I always find it somewhat dismaying when a player’s scouting report ends up matching the reality in a negative way. In Vance McDonald, the Pittsburgh Steelers acquired a talented tight end who has been marked for both dropped passes and frequent injury concerns, and we have certainly seen both of those traits present over the course of the 10 games played this year.
The former 49er has already missed three games this season for three separate injuries, and it is looking as though he is shaping up to miss his fourth game of the year, and second in a row, after suffering an ankle injury on the kick return unit against the Colts about two weeks ago.
That was after suffering a back injury early in the year that resulted in him sitting out a game, and then a knee injury that sidelined him for yet another game. It has been a cycle of taking two steps forward and one step back with McDonald.
And the problem is that the Steelers, and the offense, need him to step in and be that player that he is capable of being. He is a much better blocker than is Jesse James and is easily the more athletic and talented pass-catcher, even if his hands are less consistent. You can live with some drops if they are offset with some big plays, though, and he already has two on just five receptions.
McDonald has not practiced this week, so it is looking unlikely that he will play on Sunday. Based on the previous game, the Steelers are unlikely to turn to Xavier Grimble, their third tight end, to take on much of the load, as the second-year player hardly saw the field. Instead, they ran quite a bit out of the 11 personnel package, and James never came off the field.
The four-game suspension handed down to Marcus Gilbert at right tackle further complicates things, of course, since it makes it that much more difficult, and more risky, to use an extra offensive lineman as a tackle-eligible tight end, which I will talk about more a bit later today.
If JuJu Smith-Schuster also misses the game, then the team will arguably be without their two best blockers among the skill positions. It almost makes me wonder if we will see a role on the offense for Darrius Heyward-Bey, who in years past has seen time even in one-receiver packages for blocking purposes.
For somebody who was not even in training camp, the Steelers are in some ways finding it difficult to cope with the absence of McDonald, though it clearly has not prevented them from winning games, as they have done so five times in a row.
Still, as we continue to see him on the sidelines, I can’t help but think back to the decision to favor Grimble over David Johnson, who was their best blocker by far, and how much the struggles in run-blocking at the tight end position has impacted the ground game. He remains a free agent, by the way, just saying…