The 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers were one of the most efficient teams at using tight ends in the passing game. That season Jesse James had the third highest yards per target and Vance McDonald had the eleventh highest yards per target among tight ends. The Steelers were the only team to have two tight ends record more than 8 yards per target.
The 2019 Steelers were not nearly as efficient. The tight end group recorded only 408 yards, down from 1119 yards in 2018, and the yards per target dropped from 9.4 in 2018 to 5.4 in 2019. While a lot of that change was due to Ben Roethlisberger’s injury, the Steelers didn’t sit still and hope Roethlisberger’s return would solve everything. Instead they also went out and signed Eric Ebron to pair with Vance McDonald and hopefully give the Steelers a two tight end group that could be even more successful than the 2018 pairing of Vance McDonald and Jesse James were in 2018.
While they were less involved in the passing game, Steeler tight ends were asked to do a lot more blocking in 2019. With young quarterbacks starting and teams loading the box, the Steeler tight ends were asked to both run block and pass block more than in previous seasons.
I like Vance McDonald as a blocker. He isn’t George Kittle, but he’s solid and doesn’t make a lot of mistakes.
Week 5, 1st quarter, 2:50. Vance McDonald is the tight end to the left side of the screen.
McDonald is tasked with making sure Pernell McPhee (#90) is moved inside so the Steelers line can bottle all the pass rushers up in the middle of the field. He does the job, and is able to pick up Josh Bynes (#57) coming around the outside. McDonald would also block McPhee one on one in this game, and do a decent job of it, but he is better when asked to give a chip and then find a smaller player to block.
Week 6, 1st quarter, 4:35. Vance McDonald is the tight end to the right side of the screen.
McDonald makes the key block on this play. His chip on Joey Bosa (#97) lets Alejandro Villanueva reach Bosa, and get control of Bosa’s outside arm to take him completely out of the play. Chip blocks need to move the defender to the right spot, too far or not far enough can wreck the block and mess up the play. McDonald nails these blocks.
Nick Vannett came and went already, but the Steelers 2018 draft pick Zach Gentry returns to the tight end room.
Week 4, 1st quarter, 0:16. Zach Gentry (#81) is the farthest Steelers player to the right of the screen.
Gentry finds the right defender, but he blows the block, getting too far inside of Carlos Dunlap (#96) and Dunlap easily evades him.
But while he missed on this one, he would get the better of Dunlap later on in the same game.
Week 4, 3rd quarter, 5:19. Zach Gentry is the tight end to the right side of the screen.
Gentry gets Dunlap this time and is able to move him out of the run lane and control his outside arm, helping Conner run for a good gain on the play.
Gentry was inconsistent moving to his blocking targets, and was better as an in-line blocker with a more straight forward assignment. Zach Gentry will have a chance to earn more snaps as an in-line blocking tight end this season, and he showed he has some upside there.
While blocking certainly matters, the Steelers will likely be throwing the ball a lot more than they run it in 2020. Let’s take a look at how the Steelers use their tight ends in the passing game.
Week 10, 3rd quarter, 5:56. Vance McDonald is the tight end to the right of the screen.
A simple 10 yard in route by the tight end, it attacks the middle of the field in front of the safeties and behind the linebackers and it creates space for underneath routes from receivers like JuJu Smith-Schuster and Diontae Johnson. Vance McDonald is an athletic tight end, and a good blocker, but he isn’t the smoothest receiver. He needs passes to hit him in the numbers to be really effective. This ball is a little low and McDonald drops it.
Week 10, 2nd quarter, 11:10. Vance McDonald is the tight end to the bottom of the screen.
This time it is a 15 yard out route. Ten to fifteen yard out or in cutting routes are some of the most frequent routes Steeler tight ends run. This play shows some of McDonald’s limitations as a route runner. He is strong and fast for his size, but he isn’t a good technician in his routes, and it makes it easier for defenders to take him out of the game. A common tactic for dealing with athletic tight ends is to have a linebacker deliver a shot, disrupting their route, and then let a defensive back pick them up. McDonald isn’t knocked far off his route by the contact, but the defensive back is able to sit in his pocket and run the route for him. Mason Rudolph is fortunate that pass wasn’t intercepted. The ball shouldn’t have been thrown, but McDonald’s execution of the route shows why he isn’t a top receiving tight end.
Week 8, 3rd quarter, 9:12. McDonald is the Steelers player farthest to the bottom of the screen.
Again we see McDonald struggle to deal with a defensive back, and we see him unable to make a catch on a high ball. Even when Ben Roethlisberger is his quarterback, his catch rate on deep balls is really low, and in 2019 McDonald was 0-6 on deep passes.
