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Tim Benz: Steelers' vow to use tight ends more becoming harder to envision

| Wednesday, Aug. 15, 2018, 11:05 p.m.
Steelers linebacker Vance McDonald pulls in a pass over line backer Vince Williams during practice Sunday, July 29, 2018 at Saint Vincent College.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers linebacker Vance McDonald pulls in a pass over line backer Vince Williams during practice Sunday, July 29, 2018 at Saint Vincent College.

At the start of training camp last month, tight ends on the Pittsburgh Steelers roster couldn’t have been more enthusiastic.

Eight tight ends in the NFL had more than 60 catches last season. However, Steelers tight ends combined for 62.

But now they are being coached by a new offensive coordinator, Randy Fichtner. And before they arrived in Latrobe, he convinced them the position would be utilized more this year.

“Randy gets really hyped up when he walks in our room,” Steelers tight end Vance McDonald said on the first day of training camp. “He just has a passion to get the tight end involved.”

Tight end Jesse James, entering his fourth year with the Steelers, probably has heard the refrain about incorporating the tight end more since Heath Miller retired at the end of 2015. But with Fichtner taking over, James seemed to feel it was genuine.

“Randy has always been open that he loves the tight end room and that he has confidence that he is going to use us in different ways,” James said during the camp’s first weekend. “It’s always exciting when the offensive coordinator shows the tight ends love. It’s going to be good. He’s going to try to keep as many of us out there as we can.”

In September, the Steelers offense will be attempting to figure out what it has at wide receiver to replace Martavis Bryant. Plus, last year it took Le’Veon Bell a few weeks before he was fused back into the passing game after his camp absence. So greater tight end contributions could be huge over the first month of 2018.

“I think so,” James said. “Vance has a full camp with us. Going into this season, we’ll know what he’s able to bring to the offense a bit better than when he showed up a week before the opener in Cleveland (last year). Having a good base of three tight ends who have played a lot of ball will be good for us.”

There’s the problem. The Steelers haven’t had a full camp with McDonald. A foot injury has kept him sidelined for most of it. He spent much of 2017 battling injury, too, missing six games and being limited in others when he did dress.

McDonald didn’t play in the preseason opener. He won’t Thursday in Green Bay, either. The third tight end, Xavier Grimble, has an injured wrist that was in a cast earlier this week.

So with James as the lone portion of the trio still standing, has the installation of these new tight-end-oriented looks been slowed?

McDonald dismissed that notion as camp was breaking Tuesday in Latrobe.

“Training camp is all about seeing the young guys that you bring in and what they are capable of doing,” McDonald said. “So no, (the incorporation of the tight ends) hasn’t slowed at all.”

However, if you listened to coach Mike Tomlin at his news conference 15 minutes later, he was less definitive.

“We’ll probably gain some understanding of that as we push through the process,” Tomlin said. “I’m sure (injury) has affected it in some way. The totality of that we won’t know until we are further down the road.”

Largely, the notion of expanding the role of the tight end was based on continuing momentum from the end of last year. Nine of McDonald’s 14 regular-season catches occurred over the last three weeks. Then he had 10 catches for 112 yards in the playoff loss to Jacksonville. James had a 10-catch, 97-yard game in the December win over Baltimore.

Now it seems like from the tight ends’ point of view, it’s going to be more of a hard reboot than originally anticipated.

As McDonald said, there are many benefits to getting the tight ends involved more. Not only in matchup issues and stressing opposing defenses, but also lightening the load for Antonio Brown and Bell.

However, that will remain just a theory until he and Grimble are healthy enough to supplement James.

If that’s something we ever get to see.

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact at Tim at tbenz@tribweb.com or via Twitter @TimBenzPGH.

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