnel grouping featuring three wide receivers with one running back and one tight end. Given their trio of JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson, and James Washington, plus the addition of Chase Claypool, there’s no question that we will continue to see three receivers on the field in plenty of situations.
Because of the addition of Ebron to what they already have in McDonald, however, this gives the offense much greater flexibility in looking to create defensive mismatches, with the benefit of having two tight ends at their disposal who can actually catch the ball.
Both of them had their greatest seasons to date in 2018, when they have been most healthy recently and playing with great quarterbacks. That year, McDonald caught 50 passes for 610 yards and four touchdowns. Ebron, with the Colts, caught 66 passes for 750 yards and 13 touchdowns.
This is a duo that can quite easily and realistically combine for 100-plus receptions for 1000-plus receiving yards and 10-plus touchdowns, and those may be somewhat low thresholds, if the Steelers really aim to use them as extensively as some of their comments suggest.