Eric Ebron and Vance McDonald may be 1A and 1B on the depth chart but it’s clear Ebron tops the pecking order in the pass game. That’s pushed McDonald into an afterthought as a receiver, only catching the occasional checkdown, being the last read in the progression, with a primary focus on being a capable in-line blocker. Mike Tomlin made sure to praise those efforts in his Tuesday press conference.
“You know, Vance is a very versatile player for us,” he said Tuesday afternoon. “We believe that he’s the type of guy that could be impactful in the running game and in the passing game. He’s already displayed that to this point this year and we expect it to continue. He’s a guy that’s a willing point-of-attack blocker. He’s also a capable puller in the run game. He’s really just a team-first guy. And I think his attitude kind of permeates not only to the tight end position but through our offensive unit.”
Through three games, McDonald has caught just five passes on seven targets. Over the first two weeks, he caught just a pair of passes before his “best” game of the year in Week 3’s win over Houston, a three catch, 35 yard performance.
As the #2 receiving tight end on a team filled to the brim with other targets – JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson, James Washington, Chase Claypool, and the running backs – McDonald is going to see a small target share. But his blocking has looked much closer to 2018 levels than a year ago where he struggled and didn’t look healthy for large parts of the season.
Tomlin and Roethlisberger praised McDonald for the job he did as a puller against the Texans. The Steelers ran the ball effectively on the perimeter on the team’s gap schemes, pulling the backside tight end and guard across the formation with routine success.
Despite the high praise from Tomlin, odds remain high 2020 is McDonald’s final year with the team. The team can save over $5 million by cutting him in the offseason, a logical move given the cap crunch they’re almost certainly going to find themselves in. He’ll be 32 without much usefulness in the pass game on a team needing to shed money. For this season, he’s a valuable depth option in the pass game while helping boost Pittsburgh’s run game.