What happened to the Outlaw? It seemed for a couple of games that he had disappeared from the Pittsburgh Steelers’ offensive game plan. He went two straight games without even seeing an official target—he had one target two games ago that he did not catch, which was negated by a penalty—the first time since entering the lineup he failed to catch a pass in consecutive games.
Jesse James, the third-year tight end, was able to find his spots last night, however, hauling in two key catches that the Steelers promptly spoiled both times, oddly enough.
On the first play, Ben Roethlisberger connected with him on a short pass on second and seven that picked up 10 yards and a first down, out across midfield. On the next play, the quarterback promptly threw the ball into triple coverage looking for his favorite target, which resulted in the ball being picked off.
Late in the second half, on first down from the Steelers’ 36, Roethlisberger really threaded the needle through a tight window to James, who made the catch—which was probably difficult to even locate—and promptly discovered the most daylight he has ever seen in his career, actually picking up some speed on a 32-yard gain.
Then Le’Veon Bell fumbled the ball three plays later just outside of the red zone, losing possession. So clearly it’s a bad idea to throw James the football, because now whenever they do, they quickly turn the ball over soon after that.
I kid, of course, but I do think that it was something of an important game for James, who seemed to be losing his role in the offense, with Vance McDonald increasingly creeping into his snap count. The fifth-year tight end out-snapped him in the first half a week ago by a comfortable margin, but left early in the second half.
McDonald was out for yesterday’s game, which left the vast majority of the tight end responsibilities up to James, as he had been for the majority of the past 24 games. While it will take some deeper evaluation than his possible while writing 11 articles between 11:30 PM on Sunday night and 6 AM on Monday morning, it seemed that he generally played well all around.
McDonald was beginning to win a greater percentage of the primary blocking assignments, beginning to see more work in single-tight-end packages. This one showing is not going to prevent that trend from continuing on the other side of the bye week.
But I think that it is always important for players who seem to be losing something of their role that they take advantage of every opportunity that is even, which is why I feel this was something of a key win for James. And it should have been an even bigger day had Roethlisberger not significantly overthrown him late in the game, though it worked out for the better in the long run, since it preceded JuJu Smith-Schuster’s 97-yard touchdown on the following play.