Finally healthy, Steelers TE McDonald ready to make impact
PITTSBURGH (AP) — Vance McDonald arrived in Pittsburgh on the eve of the 2017 regular season, far too late to have any say in his locker assignment.
And the tight end hardly complained about being placed at the end of a long row of offensive linemen.
Still, he made a request going into 2018. He wanted to move. More specifically, he wanted to move to a locker right next to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
"I like Ben, Ben likes me," McDonald said Thursday. "It's kind of hard to communicate. I'm not going to exactly go out of my way to talk to someone. So a lot of back and forth chit-chat happens casually in the locker room and vicinity and I wanted to be next to him."
Unfortunately for the Steelers, the locker room is the only place where McDonald and Roethlisberger have been side by side. McDonald missed almost all of training camp while dealing with an undisclosed foot injury.
He finally returned to practice this week only to spend Wednesday and Thursday catching passes from backup quarterback Josh Dobbs while Roethlisberger gives his aching right elbow a rest.
"I keep teasing him, just about the time we get Vance back practicing, all the guys back practicing, Ben's not practicing," offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner said. "There's not been one day since fall camp ... that we have practiced as a full unit. That isn't an excuse. It's never going to be an excuse."
Instead, it's been a frustrating reality, particularly for McDonald. The Steelers acquired him from San Francisco at the end of training camp in 2017 enamored with both his size (6-foot-4, 267 pounds) and his speed.
It didn't take McDonald long to showcase the latter. Pittsburgh visited Chicago in Week 3 last fall when McDonald chased down Bears defensive back Marcus Cooper on the final play of the first half after Cooper blocked a Chris Boswell field goal.
McDonald knocked the ball loose just before Cooper crossed the goal line for a touchdown. The Steelers ended up losing in overtime, but McDonald's hustle play made an immediate impression.
The trouble is, McDonald struggled to build on it. The list of issues that limited him to six games and 14 receptions in the regular season included a bruised knee, a sprained ankle and a shoulder problem. Still, he finished with a flourish, posting career highs in catches (10) and yards receiving (112) during a playoff loss to Jacksonville.
The Steelers hope it is a sign of things to come at a position that's been steady but not spectacular since Heath Miller's retirement in February 2016.
Ladarius Green lasted just one season before being released in the spring of 2017 after dealing with ankle surgery and the lingering effects of a concussion. Jesse James continues to evolve from a fifth-round pick into a regular contributor, but isn't considered a downfield threat.
That's not a problem for McDonald, who averages a healthy 13.5 yards per reception.
"He's got explosion at the position, he's got playmaker ability, no doubt," Fichtner said.
Getting that explosiveness onto the field consistently has proven tough. He left practice on July 29 with a foot injury, forcing him to stand on the sideline and watch while trying to absorb the transition from former offensive coordinator Todd Haley to Fichtner. McDonald admits he could feel his muscles twitching while watching the tight ends go on without him.
"You're going through those muscle patterns just to get the reps because you can't do it physically," he said. "It's huge, it's key."
How much McDonald plays against the Chiefs is uncertain. He hasn't taken a hit from an opposing player in nine months and he's cautious about doing too much too soon. He's also aware, however, that the Steelers need another threat to take some of the pressure off wide receivers Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster, particularly with running back Le'Veon Bell — the NFL's 10th-leading receiver in 2017 — still away from the team waiting to sign his one-year franchise tender.
"We all know AB is a great player, established and JuJu is a rising up and comer he's going to continue to develop," McDonald said. "So it's whatever you can do to help the offense roll."
NOTES: In addition to Roethlisberger, RG David DeCastro (fractured right hand) and CB Joe Haden (hamstring) also did not practice. ... DT Tyson Alualu (shoulder) was limited. ... DE Cam Heyward (knee), who missed practice on Wednesday, was a full participant.
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