By Dale Grdnic
PITTSBURGH — The first offensive possession for the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday was a two tight-end set with rookie David Paulson lining up with veteran Heath Miller against the Philadelphia Eagles.
The Steelers consider Miller to be among the best blockers in the league at his position, but since he also is a top-flight pass-catcher Paulson was used more often than not as extra protection for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and an additional space-clearer for running back Rashard Mendenhall and company.
The club also used first-year fullback Will Johnson to support the run game, on occasion, but it was clear that Paulson earned his second-team spot ahead of seven-year veteran Leonard Pope.
“I think the big thing is he’s proven that it’s not too big for him,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said about Paulson. “He’s an attention to detail guy. He works hard. He’s been a productive player for us in special teams.
“And that’s not something that we underscore when you’re talking about an offensive guy from the tight end position. He’s been a multiple special teams phase participant. He’s done some good things. He’s definitely got room for growth, but we’re not displeased with where he is.”
Johnson still doesn’t have a carry, but he has three catches for 41 yards. Paulson and Pope have one catch each for eight and seven yards, respectively. But special teams is the difference. Johnson and Paulson have one tackle each, while Pope does not participate on any of the four special units.
Second-year tight end Weslye Saunders has missed the club’s opening four games while serving a suspension for violating the NFL’s rules on banned substances, although he has contended that the substance was included in a medication that he’s taken for years. Saunders finally was back at the Steelers’ practice facility, ready to play, although Tomlin has not yet made a decision.
The Steelers have an exemption for him until Friday at 4 p.m. If he is activated for the game against the Tennessee Titans Thursday night at 8:20 at LP Field in Nashville, Tenn., the Steelers also will have to cut a player. Pope could be that guy, because Saunders noted that he can play special teams if needed.
“As far as I know, I’m playing,” Saunders said. “I’m preparing to play Thursday night, and I’ll be ready to play. So, that’s what I’m preparing to do, but the final ruling will be by Coach, I guess. (And) I’m not sure what I’ll do, whatever they want, like the blocking area, pass-catching or special teams. I’m ready, and I feel like I’m in great shape. So, I’ll be ready to go whatever I’m called on to do.
“I’ve been working out in Scottsdale, Ariz., where Ryan Clark and James Harrison, a lot of guys train there in the offseason. It’s PEP, Performance Enhancement Professionals. … There might be a few new plays out there, but I’ve spent a lot of time with my playbook. So, I know the offense pretty well after spending a month by myself with the playbook.”
When asked about Saunders Monday during his weekly press conference, Tomlin appeared to be leaning toward keeping him inactive until after the game. But a final decision clearly won’t be made until the last minute, either before the game or after it.
“We’ll see where we are when we get into the week,” Tomlin said. “Right now, we’re just more concerned about getting a schematic plan in place and looking at the overall health of the guys that are in question, in terms of how we build our plan. We haven’t pondered some of those things that are a little less relevant.”
Saunders noted that he weighs about 266 pounds, which is “probably about as light as I’ve been since college.” He is listed at 6-foot-5 and 270 pounds, but played heavier than that when he had four catches for 29 yards with a touchdown and developed into a solid blocker by the end of last season.