Kevin Gorman: Denver debacle behind him, Xavier Grimble ready to step in for Steelers
With Vance McDonald walking around Pittsburgh Steelers headquarters wearing a sling, the Pittsburgh Steelers are in next-man-up mode at one of the team’s thinnest positions.
That the next tight end up is Xavier Grimble has to be a concern, considering he’s remembered more for the touchdown he didn’t score than the ones he did.
Grimble has 23 catches for 239 yards and three touchdowns in three-plus seasons with the Steelers but believes he is capable of so much more than his career statistics have shown.
Asked if he’s been held back, Grimble grinned.
“I don’t know what you want me to say to that,” Grimble said. “You can guess.”
It’s a good guess Grimble was referring to the goal-line collision that forced him to fumble out of the end zone, an otherwise perfectly called and executed play that proved costly in the 24-17 loss at Denver last November.
Grimble doesn’t have to speak to the consequences. The numbers tell the story. As the third-stringer, he played only 49 snaps in the final five games. He had one catch for 16 yards in that span, in the season finale against Cincinnati.
“Probably for me, it’s just me already being on limited opportunities and … not making the most out of that one and not going the way I wanted it to,” Grimble said. “For me being my biggest critic, it was tough on me not making that play because I know that nine times out of 10 I make that play.”
It was a perfectly called and executed play, save for the final result. The Steelers sold the play-action fake to the right. The defense flowed toward James Conner, allowing Grimble to release through them to the left. He was all alone when Ben Roethlisberger tossed a pass to him at the Denver 19.
All Grimble had to do was beat one defender, as safety Will Parks had an angle on him. When they met at the goal line, the 6-foot-4, 261-pound Grimble had a decided advantage. But he made a mistake — not by lowering his right shoulder but rather carrying the ball tucked in his inside hand — and Parks popped it loose to force a fumble out of the end zone for a touchback.
A one-in-10 moment Grimble had to learn from and to live with.
“It was just a growing experience, man,” Grimble said. “At first, I was getting down about it. But those plays happen, though. You look around the league, and it happens to everybody. Some games, you’re up and you have a great game; some games, you have a bad game or a bad play and it makes you feel like it’s the end of the world. That’s just part of the game.
“Being an athlete, you’ve got to learn how to stay in-between — never too high, never too low — and stay the course. It’s a long season. You try to make more plays than you don’t.”
Still, the Steelers showed faith in Grimble by allowing Jesse James to leave for the Detroit Lions in free agency and not signing another veteran tight end. That fueled Grimble this offseason, knowing that he had a shot at a more prominent role.
“I feed off it every year. I know how I got here and how I came in,” said Grimble, an undrafted free agent out of Southern Cal. “There’s a lot of guys who’ve been in my position who are not in the league anymore. That always gives me confidence. I’m still here. I’m still fighting. That says a lot about who I am and how I go about my business.”
Perhaps the Steelers remember Grimble more for his first career NFL catch, which came against the Cincinnati Bengals in the 2016 home opener, than the debacle in Denver.
With Heath Miller retired and free agent LaDarius Green on the PUP list, the Steelers were forced to rely on James and Grimble in an important AFC North Division game.
Grimble caught a 20-yard touchdown in the 24-16 victory, diving and stretching the ball across the goal line. He also had a catch on a third-and-1 for a first down that led to another score.
So, Grimble was excited to know he could start against the Bengals on Monday Night Football, depending on the severity of McDonald’s shoulder injury and whether the Steelers make a move to add another tight end.
“I hate that Vance is down because we need him; we need everybody here,” Grimble said. “When somebody’s down, somebody has to step in and do the job and get the win.
“So that’s what I’ll do.”
Grimble learned a lesson in the Denver loss, one he continues to carry. Will he make the most out of his next shot for the Steelers? I don’t know what you want me to say to that.
Your guess is as good as mine.
The Steelers have to hope Grimble makes it memorable, more for the plays he makes than the ones he doesn’t.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .