A tight end is typically a quarterback’s best friend. Especially lately, that role is sometimes occupied by a running back, but in the Pittsburgh Steelers’ case, it’s likely that Vance McDonald is going to, and going to have to, be a big asset for the offense going forward as they begin this temporary chapter with Mason Rudolph under center.
McDonald was targeted seven times last Sunday and made seven catches. Four of those targets were from Rudolph in the second half, accounting for more than one fifth of his 19 attempts in the passing game. And as I’m sure you well know, two of those targets came in the red zone, resulting in scores of eight and three yards.
While he has yet to put up the big numbers—he went for over 100 in his first game last season and he hasn’t even reached that yet through two games—McDonald is showing the signs that the Steelers have been looking for that he can be a dynamic breakout candidate at the tight end position.
His numbers might suffer, particularly in the yards-per-catch department, with Ben Roethlisberger not available to him, but it already looks like Rudolph is going to get him the ball, and is going to look for him as well. He’s shown good patience, even going back to the preseason, letting plays develop, especially in the end zone.
McDonald and Roethlisberger quickly grew close over the past two seasons. It’s taken a toll on the tight end to see his quarterback go down. “I care for Ben outside the walls of this room and this building”, he told reporters last week following the news that the quarterback was done for the year. “Football is football and life is way bigger, and so I hate that for him personally”.
But he knows the season’s far from over—really, it’s still just beginning—and there’s always going to be another quarterback. Rudolph is that quarterback for the next 14 games, and it’s imperative that he get his teammates to buy in. Fortunately, it seems that they have.
“Mason can come in and we can still operate and we can still execute on offense and move the ball and score and win”, McDonald said when he was asked about the offense moving from Roethlisberger to Rudolph. “That doesn’t change for me, I just separated the two”.
A year after catching 50 passes for 610 yards and four touchdowns, it looks as though McDonald is going to be a bigger part of the red-zone attack. He already has four targets in the red zone, among the most in the league at the tight end position, including two scores. That’s where Rudolph will need him most.