For the first time this season, Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Jesse James did not even catch a pass. He was targeted once, on a well-defended ball, but did not make the grab on a play that was negated by a defensive holding penalty that was unrelated to his role on the down.
And it wasn’t exactly as though he wasn’t seeing playing time. officially, he is credited as playing 55 of the team’s 64 defensive snaps, though Vance McDonald also played 31 snaps as the Steelers upped their usage of personnel groupings involving more than one tight end.
McDonald, in fact, was targeted more often, though it’s a minor distinction, since he was only targeted twice. But in the first game in which James did not make a reception, the newcomer—though the older and more experienced player of the two—got his first with the team.
Could it be a symbolic token in a usage shift? The Steelers acquired McDonald because they believed that he is a substantial talent—and also, directly from the team’s mouth, because they were disappointed with what they were getting from the tight end position as a whole—so it really wouldn’t be surprising.
Of course, Ben Roethlisberger said after the game on Sunday that he would like to see McDonald getting involved more, now that he is more comfortable in Pittsburgh and has the offense down. His snaps have been ticking upward, though it took a detour last week because the team was trailing and reverted in the second half exclusively to their base 11 package, only running the ball a couple of times.
In two of the past three games, the Steelers have heavily and actively featured McDonald as a move tight end, getting out in front of screen passes and rushes to the perimeter, and he has been an asset in carrying out that function. James, meanwhile, has been much more inconsistent in his blocking efforts.
It was a positive day overall on Sunday for both tight ends, however, in my initial evaluation, although that is always subject to change later on in the week when we are talking about such an early prognosis—which is why my film studies tend to come later on in the week when I’ve had more time to digest the game.
On the season, James has caught 18 of 25 targets for 151 yards, averaging just 8.4 yards per reception. That is tied for the 65th-lowest average among tight ends in 2017, and still 29th-lowest when only considering those with at least 10 receptions. His two touchdowns in the season opener certainly offered some false hopes as to what sort of impact he would have this season.
It would not surprise me to see the third-year tight end’s snap count begin to tick downward as we approach the bye week, or at least after the bye week, when the team will have a week to attempt to implement changes, which should see McDonald take on a more prominent role.