Ready for im­pact

Fi­nally healthy, Steelers TE McDon­ald ready to make dif­fer­ence

Chattanooga Times Free Press - - WEEK 2 - By Will Graves

Vance McDon­ald ar­rived in Pitts­burgh on the eve of the 2017 reg­u­lar sea­son, far too late to have any say in his locker as­sign­ment.

And the tight end hardly com­plained about be­ing placed at the end of a long row of of­fen­sive line­men.

Still, he made a re­quest go­ing into 2018. He wanted to move. More specif­i­cally, he wanted to move to a locker right next to quar­ter­back Ben Roeth­lis­berger.

“I like Ben, Ben likes me,” McDon­ald said Thurs­day. “It’s kind of hard to com­mu­ni­cate. I’m not go­ing to ex­actly go out of my way to talk to some­one. So a lot of back and forth chit-chat hap­pens ca­su­ally in the locker room and vicin­ity and I wanted to be next to him.”

Un­for­tu­nately for the Steelers, the locker room is the only place where McDon­ald and Roeth­lis­berger have been side by side. McDon­ald missed al­most all of train­ing camp while deal­ing with an undis­closed foot in­jury.

He fi­nally re­turned to prac­tice this week only to spend Wed­nes­day and Thurs­day catch­ing passes from backup quar­ter­back Josh Dobbs while Roeth­lis­berger gives his aching right el­bow a rest.

“I keep teas­ing him, just about the time we get Vance back prac­tic­ing, all the guys back prac­tic­ing, Ben’s not prac­tic­ing,” of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Randy Ficht­ner said. “There’s not been one day since fall camp ... that we have prac­ticed as a full unit. That isn’t an ex­cuse. It’s never go­ing to be an ex­cuse.”

In­stead, it’s been a frus­trat­ing re­al­ity, par­tic­u­larly for McDon­ald. The Steelers ac­quired him from San Fran­cisco at the end of train­ing camp in 2017 en­am­ored with both his size (6-foot-4, 267 pounds) and his speed.

It didn’t take McDon­ald long to show­case the lat­ter. Pitts­burgh vis­ited Chicago in Week 3 last fall when McDon­ald chased down Bears de­fen­sive back Mar­cus Cooper on the fi­nal play of the first half af­ter Cooper blocked a Chris Boswell field goal.

McDon­ald knocked the ball loose just be­fore Cooper crossed the goal line for a touch­down. The Steelers ended up los­ing in over­time, but McDon­ald’s hus­tle play made an im­me­di­ate im­pres­sion.

The trou­ble is, McDon­ald strug­gled to build on it. The list of is­sues that lim­ited him to six games and 14 re­cep­tions in the reg­u­lar sea­son in­cluded a bruised knee, a sprained an­kle and a shoul­der prob­lem. Still, he fin­ished with a flour­ish, post­ing ca­reer highs in catches (10) and yards re­ceiv­ing (112) dur­ing a play­off loss to Jack­sonville.

The Steelers hope it is a sign of things to come at a po­si­tion that’s been steady but not spec­tac­u­lar since Heath Miller’s re­tire­ment in Fe­bru­ary 2016.

Ladar­ius Green lasted just one sea­son be­fore be­ing re­leased in the spring of 2017 af­ter deal­ing with an­kle surgery and the lin­ger­ing ef­fects of a con­cus­sion. Jesse James con­tin­ues to evolve from a fifth-round pick into a reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor, but isn’t con­sid­ered a down­field threat.

That’s not a prob­lem for McDon­ald, who av­er­ages a healthy 13.5 yards per re­cep­tion.

“He’s got ex­plo­sion at the po­si­tion, he’s got play­maker abil­ity, no doubt,” Ficht­ner said.

Get­ting that ex­plo­sive­ness onto the field con­sis­tently has proven tough. He left prac­tice on July 29 with a foot in­jury, forc­ing him to stand on the side­line and watch while try­ing to ab­sorb the tran­si­tion from former of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Todd Ha­ley to Ficht­ner. McDon­ald ad­mits he could feel his mus­cles twitch­ing while watch­ing the tight ends go on with­out him.

Steelers tight end Vance McDon­ald (89) plays against the Jaguars on Jan. 14 in Pitts­burgh. [KEITH SRAKOCIC/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS]

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