Kevin Gorman: Steelers' Vance McDonald ready to play 'Heath'
Ben Roethlisberger made no secret that Heath Miller was his security blanket in the pass game.
The Steelers quarterback on Wednesday credited their years of practicing and playing together for that, calling Miller “probably the best teammate I've ever played with and one of the best men I've ever known in my life.”
“Those kind of things all combined to be a great football player and a comfort to me,” Roethlisberger said, “... and I think the tight end position is just naturally kind of that spot, too.”
Never was Miller more valuable to Big Ben than in AFC North games against the Cincinnati Bengals, who visit Heinz Field on Sunday.
Miller had 78 catches for 721 yards and four touchdowns in 20 regular-season games against the Bengals, including two 10-catch games in 2015 before retiring.
Which adds greater importance to Vance McDonald making his first catch of the season this past Sunday at Kansas City, a 26-yarder on a first-and-10 at the Steelers 1.
Talk about perfect timing.
Not only did McDonald's catch spark a 12-play, 93-yard scoring drive, but Big Ben called it a “big coming-out play,” one that should help build a rapport between Roethlisberger and McDonald.
“I hope so,” Roethlisberger said. “I think he's got a lot of confidence. He's learning this offense every day, getting more and more reps, more practice time, more communication with me. I see steps every day, every week.”
McDonald had 54 receptions for 717 yards and seven touchdowns the past two seasons with the San Francisco 49ers before being acquired in a late-August trade.
He had yet to make his mark on the Steelers offense. Instead, his biggest play came on special teams at Chicago, when he chased down Bears cornerback Marcus Cooper for a touchdown-saving tackle and strip at the 1-yard line.
Roethlisberger overthrew McDonald in the first quarter against the Chiefs, but they later connected in the second.
“It's a big situation in the game and a lot of stress on the offense,” McDonald said. “You're thinking, ‘We've got to get at least one first down.' It's nice, you get the first one and we're just going to build on it.”
The Bengals might have the NFL's No. 2 defense, one Roethlisberger called a “really, really big challenge for us.” But Steelers tight ends have a history of success against them.
Miller made a career catching passes over the middle against Cincinnati, and tight ends Jesse James and Xavier Grimble combined for five receptions for 55 yards and two touchdowns in the 24-16 victory at Heinz Field last year.
Not that McDonald has any delusions about becoming Big Ben's next Heath.
“That's just something that grows every single day. You can't replace time with anything,” McDonald said. “With Heath, he had years and years and years. I don't think we'll ever get to that point just because I don't think Ben wants to play 15 more years.”
But McDonald hopes to prove he can soon provide a similar comfort in the pass game.
“Of course,” McDonald said, noting that Roethlisberger has gone out of his way to clarify any of his questions with the offense. “If anything, with him losing Heath, he's wanting to replace him. ...
“There's always things you're thinking about, as far as turning plays as a playmaker, as a receiver. I had some big plays last year, and I'm looking to contribute that here in Pittsburgh. If it's a big play we're needing, I'm hoping I can make it and help us win games. Because it's fun when you're winning.”
And even more fun hearing Steelers fans cheer Heath's name every time a tight end makes a catch at Heinz Field.
“I haven't gotten one yet,” said McDonald, who is looking forward to that being his next first as a Steeler. “Sure, absolutely. Who wouldn't?”
With the Steelers, it's the ultimate sign of security.