First Performance, Now Health A Concern At Tight End

So the Pittsburgh Steelers have a bit of an issue at tight end—perhaps more than one issue. We already knew going in that the team wasn’t all that happy with the quality of play from the position, which prompted them making a trade for Vance McDonald from the 49ers, who didn’t have the most encouraging debut.

Now we have injuries to worry about.

McDonald was already forced to miss Sunday’s game with a back injury, and he is already known to be a player with an injury history. Hopefully this will not be a prolonged issue, but we should get an update from Head Coach Mike Tomlin about his status later today.

Meanwhile, the Steelers’ starter at the position, Jesse James, suffered an ankle injury on the first play of the game. He had to come out, but he eventually worked his way back in and played the majority of the game, probably banging it up a couple more times, including one notable reception in the second half in which he was tackled somewhat awkwardly in the flat.

James apparently told Jeremy Fowler of ESPN that he plans to play against the Bears on Sunday, but admits that the ankle injury is an issue that he is dealing with, so even with him out on the field, they are not going to be getting 100 percent of him.

With James ailing and McDonald’s status uncertain, Xavier Grimble suddenly becomes a crucial figure. The second-year tight end played only one snap during the season opener, somewhat randomly, but he saw more than a dozen on Sunday, and that is not including the victory formation snaps at the end of the game.

While he did not record any statistics, he did have a five-yard reception on the third play of the game that ended up being negated by an illegal formation penalty, and for the most part he generally served as a blocker, but if he is needed to play a larger role, the Steelers seem willing to give him the opportunity.

As we already saw on Sunday, the issues at tight end are also re-opening the vault to the tackle-eligible, meaning that we are likely due for more facetime for Chris Hubbard, who saw a decent amount of work there before being called into action at both left and right tackle during the game due to heat-related issues with their starters.

While the tackle-eligible was a reasonably frequent feature of their offense in the second half of last season, they did not use it at all during the preseason, nor in the season opener, but clearly it was never off the table.

About the Author

Matthew Marczi
Passionate Steelers fan with a bit of writing ability. Connoisseur of loud music. Follow me on Twitter @mmarczi.
  • John Pennington

    Jake McGee is next man up get him ready to go and throw some passes to him.We know he can block.

  • Av232

    The tackle eligible definitely limits the options out of the TE position, but I remember Bell being very successful out of that personnel grouping late last year. Am I misremembering?

  • treeher

    McD missed 16 games in his first 4 years, plus at least one already this year.

  • dany

    Time to bring back DJ

  • falconsaftey43

    It was a good formation for them last year.

  • Michel Smiffi

    He’s not even on the roster.
    I don’t want to rely on practice squad guys in week 3 already.

  • MintDragon

    yah, and that requires practice to install … odds are they haven’t gotten around to it yet (since Bell wasn’t around), but agree.

  • Rocksolid20

    And let who go ?

  • dany

    I dunno, that’s their job!

  • falconsaftey43

    I love that James scored 2 TDs against the Browns. But man do I need more out of a starting TE. James has played more offensive snaps than every other skilled player. More than Bell, more than Brown, more than Bryant. He has had a lot of high profile poor blocks against the run and pass already. His 5.23 yards/target are even worse than last year. He’s done well in the redzone and is 3/4 on 3rd down which is great and a key area he needed to improve, but his talent and performance doesn’t justify being the most used offensive weapon. I don’t know what the answer is, more Grimble, more 0 TE formations, more Hubbard. Come on Jesse, let’s get it going.

  • John Phillips

    4 wide + Bell
    Having said that why did we draft a quarterback in the and not a TE in the fourth round?

  • John Phillips

    He got hurt in the Vikings game but they had to keep him in.

  • falconsaftey43

    No they didn’t, they could sub in Grimble, he’s wasn’t the only TE active. I just want him to do better is all.

  • Hagen Rinde

    finally time for Grimble to show up. But obv they don’t trust him enough..

  • VaDave

    Good call. Is he still available?

  • Zarbor

    Exactly. No one has picked him up yet and I doubt anyone besides us will.

  • Jim Foles

    His rookie status on the team makes him sit on the PS.. He reads the D and blocks well. Play him.

  • Zarbor

    I personally don’t see the major concern. We have so much talent on offense and we are worried about the position we have the least talent? We are not devoid of talent at the TE position but with Brown, Bell, Bryant and Rogers in the slot, we can bring DJ back in a heart beat to help block.

