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With one big play, Vance McDonald showed what a difference-maker he can be for the Steelers

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Vance McDonald’s stiff-arm on the Buccaneers’ Chris Conte was just a small sample of what he could bring to the Steelers’ offense.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

“Old McDonald had an arm, E-I-E-Ohhhhhhhhhh, I can’t believe what he did to that guy! Is that even legal?”

I don’t think I was ever as subdued while watching a Steelers’ score as I was this past Monday night, when tight end Vance McDonald was finishing off a 75-yard touchdown catch-and-run in the first quarter of what would turn out to be a 30-27 victory over the Buccaneers.

The reason I was subdued was because McDonald finished most of his gallop towards the end zone totally uncontested; since nobody was within five yards of him. I figured a penalty for a personal foul had to be forthcoming, thus wiping out the play. Why? Because of what McDonald did to Tampa Bay defensive back Chris Conte, stiff-arming him to the Injured Reserve list (not literally — he had a prior knee injury — but Steeler lore will claim this to be the case years from now).

After receiving a short crossing-pass from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger on a 3rd-and-10 play late in the first quarter, McDonald stuck his hand into Conte’s face with such great force it knocked him to the ground. Then McDonald leaped over his prone body on his way to the end zone for Pittsburgh’s first touchdown of the night. While I didn’t react to the play from the comfort of my uncle’s living room, the same couldn’t be said for McDonald’s teammates on the sidelines, who enthusiastically reacted in unison and encouraged him as he finished off his epic induction into social-media immortality (GIFs of McDonald as a slice of pizza and Conte as a pineapple have already been spotted and confirmed).

GIFs and clever writing aside, what McDonald demonstrated on Monday night was the dimension to the Steelers’ offense that only he can bring — if only he can stay healthy. The staying healthy part has been a problem for McDonald ever since the Steelers acquired him from the 49ers late in the summer of 2017, which is why the best highlight of his career before Monday night was a previous 75-yard touchdown catch-and-run (sans stiff-arm) against the Panthers in 2016.

For the night, McDonald caught four passes for 112 yards plus the aforementioned epic touchdown. He averaged a whopping 28 yards per reception against Tampa’s defense, besting the almost equally impressive 27.6 yards per catch that teammate — and fellow tight end — Jesse James averaged eight days earlier in a 42-37 loss to the Chiefs in Week 2.

But the difference between McDonald and James might have been best illustrated later in the game, following McDonald’s touchdown, when Roethlisberger found James on a little crossing pattern in which the Steelers’ fourth-year tight end had one defender to beat as he rounded the corner. Had James been able to get past his defender, he might have had a big gain down the sideline. Instead, he went down immediately after contact.

Nothing against James, as I think he’s turned himself into a pretty decent weapon in Pittsburgh’s offense. But he doesn’t bring to the table what McDonald does. He doesn’t add that same level of threat to the Steelers’ passing game.

If Vance McDonald can stay healthy for the rest of the season, he might stiff-arm his way into the upper-echelon of NFL tight ends. But even if he doesn’t do that, he’ll add a new and dangerous element to the Steelers’ already-potent offense.