Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers made it known they were going to get the tight ends involved in the Week 3 game plan. After modest production from both Eric Ebron and Vance McDonald in the team’s first two games, Roethlisberger said their production was “coming” and that it was a “matter of time” before they became integral parts of the gameplan.
That time was Sunday. With Diontae Johnson and Derek Watt suffering injuries, both Ebron and McDonald stepped in to help fill those voids. In a rare saying as of late, the tight ends of the Steelers were vital to the victory on Sunday.
Ebron’s Receiving Ability Comes up Huge
Prior to Sunday, the Steelers did not explore Ebron’s receiving ability at large. At times, he would get a target, but not near the level that he did on Sunday against Houston. With 52 receiving yards and a touchdown, Ebron was a critical chain mover and helped the Steelers claw their way into the game after trailing early.
The first play to highlight is Ebron’s touchdown. Randy Fichtner is enjoying using Ebron’s versatility. He is out wide as a wide receiver on a safety here. This is the mismatch weapon value that Ebron brings to the table. Make no mistake, the Steelers did not have this guy on their team last year. A premier red-zone threat, Ebron proved it yet again. He used his size to give a slight shove to get a step of separation. Roethlisberger makes a pretty throw, but it is that slight move that gets Ebron open. After that, he goes up, high points it, tucks into his frame and gets the touchdown. The subtlety and efficiency of this route, release, and catch are the makings of an advanced tight end in the receiving game.
On the Steelers big fourth-quarter drive, it never would have even got off the ground if Ebron did not make this first-down grab. He is tight to the formation as the only receiver to the weak side of the field. The cornerback is playing outside leverage, but that is where Ebron wants to go. So, he starts his stem out going vertically and to the inside. The cornerback draws his hips in and stops his feet. Once Ebron accomplishes that, he sticks the stem back inside with an arm over to avoid contact and accelerates to get separation. This was all his release that allowed Ebron to get open and get the critical first-down.
A rare use of play-action by the Steelers, they get everyone to bite badly on this play to scheme Ebron open. However, Ebron does his part by starting his stem outside and using the cornerback’s outside leverage against him. Once he gets the cornerback on his heels, he makes a violent cut back inside, accelerates, and gets wide open for a big gain. Ebron selling the stalk block is just as vital to this play as everything else. Without plays like this from Ebron, the Steelers simply do not win on Sunday.
Vance McDonald’s Blocking a Catalyst in the Running Game
While Watt was out in the fourth quarter, the Steelers still found lots of success in the running game thanks to the efforts of McDonald as a lead blocker along with the Steelers guards. The Steelers ran lots of counter trey on Sunday to great success and it would not have been possible without McDonald.
On this big rip by Conner, McDonald makes sure to clear out the second force defender in the box. That guy is the other edge contain after DeCastro kicks out the end, but McDonald does a nice job of just being a barrier. This is not even an impressive block by any means, but he gets his hands on him, and it clears a massive alley for Conner to just run through.
Similarly, on this run, it is not a terrific technical block by McDonald. Listen, he is not driving guys into the ground on pancakes, but what he is doing is holding them off and giving Conner huge lanes to bust through. All McDonald is really doing is stopping this linebackers front side pursuit, and if JuJu Smith-Schuster holds his block just a second longer here, Conner has the chance to get perhaps another ten yards even with the backside pursuit. McDonald is giving Conner these one-on-one opportunities.
The crux of the offensive gameplan was to get these tight ends involved in numerous ways, and the Steelers really did do that. Sometimes they were on the field together, at times they were utilizing their own skillsets, but it was clear that both of these guys were vital. If Johnson is out against the Titans, Ebron and McDonald may be keyed yet again in Week 4.