Steel Mill A.M.: Steelers' Vance McDonald's forced fumble could have been game-changer
CHICAGO – Vance McDonald wasn't even supposed to be on the field.
Instead, in his second game as a Steeler, he ended up making a play that will forever endear him to his new teammates.
"Just awesome," fellow tight end Jesse James said. "I told him, 'That's probably my dream play.' "
James was referring to McDonald's hustling forced fumble of the Chicago Bears' Marcus Cooper Sr. with no time on the clock in the second quarter Sunday. If the Steelers had prevailed in overtime (they lost, of course, 23-17), the four points McDonald's play saved would have been hailed as a game-changer and turning point.
As it is, the play — part of a sequence that is one of the most bizarre you'll see in the NFL — is marginalized and probably soon forgotten by everybody except for McDonald's teammates.
"It's a football player's play. Being able to do that for the team is awesome," James said. "Huge play. Just shows selflessness trying to go down there and do whatever you can to take a bad play and try not to make it worse, and he did that. That's awesome. I was going crazy watching it."
The sequence began when Chris Boswell lined up to attempt a 35-yard field goal with 6 seconds left in the first half that would have pulled the Steelers to within 14-10.
The prior series, James had absorbed a hit on his left shoulder while making a catch, and had been forced to leave the game for a period. Aware of this, McDonald ran out to take James' spot on the field-goal team: on the far right side of the line.
"He kind of waved me off," James said. "'No, I got it,'"
While the snap and hold were fine, Boswell and holder Jordan Berry said, the tight end of the other side of the formation – Xavier Grimble – took responsibility for whiffing on a block of Sherrick McManis, who easily blocked the field goal.
It bounced perfectly to Cooper Sr., who caught it in stride and had nothing but open grass in front of him for 74 yards to the end zone.
"I heard the bang, the smack, of the block," Berry said, "and turned around and saw (Cooper) already hauling (butt) down the field. So I had to get on the horse and try to chase him down.
"But wasn't really having much luck."
Cooper Sr. has run a 4.4-second 40. With only offensive linemen, the kicker, punter and two tight ends on the field, it seemed unlikely he would be caught.
The 267-pound McDonald trailed Cooper by more than 10 yards. But — 26 days after the Steelers traded for him from the 49ers — McDonald dug in to sprint aanyway. And when Cooper Sr. inexplicably slowed down over the final 15 yards – almost to a walk as he approached the goal line – McDonald gained ground.
He swung his right arm to windmill over Cooper Sr.'s right shoulder, swatting the ball. It landed in the end zone, where Berry batted it out past the back line.
That is illegal, so after a lengthy review and officials' conference, the Bears were given the ball for an untimed play from inside the 1. A false start penalty pushed them back 5 yards, relegating Chicago to a Connor Barth field goal.
It was still a six-point swing, but it would have been 10 if not for McDonald. Maybe the Steelers don't even get to force overtime if so.
"It felt good, for sure." McDonald said moments after the loss. "But at the end of the day ... you look at the loss, that overshadows everything."
Veteran receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey made a similar hustle play during what was a meaningless regular-season finale Jan. 1 — and it earned him a team ovation during film study that week.
"A play like that, it's something special," James said. "Your teammates don't forget it."
Bears 23, Steelers 17 (OT)
Three stats to know
1. Le'Veon Bell has 236 yards from scrimmage through three games this season – or the same number of rushing yards alone he had in a Dec. 11 win last season at Buffalo.
2. The Steelers are in a virtual tie for the NFL lead in fewest opponents' yards per play (4.2).
3. The Steelers rank fifth in the NFL in opponent third-down conversion percentage, but tied for fifth-to-last in the NFL in third-down percentage for their own offense.
Snap counts to know
Offense: WR Antonio Brown (64 of 64), WR JuJu Smith-Schuster (51), WR Martavis Bryant (45), WR Eli Rogers (21), RB James Conner (0)
Defense: OLB Anthony Chickillo (62 of 65), OLB James Harrison (3), S Mike Mitchell (55), DL Tyson Alualu (57), DT Dan McCullers (7)
The Steelers practice Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.
Three storylines for the week
1. It's Ravens Week. Enough said.
2. The Steelers rank 22nd in total offense and No. 2 in total defense. After three seasons in which its offense carried the team – rare in franchise history – is this the new reality?
3. What will the Steelers do for the anthem next week? What is former Army Ranger Alejandro Villanueva's take on what they did this past week? How did it come about that he was the lone player to be on the field for the anthem in Chicago?
Steelers (2-1) at Baltimore Ravens (2-1), 1 p.m. Sunday, M&T Bank Stadium
It's still September, of course, but with the Browns and Bengals each still winless, is it too early to declare that the AFC North winner will absolutely be one of these two teams? Regardless, a victory Sunday by either gives it sole possession of first place.