For two straight weeks, the media has been on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Mike Tomlin, in spite of the wins, about the tight ends. After signing Eric Ebron in free agency, they were now paying two tight ends a reasonable amount of money, but the focus in the passing game had instead been on the wide receivers by a large margin.
Not so today. The tight end position received 10 of Ben Roethlisberger’s 35 targets on the afternoon, and eight of his 23 completions. Ebron in particular had a notable day, catching five passes for 52 yards, and an impressive touchdown at the back of the end zone, going up over coverage to secure the ball on third and goal from outside of the 10.
“I’ll probably get another seven days before you guys ask me about Ebron, I would imagine”, head coach Mike Tomlin joked after the game about his tight end usage. Not only did Ebron go for 5-52, but Vance McDonald also go involved, catching three passes on three targets for 35 yards, and showing some physicality after the catch that was lacking a year ago.
In all, the tight ends caught eight passes for 87 yards with a touchdown, which is certainly nothing to sneeze at, and both of them came up with key receptions in important moments to move the chains and keep the drive alive. Ebron in particular had multiple receptions on third and long, including his score.
What’s more, the Steelers more than in the first two weeks took to using heavier sets, including the utilization of Jerald Hawkins as the tackle-eligible, a role he played in 2017, a formation that allows them to have balance.
“We’re gonna utilize all of our eligibles”, Tomlin said. “It’s important that we have a balanced group, that we can run it, that we can throw it, that we have a variety of people to throw it to. We like the versatility of the group, the specialization of the group, and it allows us to move the ball fluidly”.
The Steelers had success both on the ground and through the air against the Houston Texans, and a lot of that did seem, at least upon initial impression, to run out of two-tight end sets. The charting will have to tell us more about that, but this is a look that they wanted to establish this season.
Arguably the most exciting thing to me is that McDonald had a number of key blocks in-motion in the running game. When he came here in 2017, he was a clear asset as a blocker, but his play in this area declined over the past two seasons. If they can get things working both ways, the two-tight end set is going to be key this year.