Week 6, 3rd quarter, 14:36. Vance McDonald is the tight end to the top of the screen.
McDonald going deep here draws multiple defenders. The linebackers are used to the Steelers tight ends stretching their area to attack behind them and in front of the safeties and McDonald pulls both of them deep, leaving James Conner with a ton of room to work with on this pass. The Steelers weren’t completing deep routes to their tight ends in 2019, but those routes still had value.
Now that we have done a good job of showing Vance McDonald struggling in the passing game, let’s look at where he does well.
Week 2, 4th quarter, 5:37. Vance McDonald is the Steeler farthest to the top of the screen.
McDonald scores a touchdown against the Seahawks Pro-Bowl CB Shaquill Griffin, one of only 4 that Griffin would give up in 2019. This play is set up by McDonald’s run blocking. Griffin is trying to not engage McDonald, looking to read the play, evade the tight end and get to the ball. McDonald’s turn out of his fake block is sharp and powerful — the ball is at head level and McDonald brings it in for a touchdown. The Steelers are in a jumbo set, the whole team sells the run and McDonald executes the route with a hard cut inside.
Week 2, 4th quarter, 11:23. Vance McDonald is Mason Rudolph’s sidecar in this shotgun set.
This is set up as a tight end screen. You can see Ramon Foster and Alejandro Villanueva let Branden Jackson (#93) go past with just a shove, and Vance McDonald looking to head out with them. The screen doesn’t develop though, and as McDonald turns and feels the defender on his back, he ad-libs and goes inside for a touchdown.
Football isn’t just about physical ability, it’s also about will and fighting for your team.
Week 13, 4th quarter, 2:50. Vance McDonald is the Steeler farthest to the bottom of the screen.
The Steelers are looking to run clock and seal a tough win over a division rival with the path to the playoffs on the line. On second and six Vance McDonald gets called for a false start, his second and last false start of the season. On second and 11, the Steelers dial up a run right behind Vance McDonald, and Vance delivers, driving linebacker Joe Schobert out of the run lane as Benny Snell powers for 5 yards to bring up 3rd and 6.
Week 13, 4th quarter, 2:44. Vance McDonald is the Steeler farthest to the bottom of the screen.
Similar route to the touchdown he scored in Week 2, McDonald again with a sharp cut creates space for the ball then breaks a tackle to secure the first down. This first down let the Steelers burn the last two Browns time outs and the 2 minute warning. The Steelers would close out the game with a Joe Haden interception.
The Steelers leaned on Vance McDonald after a rare misstep put his team in a bad spot. McDonald delivered in the run game and with a big 3rd down catch.
The new kid in town
Eric Ebron has 1,200 more receiving yards in one fewer seasons than Vance McDonald. He is known primarily as a pass catching tight end. Let’s look at what Ebron brings to the Steelers.
2018, Week 5, 3rd quarter, 0:48. Eric Ebron (#85) is to the far left of the screen.
Eric Ebron is a smoother route runner tan Vance McDonald, winning an outside release, but is able to cut across the defender trailing him inside for a 15 yard gain.
4th quarter, 14:24. Eric Ebron is to the far left of the screen.
Another 15 yard in route. Ebron dodges the linebacker’s push and creates space on the defensive back with a full speed turn. Eric Ebron is great on these routes, and they are routes the Steelers love to run with their tight ends.
3rd quarter, 9:53. Eric Ebron is the receiver lined up on the hash marks.
Here the linebacker gets a good shove on Ebron, and he still beats the defensive back with a nice turn for a touchdown.
2019 Week 9, 2nd quarter, 3:13. Eric Ebron is the Colt to the far left of the screen.
Eric Ebron puts a great chip on Bud Dupree, sending him right into the tackle’s chest. Then he beats Mark Barron on a nice drag route for a six yard gain.
Vance McDonald is a better tight end than he gets credit for. He’s a solid blocker and a freight train with the ball in his hands and a head of steam. But he isn’t a nuanced route runner and he doesn’t have a good catch radius. He’s the type of tight end that will cause you problems if you underestimate him, but with a little focus can be largely taken out of the passing game.
Eric Ebron is a different animal. Ebron is a good route runner who is very dangerous in the routes the Steelers like to use with their tight ends. He also fits really well on an offense that likes to create space underneath with the threat of deep routes from their tight ends.
Every single bit of focus the tight ends draw will create more space for the Steelers wide receivers and running backs to operate in, and that is good news for the Pittsburgh Steelers offense.