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Steelers

Tight end McDonald becoming a big hit with Steelers

Joe Rutter
| Saturday, Oct. 20, 2018, 2:18 p.m.
Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Vance McDonald (89) runs the ball against Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Vincent Rey (57) in the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Oct. 14, 2018, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Frank Victores)
Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Vance McDonald (89) runs the ball against Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Vincent Rey (57) in the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Oct. 14, 2018, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Frank Victores)

David DeCastro saw a string of Cincinnati Bengals players converge on Vance McDonald in the second quarter Sunday, so he started preparing for the next play.

Trouble was, McDonald wasn’t finished with this play.

First, he lowered a shoulder into linebacker Vontaze Burfict, who fell to the ground at the sideline before leaving the game for the rest of the first half. Then, McDonald sidestepped safety Shawn Williams, pulling away from a leg tackle. He also shed linebacker Preston Brown with little difficulty. It was only after cornerback William Jackson stood up McDonald and nose tackle Andrew Billings swooped in from the side that the Bengals finally brought down the Pittsburgh Steelers tight end after a 26-yard gain.

“It was crazy,” said DeCastro, the Steelers’ All-Pro guard. “You’re like, ‘Oh, he’s tackled,’ and you look back and he is still going. Then, (you think), ‘OK, he’s tackled,’ and he’s still going.

“It was pretty impressive.”

The nifty catch-and-run, in which McDonald broke four tackles and left several other Bengals players in his wake, set up the Steelers’ second touchdown in a 28-21 victory at Paul Brown Stadium. It was one of a regular-season, career-high seven catches (for 68 yards) in a game for McDonald, who is finally free of injuries and is making the most of his second season with the Steelers.

Like his vicious stiff-arm of Tampa Bay safety Chris Conte, McDonald’s burst through half of the Bengals defense made its way onto the highlight reel that coach Mike Tomlin shows his players in Monday film review. And, like that stiff-arm, McDonald’s jaunt earned the admiration of his teammates, especially because it temporarily knocked Steelers’ nemesis Burfict temporarily out of the game.

“It’s like, ‘Wow, I’ve really got to follow him and support him,’ ” said wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, who delivered his own memorable knockout shot on Burfict in December. “You never know what is going to happen with him.”

McDonald takes it as a challenge when defenders try to hit him high. Conte learned that the hard way when he was flattened on Monday Night Football in Week 3. Already playing with an injured knee, Conte never returned to the game and landed on injured reserve the next day.

“I like the physical aspect of catching and running and seeing what I can do in open grass against defenders,” McDonald said.

The lack of fear that McDonald displays when confronting defenders reminds some veteran Steelers players of another popular, highly effective tight end from recent vintage.

“That’s some Heath Miller-type stuff,” right tackle Marcus Gilbert said.

Center Maurkice Pouncey also drew the Miller comparison.

“He’s like Heath as far as blocking and catching,” Pouncey said. “The one thing is he’s probably a little faster than Heath was. You can compare the two to how reliable they were, how much you can count on them. Vance is a little bit more physically gifted, but they are both really good tight ends.”

Truth be told, McDonald isn’t quite in Miller’s class when it comes to reliability. Miller never played in fewer than 14 games in any of his 11 NFL seasons. McDonald reached 14 games just twice in his first five seasons.

In 2017, after being acquired from the San Francisco 49ers at the end of the preseason, McDonald was limited to 10 games, including seven starts, because of four separate injuries. The injuries limited McDonald to 14 catches for 188 yards, although he showed why the Steelers acquired him when he caught 10 passes for 112 yards in the AFC divisional playoff loss to Jacksonville.

That performance, coupled with McDonald having a full offseason to digest the Steelers system, raised expectations for 2018. Then, McDonald injured his foot early in training camp and didn’t return until the second week of the regular season.

With McDonald out, Jesse James moved back into the role as Ben Roethlisberger’s main target at tight end that he has filled since Miller’s retirement after the 2015 season. But it didn’t take long for McDonald to make his presence known once he returned. In his second game, he had that 75-yard reception against Tampa Bay that was part of a four-catch, 112-yard effort.

And he has remained healthy through the team’s bye week, contributing 20 catches for 274 yards, a 13.7 average per catch. James has the same yardage total on three fewer receptions (a 16.1 average), and Xavier Grimble had a season-high two catches for 35 yards against the Bengals.

“It’s another great depth position that we have,” DeCastro said. “Vance has been making some spectacular plays. He just keeps doing it. Jesse is dependable as ever, and ‘X’ is making plays, too. It’s nice to have some serious depth there.”

With 10 games remaining in the regular season, McDonald easily should surpass his career-high 30 receptions set in 2015 and the 391 receiving yards he had in 2016, his final year with the 49ers. Among NFL tight ends with at least 20 catches, McDonald’s 13.7 average ranks third behind San Francisco’s George Kittle (15.9) and Kansas City’s Travis Kelce (14.2). His 54.8 yards per game is eighth.

Thanks, in part, to McDonald’s emergence as a viable target, the Steelers have been comfortable using two and sometimes three tight ends in a formation while getting limited production from No. 3 receiver James Washington.

“We have a lot of good tight ends that can run and block and get open in the pass game,” Pouncey said. “It works out in our favor when we have multiple guys on the field that can do multiple things. There’s no negatives to it.”

Perhaps not for the Steelers, but it is for opponents. The vision of watching McDonald bowl over defenders in Cincinnati brought a wide smile to Pouncey’s face.

“It’s definitely motivation,” he said. “He’s a great player. As long as luck stays on his side with injuries, I’m pretty sure he’ll be talked about one day as one of the best tight ends to do it.”

Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe at jrutter@tribweb.com or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.

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