When the Pittsburgh Steelers traded for Vance McDonald, it was clear they had a plan for him. It was also clear that it was not catching the football. While McDonald is athletic and talented with the football in his hands, he does tend to drop his few opportunities. However, the reason in which the Steelers trade for him is the same reason that he will begin to take over as the top tight end during the second half of the season and into the playoffs.
Vance McDonald is a much better run blocker than Jesse James. McDonald missed the Cincinatti Bengals game due to a knee injury. In the three games before that, Le’Veon Bell averaged 6.8 yards per carry when McDonald was on the field. Without him against the Bengals, it was 3.8 yards per carry. This is not a direct correlation, but there is some.
McDonald makes the run game less predictable. He is a much more fluid athlete than James, and a better blocker when it comes to pulling. When James is on the field, his side is the strong side, and is likely the side in which the team will run to. When McDonald in on the field, he can pull across the field, and both sides are still in play. As show below, McDonald, along with right guard Ramon Foster pull and free a hole for Bell. McDonald takes on a star linebacker in C.J. Mosley and frees up extra yards for Bell.
Below, the Steelers first put McDonald in motion. This helps them identify the play call. From there, McDonald pulls, picks up a block at the second level and gets just enough of Daniel Sorenson, 49 that he was not able to come up and tackle Bell, giving him an extra couple of yards.
The ability for the Steelers to use McDonald as a chess piece and to use the motion to see how the defense reacts, and to catch them off guard, and have them unsure where the play is going is valuable. Adding in that he is a great blocker, he is able to get to the second level and from there he is able to spring free to continue to block will turn typical eight yard runs into twenty-plus yard carries.
james is the better pass catcher, and in the red zone he will be more valuable than McDonald. McDonald missed the game before the bye week with a knee injury, but is expected back in Week 10. McDonald should begin to see the majority of the snaps at tight end, and even if it is just 54-46 he should be finishing these next games as the higher usage tight end of the two.