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  • Fans in the stadium gasped. The Internet went crazy. Steelers’ Vance McDonald unleashed the stiff arm of the season so far when he shoved Bucs S Chris Conte en route to a 75-yard touchdown in Week 3. But that's just one of many highlights the tight end has executed amid his career season.
By Jonathan Jones
October 24, 2018

In the days after Vance McDonald executed the nastiest stiff-arm the NFL has seen this season, his Steelers’ teammates decided to have a little fun with him.

The sixth-year tight end in his second season with Pittsburgh would hold the door open for a teammate and hear, “Oh no, you go ahead.” “Please don’t stiff-arm me,” they’d say as they passed by McDonald in the hallways of the team facility. In the training room he’d reach out for tape and out of nowhere, a Steeler would run between McDonald and the tape and pretend to get stiff-armed, flopping to the ground.

McDonald (at 6' 4", 267 pounds) tossing Tampa Bay’s Chris Conte (6' 2", 203 pounds) to the field on a 75-yard touchdown in Week 3’s win against the Bucs stands out as the most disrespectful play of his career. But that’s just one of the many plays on which he’s been physical after the catch this year, putting together his best season yet for a Pittsburgh team that seems to be rounding into form.

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“I catch the ball and in my mind I say ‘I dare you to try to tackle me,’” McDonald tells the MMQB by phone earlier this week. “It’s enjoyment and satisfaction that I get because I really do feel like there should never be one person to bring you down. It is something that I consciously think about, as fast as the game happens.

“I’m not doing anything differently this year. It’s just a matter of opportunities and the ball being in my hands to allow me to do that more often [this season].”

The stats speak for themselves. McDonald has hauled in all 20 catchable passes this season, and Ben Roethlisberger has a 125.7 quarterback rating when targeting McDonald. His 274 receiving yards through just five games is 13th-most in the NFL among tight ends. But his 205 yards after the catch rank second among tight ends.

Much of that has to do with his penchant for physical running. By my count, McDonald has broken eight tackles on 20 catches so far, and he’s taken several more for a ride before being brought down. Take his Week 6 performance against Cincinnati in which he had seven catches for 68 yards. It took a combined 14 Bengals to tackle McDonald on his first five receptions of the game.

“From there it’s just like, I dare you to hit me out of bounds because there’s no way I’m going to give up and roll out,” McDonald says.

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At this rate, McDonald will top his best season (391 receiving yards with the 2016 49ers) in Week 10. But it’s been a long year-plus in Pittsburgh for the tight end. After four good-not-great years in San Francisco, McDonald was dealt to Pittsburgh before the 2017 season when the Steelers’ tight end group was “not consistently varsity enough,” per coach Mike Tomlin.

Entering the first year of a three-year extension worth $19.65 million, McDonald dealt with back, knee, ankle and shoulder injuries, and he managed just 14 catches in 10 regular-season games for 188 yards. McDonald was also hampered by off-the-field issues as well, as he, his wife and his child were forced to find housing quickly in Pittsburgh as the season was starting. Then he had to dump the offense he knew in San Francisco and pick up Pittsburgh’s on the fly.

“Whenever you’re dealing with so many of those different elements—not necessarily the game plan—and you’re bringing that in because it’s hard to let it go when you come into the facility or practice or games. It really is a lot on your plate,” McDonald says.

Tomlin would later say that “availability is key” for McDonald, who did his best to quickly get up to speed.

“You have to get physical reps with [Roethlisberger] as your quarterback, so you can score and learn from those experiences. And at the same time you’re coming in and you don’t know personalities or dynamics in the locker room or coaches. It’s a lot, man. Then you add the pressure of performance on top of that, it’s a lot of different factors.”

It took until the Steelers’ first-round playoff bye last season for McDonald to finally start feeling comfortable with the team. He spent the week focused on the Jaguars with Roethlisberger and turned in the most productive game of his career: 10 catches on 16 targets for 112 yards in the playoff loss. The game set the tone for the offseason, and McDonald spent more time with Roethlisberger and his family to strengthen the bond between quarterback and tight end.

Now McDonald is on his way to a career year and available. And he’s always ready to run someone over.

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