As expected, the Pittsburgh Steelers activated tight end Vance McDonald off the Reserve/COVID-19 list on Tuesday and he then proceeded to take part in the team’s Tuesday practice. What wasn’t expected on Tuesday, however, was tight end Kevin Rader being signed off the team’s practice squad. With McDonald still riding a roster exemption, and with Rader now firmly on the 53-man roster, it’s quite possible that McDonald won’t play Thursday night against the Baltimore Ravens.
On Tuesday, Steelers offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner made it sound like McDonald isn’t a lock to dress and play Thursday night against the Ravens.
“We’re hoping Vance is back,” Fichtner said on Tuesday of McDonald, who has missed the team’s last two games while recovering from the coronavirus. “He’s back in the building, and he’s COVID clear. As far as being out and going through the illness where he’s at physically, we will get a better feel today and tomorrow. I know that Mike T [Tomlin] and John Norwig will make the right decision about where he’s at. We are hopeful.”
With this being a short week, the Steelers won’t get much of a look at where McDonald currently is from a conditioning and overall strength standpoint. After all, the team did not practice on Monday and according to pictures on the official team website, Tuesday’s practice looked to be exceptionally light as well. In short, Wednesday’s practice, the final one before Thursday’s game, will be McDonalds lone chance to show the coaching staff he can be counted on to possibly play a high number of snaps against the Ravens.
The fact that Rader has already been signed to the 53-man roster, instead of being elevated from it on Wednesday, is a rather good sign that he’s likely to dress Thursday night against the Ravens. Even if McDonald is ultimately given the green light to play on Thursday, the Steelers might be best served to dress Rader for the game as well. Rader, by the way, might just be the Steelers best blocking tight end on the team and the Steelers running game certainly could use some of that Thursday night.
The Steelers have yet to dress three tight ends for a game this season so having McDonald, Rader, and Eric Enron all in uniform Thursday night would be a very notable thing. Dressing all three would also mean that the team might not dress a player who normally does get a helmet.
There’s currently no sign that the Steelers will elevate a practice squad player on Wednesday and if that’s ultimately the case, the team will need just five inactive players Thursday night. Quarterback Joshua Dobbs is destined to be one of those five and it’s currently looking like two of the team’s banged up running backs, Trey Edmunds and Jaylen Samuels, might miss another game as well. One defensive lineman will be inactive and so that leaves one other inactive spot to fill. That spot might go to either McDonald or outside linebacker Jayrone Elliott, who was inactive on Sunday because of an illness.
It’s worth also pointing out that if McDonald’s exemption expires before Thursday’s kickoff that one player from the roster will need to go to make room for him. If that player winds up being Edmunds, then that’s one inactive spot that needs to be filled. We’ll get a better sense of which way the Steelers are leaning with their gameday 48-man roster late on Wednesday.
“It’s good to have him back,” Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said of McDonald on Tuesday. “That locker next to me has been vacant for quite a while. To see him in there today and have him on the practice field, he has more energy than the rest of us right now, which is good to see. We are excited to get everybody back, anybody that’s been out for a while whether it’s through injury or this. To get them back on the field as a brother and as a guy we can use, we are excited for him.”