Steelers Beat Writer

Dale Lolley is a contributor to the Observer-Reporter and has been covering the Pittsburgh Steelers since 1993.

It’s easy to figure out the Steelers’ 2019 season hinges on the health of Ben Roethlisberger. After all, he’s the quarterback. He handles the ball every play and is one of the best in NFL history at doing so.

But he’s hardly the only player on the team’s roster who the Steelers cannot afford to lose to injury.

There are others on the roster who, if they went down for an extended period of time, the team would be in trouble.

Leading that list is tight end Vance McDonald. Nothing against backups Xavier Grimble or rookie Zach Gentry, but they’re no McDonald, who might be one of the most dynamic players at the position in the league.

Don’t misunderstand, McDonald isn’t Rob Gronkowski, a 6-6, 260-pound freak of nature. But athletically, he’s the best tight end the Steelers have had since Heath Miller before a knee injury at the end of the 2012 season robbed him of his speed.

McDonald has that speed – he was timed at 4.6 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine – and athleticism to be a big threat down the seam.

And that’s what the Steelers were searching for a few years ago when they signed Ladarius Green to a contract. That move obviously didn’t work out.

With Antonio Brown now in Oakland, the Steelers could use that seam-busting ability to help free up JuJu Smith-Schuster. And McDonald knows more will be expected of him in 2019.

“I think it’s required,” he said. “It’s definitely being asked and I will embrace it.”

McDonald had 50 catches for 610 yards and four touchdowns on 72 pass targets last season. All were career highs.

If, as expected, McDonald sees his targets increase to 90 or more, a big season is in the cards. He just has to stay healthy.

  • Brown’s goals have certainly changed since he joined the Raiders.

It used to be that he’d at least pay lip service to saying he wanted to win a Super Bowl and to be considered among the best of all time.

This past week, that tune changed.

“Nothing even matters anymore but us catching Jerry Rice,” Brown said on an Instagram post.

That means as the all-time receptions leader, not in Super Bowl championships.

Brown, 31, needs 713 more receptions, 11,689 yards and 124 touchdowns to catch Rice. And three Super Bowl titles. Rice has three.

Chances are, with his forced trade to the Raiders, Brown will never get any of those.

  • Major League Baseball has a problem. Actually, it has several.

But the biggest issue right now is attendance, which is down 1.4 percent from this time last season when MLB teams averaged fewer than 30,000 fans per game for the first time since 2003.

The league has tried a number of ways to try to speed up the game. But that’s not the biggest issue. And the biggest issue is one the league refuses to address.

Why should fans in smaller markets continue to support the inferior product being put on the field and supplement the bigger markets?

If the overall feeling is that your team is simply a farm team for the Dodgers, Yankees, Red Sox or Cubs, why take the time to get attached to a player? He’ll simply be playing for one of those teams in a few years, if he’s any good.

Every other major professional sports league in the U.S. has a salary cap. And, as part of that cap, there also is a salary floor.

So, while teams can’t spend more than the allotted salary cap, it also forces the other franchises to spend a certain amount of money.

Who couldn’t get behind that in baseball?

  • Last season’s ECHL champion was the Colorado Eagles, in case you wondered.

We know this because they were the team that took home the Kelly Cup at the end of the playoffs for winning the championship.

They then bolted for the American Hockey League, becoming that league’s affiliate for the Colorado Avalanche. The trouble is, they never returned the Kelly Cup.

“I don’t know if I should say this or not, but Colorado kept the trophy, if you can believe it,” Patrick Kelly, ECHL commissioner emeritus and the namesake of the trophy told AM 1230 in Toledo this week. “They still have it. This is a new trophy. They won the Cup two years in a row, and their owner just said ‘we’re going to keep it.’”

Instead of trying harder to get the cup back, the ECHL, the league in which the Wheeling Nailers compete, bought a new one.

Couldn’t they have found a couple of enforcers – a nice name for hockey goons – to show up at the Colorado franchise owner’s house to retrieve the cup?

  • Roethlisberger has been present and active throughout the Steelers’ OTA process this year, a stark contrast to a year ago.

That should pay dividends for the Steelers in 2019.

After all, then-rookie receiver James Washington didn’t catch a single pass from Roethlisberger in any of the offseason work last year.

This year, Roethlisberger is going out of his way to make sure everyone is involved.

Dale Lolley covers the Steelers for DKPittsburghSports.com and writes a Sunday column for the Observer-Reporter.

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