There has been a lot of talk in recent days about veteran tight end Vance McDonald and the manner in which his role has morphed this season from the primary pass-catching threat at the position for the Pittsburgh Steelers to a role more centered on his blocking assignments, in light of the acquisition of Eric Ebron.
The height of the discussion was on Thursday when McDonald himself gave a very forthright and honest interview in which he talked about how he understands the shifting dynamics and how he embraces his blocking role. Offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner let on that he added 10-plus pounds in the offseason in preparation.
But Ben Roethlisberger was already hinting at these details during his own media availability back on Wednesday. Now, you already know that he and McDonald are very close, so it’s not out of character for him to lavish the tight end with praise, but he also clearly hinted at the run-blocking priority as well, which in hindsight seems more clear.
“I think he’s been doing really good. We’ve asked him to do a lot in the run game”, he said, before taking the blame for his receiving numbers. “I know that the passing stats, the receiving numbers kind of aren’t what anybody anticipated, but a lot of it has to do with me and the comfort of not playing as well as I probably should have—all of those guys’ numbers get affected when the quarterback doesn’t play as well as he should”.
“You have to throw numbers out, and Vance is one of those guys that’s a team player”, Roethlisberger continued. “He’s not coming in concerned with his catches, yards, touchdowns. He’s concerned with wins and losses. He’s doing everything we’ve asked him to do and more, especially in the run game. Those long four-minute-offense, long drives have been spectacular because he’s had to do some pulling and get on guys and really kind of be a springboard for the backs on those drives”.
The best thing that the offense has done so far this season has been to close out games, and they have now done it three games in a row. Most recently, they closed out the game against the Texans with a 4:47-minute drive, the prelude to which was a 7-minute drive in which they scored the go-ahead points.
In the previous game, they only had to shut down the final two minutes on their last possession, but against a team with three timeouts. The Giants game had almost identical circumstances, and ended with a fourth-down conversion.
The running game has been the priority on these late-game closing drives, with James Conner playing closer the past two weeks, but McDonald has been instrumental in that blocking, as have the pulling guards.