While the fact that Vance McDonald tested positive for Covid-19 has kind of gone under the radar in terms of what they will mean for the Pittsburgh Steelers in their game plan, it’s important to remind people that he is their blocking tight end. That is an important role, and they really don’t have another one of those.
It’s likely that we will see the 2020 debut of second-year tight end Zach Gentry, a 2019 fifth-round pick who has spent every game of his career to date on the 53-man roster but had only dressed for four games, none of which have so far come through the first half of this season.
For the past year and a half, the Steelers have almost exclusively stuck with dressing only two tight ends for game days, which is out of the ordinary, even this year when the gameday active roster expanded to up to 48 players, up from a previous maximum of 46.
But considering that Kevin Rader on the practice squad is the only other tight end that they have, it stands to reason that he have a fairly good shot of dressing and playing. And offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner addressed the contingency plans for Sunday’s game in McDonald’s absence when he spoke to reporters during the week.
“The contingency has always been to have multiple guys that would be in position to do that”, he said, via transcript. I know Eric [Ebron] has been in position to do some of our pulling, to take on some of that runner-type block. Zach’s done it. Zach probably will be in a position if maybe we wouldn’t put in Eric for some of that. We also uniquely been hopeful that we will get our fullback [Derek Watt] back, and there is some opportunity there for him”.
While Watt has missed a lot of time already this season, he has taken some snaps up on the line of scrimmage in certain packages, particularly on movement assignments, so with the fifth-year fullback ready to make his return, that is one resource they can use.
In recent years, the Steelers have relied on the tackle-eligible in a lot of their run packages to be not just an extra tight end, but their primary tight end. This year, that would be Jerald Hawkins, and he has been playing that role this year, though he has been limited this week to virtual work due to his placement on the Covid-19 List.
On top of that, rookie guard Kevin Dotson ended the week of practice coming down with an illness and his questionable to play. He did play one snap as an eligible. It would be interesting to know if they worked anybody else in that role—possibly even Henry Mondeaux—in the event that it becomes necessary against their next opponent.