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Steelers notebook: Vance McDonald gets settled just in time

Chris Adamski
| Thursday, Sept. 21, 2017, 7:03 p.m.
Steelers tight end Vance McDonald during practice Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2017 at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.
Chaz Palla
Steelers tight end Vance McDonald during practice Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2017 at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.

As of just a few days ago, Vance McDonald was in a considerable amount of physical pain, he didn't have a permanent place to live, he was behind on learning the offense and he wasn't even in uniform for the Steelers' game.

By Thursday, the tight end felt great, he had moved into a home with his family, he has achieved a level of understanding of the Steelers offense — and he might just be starting their next game.

McDonald is back to fully practicing after recovering from a back injury — just in time, too, because the Steelers' other No. 1 tight end, Jesse James, is ailing with an ankle injury.

“I wasn't so great last weekend, but I felt really good (now),” McDonald said after Thursday's practice. “I have been happy with the way my back has responded this week.”

Acquired from the 49ers via trade Aug. 28, McDonald received a crash course in the Steelers offense — along with a frenzied move across the country for him, his wife and 1-year-old son.

“We finally moved in (Wednesday), so we finally have a home and not in a hotel anymore,” McDonald said.

“That's just one less thing to worry about so you can focus on the more detail things like game-planning and stuff. So it takes a little bit off the plate.”

McDonald played a handful of snaps in the Steelers' preseason finale two days after being acquired, and he served as a complement to James in the regular-season opener 10 days later. Then, the back injury struck.

That could have raised some eyebrows because McDonald had back surgery after missing the end of the 2014 season.

“Not quite the same thing (this time),” McDonald said. “Just a little residual stuff, so I am glad to have corrected it.”

James was limited in practice Thursday after not practicing at all Wednesday because of an ankle injury. Unlike late last season, when the Steelers had four tight ends, this season it is only McDonald, James and Xavier Grimble. So if James can't play Sunday in Chicago, McDonald will have to carry a heavy load.

“Usually when you are getting a new offense — which I have had a lot over the last four years — you get it in OTAs, which is a much slower pace,” McDonald said. “At least now you're getting specific game plans, which are always easier (to digest because) they're more precise and specific.”

Gilbert remains out

Starting right tackle Marcus Gilbert again missed practice, furthering doubt he will play Sunday. After missing the end of last Sunday's game because of what the team said were cramps, Gilbert has not practiced at all this week because of what the team reports is a hamstring injury and illness.

Chris Hubbard would start in Gilbert's place, with Matt Feiler likely to be in uniform for a regular-season game for only the second time to serve as a backup. Young backup tackle Jerald Hawkins missed the first two games because of a knee injury but has been a full practice participant this week.

Watt down, Tuitt up

Rookie linebacker T.J. Watt did not practice Thursday. He was a limited participant Wednesday after leaving Sunday's win against Minnesota in the first half because of a groin injury.

Stephon Tuitt was a full practice participant for the first time since suffering a biceps injury in the season-opening win Sept. 10 at Cleveland. Tuitt said Wednesday the plan was to go hard Thursday to push his left arm and test it out, then use the results as a gauge of whether he could play Sunday.

Among others who were on the injury report but practiced fully were linebacker Bud Dupree (shoulder), center Maurkice Pouncey (illness), receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey (illness) and safety J.J. Wilcox (concussion).

Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.

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