  • D.j. Reynolds

    Matthew, if you had to guess who is TE starter at midseason?

    Seems to me that we pay McDonald too much not to give him a real shot at starting.

  • Ralph Wagner

    Before making a trade do the Steelers check the background of the player they are interested in? I think not. Another injury prone tight end. It would seem that Colbert and Tomlin are slow learners when it comes to trades. Come on man.

    Go Steelers

  • Guest12

    Ehh, the need for JJ to be a big yardage play guy isn’t really that serious right now. MB looks like he hasn’t lost any steps from where he was before, AB will be his usual self, then once Bell really starts to get going, those are 3 very big targets to worry about, that leaves JJ to man the middle, as long as he is making his 3rd down and redzone catches, and blocking well he should be alright. He just needs to be a good complement to the other guys to make the defense honest

  • falconsaftey43

    It’s not critical, but it’s hard to watch. For as often as he is targeted, it’s borderline historically bad yards per play. The problem is his blocking isn’t good enough for him to be on the field that much AND have that poor of receiving stats. He has, so far, really improved on 3rd downs which was an absolute must. But right now, he’s much more of a liability than an asset. His performance isn’t worthy of being on the field more than anyone else on offense. At least mix it up with Hubbard/Grimble/(and when healthy, McDonald) to get different skill sets out there.

  • Guest12

    Yea I actually like the potential of Grimble and think they should use him more often.

  • cencalsteeler

    Not sure if James is to blame here, Falcon. I just don’t think the Steelers utilize TE’s like other teams do. For me, it looks like James is Bens safety blanket much like Heath was. He’s usually the check down guy or the last guy on his progression if no one else is open. I do see improvement in the key areas which you stated, red zone and third down, which in our style of Offense is a huge upgrade from the last few seasons. I think we all sit here hoping for Gronk and Kelce type performances, but I honestly think Haley’s TE playbook is more catered toward them being a security blanket rather than a downfield threat.

  • falconsaftey43

    Well, they certainly threw down field to Green. Green’s yards/target were an incredible 8.94. Now he’s a different type of guy, but shows they’ll use a TE that way. As for Miller (certainly more the “type” of TE they want James to be) his worst y/t was 6.60 in his last year. No other year was he below 7.51, he even hit 8.36 in 2014 with Haley as the OC. Those all make James 5.63 last year and 5.23 so far this year look pathetic. James has 84 career targets 462 yards (5.5 avg). Spaeth had 87 career targets 420 yards (4.8 avg). James is much closer to Spaeth as a receiver than he is Miller, problem is James is the primary TE and sees a lot of targets and isn’t a great blocker. Spaeth was a 2nd guy, was rarely targeted and was a great blocker.

    Now, it’s not all his fault, it’s the OC and Ben as well. You have to know that if you hit James in the flat with someone anywhere near him, he’s only getting 3 yards. That’s as much on Jame’s ability as it is on the OC and Ben not recognizing that that’s not within his skill set. Those quick hitting seam passes they do used to get 10-15 with Miller, now they’re like 5-6.

  • cencalsteeler

    JJs young and still learning. He was drafted after his junior year. Let’s give him some more time before we start comparing his stats to Heath Miller to be fair. I’m optimistic, but I do think it’s going to require some patience. On the bright side, he’s already surpassed Spaeths avg. 😉

  • falconsaftey43

    He is young, and I do hope he continues to grow. His performance in redzone and 3rd down so far this year have been great. I compared his stats to Heath’s to put them in context, not because I actually expect him to produce as well as Heath. All I’m calling for is using him less while his skill clearly aren’t up for the task yet. They have other options with no real reason to be playing James nearly 100% of the time with where he is at right now. He shouldn’t be the 2nd most targeted guy on this offense.

  • Matthew Marczi

    Tight ends play an awfully important role in any offense. They are the most important flex position as well. If you have two talented tight ends that are threats both as blockers and receivers, then you basically can put the defense in a negative package at well. If they show a run-stopping set, you throw. If they show a coverage set, you run.

  • Matthew Marczi

    I’m hoping it’s McDonald, but I’m growing skeptical that will happen.

  • D.j. Reynolds

    I’m right there with you. I think the Steelers are going to have to give him a real shot given what they’re paying him.