This is Part 7 of our Steelers position review series. If you haven’t read Part 1 – 6, please click the links below.
The next position that we’re going to look at is the tight end position.
Tight end is a strength for the Steelers…….sort of.
Part of the problem is that offensive coordinator Bruce Arians has a unique view of the tight end position. Arians is a firm believer in using a tight end as an H-back to serve as the primary blocker for his running back. Steelers fans have long complained about this approach and lobbied for a traditional fullback, or using two running backs so it isn’t always so obvious who is going to get the ball.
Arians has also shown a greater reluctance to throw to his tight end relative to many other offensive coordinators. Seventeen tight ends caught more passes than Heath Miller in 2010. Dallas Cowboys’ tight end Jason Witten caught 94 passes in 2010. That’s more than twice as many as Heath Miller caught (42 passes). Moreover, it’s twice as many as Heath Miller has averaged throughout his career (47 catches/season).
So in my opinion, part of the Steelers problem at tight end lies with the offensive coordinator, and not the players.
Heath Miller is one of the most talented tight ends in the NFL. He has sure hands, and seldom drops a pass. He’s also one of the best blocking tight ends in the NFL. But as mentioned earlier, Miller doesn’t get nearly as many opportunities to catch the ball as many of his contemporaries at the position. Players like Witten, Tony Gonzalez, Ben Watson, and Kellen Winslow play a much more integral role in their team’s passing attack.
Part of Arians’ reluctance to involve Miller more in the passing attack is probably due to the Steelers’ suspect offensive line. Because the Steelers’ offensive line has been a weakness for years, they are often forced to keep Miller at the line of scrimmage to help in the blocking scheme. If their offensive line were upgraded, I believe Miller would be freed up to catch more passes.
David Johnson is the Steelers’ H-Back. He’s a vicious blocker who is rarely targeted in the Steelers’ passing game. In fact, Johnson only has 6 reception in his two year NFL career. The Steelers use Johnson so seldom in the passing game, that I believe that they should do so every now and then just to catch their opponent by surprise. Having watched film of the Steelers, the opponent will NEVER expect them to throw to Johnson.
While Johnson is a very physical blocker, he has shortcomings at the position. He sometimes fails in picking up blitzes. He’s also not particularly fast, and sometimes seems to be in Rashard Mendenhall’s way when he’s trying to hit the hole.
The Steelers’ third tight end is Matt Spaeth. When the Steelers first drafted Spaeth out of college, I was excited about the pick. After all, I was envisioning Ben Roethlisberger throwing the ball to the 6’7″ Spaeth in red zone situations. Yet, in the 4 years that Spaeth has been with the Steelers, we’ve seldom seen him used in that fashion.
Spaeth has 36 total catches during his 4 years in the NFL, and has only reached double digit receptions once (in 2008).
Heath Miller missed games due to injury in both 2008 and 2010. In both cases, Spaeth proved to be a liability when he filled in for Miller. Spaeth drops balls that Miller routinely catches. Moreover, Spaeth is not a good blocker like Miller and Johnson are. Frankly, Spaeth blocks like a matador (although he has gotten slightly better over the years).
So if he can’t catch, can’t block, and the team doesn’t utilize his height in the red zone, I have to ask “why is Matt Spaeth on the team?”
Spaeth is a free agent this season, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Steelers let him leave without tendering an offer. His production (or lack thereof) can easily be replaced by a late round draft pick or an undrafted free agent.
The Steelers’ tight ends fit well in their current offensive system. However, if they were to use their tight ends in a more traditional fashion, both Spaeth and David Johnson would probably need to be upgraded. But until they do that, Johnson is probably safe in his role with the Steelers.
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