STEELERS – WEDNESDAY
By Dale Grdnic
LATROBE, Pa. — Few tight ends around the NFL can match what Heath Miller provides for the Pittsburgh Steelers offense both catching the football and blocking for the running backs.
Sure, there are more prolific pass-catching tight ends in the league, but roll call is brief in Miller’s class among the top blockers. Miller was extremely productive as a receiver with 71 catches for 816 yards and eight touchdowns before a knee injury in the second-to-last regular-season game.
Miller probably won’t begin the season on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) List, because that would keep him out of the initial six games, but he still might miss a couple at best. That means some other players will have to pick up the slack for a while as a receiver and key blocker in the running game.
Enter Matt Spaeth and David Paulson. A 6-foot-7, 260-pound target, Spaeth returned to the Steelers after two seasons in Chicago. He caught six passes for 28 yards and one touchdown for the Bears and is in his seventh NFL season. As a rookie seventh-round pick last year, the 6-4, 245-pound Paulson tallied seven catches for 51 yards and no touchdowns.
“We have a good group of guys, and there’s some talent in our room,” Steelers tight ends coach James Daniel said. “We have more than just those two guys. We’ll use three tight ends on occasion, so everybody has to be ready.”
Steelers second-year offensive coordinator Todd Haley certainly isn’t shy about using three tight ends or two and an H-back like David Johnson, who is expected to come off the PUP soon, or a fullback like bruising Will Johnson. The other tight ends are Jamie McCoy and rookie Peter Tuitupou.
“It’s all about guys earning their opportunities and what they do when they get them,” Miller said. “Matt (Spaeth) has played here and has played in the league a long time. We know he’s more than capable. Paulson did a great job. Jamie McCoy has been around here a while. He’s a really good player. Our new guy, Pete (Tuitupou), is sharp. So, we’re going to be OK.”
It’s clear that the Steelers brought back Spaeth to hedge against the long-term loss of Miller. Paulson is still an unknown quantity, but improvements in size, strength, and technique should pay off for him this season.
“I try not to think about the order of things right now,” Paulson said. “Sure, I started the last game of the season when Heath was out, but this is a different year and a different group of guys. So, I’m trying to take advantage of the reps that I’m getting and trying to get better every day.”
Initially, Spaeth could have the edge due to his size and experience, but Paulson at least has one year in Todd Haley’s system. That could tilt things his way. Neither expects to be more than a backup when Miller returns, but they all should get playing time before and after he returns.
“David might seem a bit undersized, but he doesn’t play that way,” Spaeth said. “He does everything the right way, and he’s technically sound, so he can get away with being a little smaller. (And) competition brings out the best in everybody, but it isn’t so much about competition as it is the camaraderie.
“It’s not like we’re hoping we do good and the other does bad. We try to help each other as much as possible, because it’s all about winning. We’re not trying to show up the other guy or hold him back. We help each other, and in the end the team is going to benefit from both our play. That’s what is important.”
Paulson said his pass-blocking and strength have improved, and that showed during the Backs-on-Backers competition against blitzing linebackers Monday and also in team drills during that practice, which was the first in full pads.
“I’ve been working really hard to improve my strength,” Paulson said. “I’m a little bit heavier, but a lot stronger. So, that should help a lot. If Heath isn’t ready for the season, we’ll all have to pick things up. I didn’t know what to expect last season, but I think I did pretty well. And I got better as the season went along. So, I think I’m ahead of the game this season.”
That should be big advantage to the Steelers as well.