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Steelers Training Camp: Tight ends

August 22, 2009 By: Admin Category: Players, training camp

August 22, 2009
By Donald Starver

This is Part 8 in a series.  If you haven’t read the previous installments, please click below:

Part 1:  Defensive linemen

Part 2:  Linebackers

Part 3:  Safeties

Part 4: Cornerbacks

Part 5: Quarterbacks

Part 6: Running backs

Part 7: Wide receivers

Tight end is the next position up as we attempt to look at each position on the Steelers and predict which players will make the final 53-man roster.

Since becoming head coach, Mike Tomlin has always carried 3 tight ends on the roster.  We are going to operate under the assumption that this year will be no different.

The Steelers took 5 tight ends into training camp; Heath Miller, Matt Spaeth, Sean McHugh, Dezmond Sherrod, and rookie David Johnson.  Let’s look at them one at a time.

Heath Miller - I was a very happy man when I heard that the Steelers had extended Heath Miller’s contract.  Though underutilized, Miller is crucial to the Steelers’ offense.  He is one of the best blocking tight ends in the NFL (which is important in a run oriented offense like the Steelers’), and he also has great hands.

It has always amazed me how Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians seems to love tight ends, and he loves the passing game, yet he can’t find a way to get the ball to Heath Miller more often.  Nevertheless, Steelers fans know that when Arians does call Miller’s number, Heath is going to deliver.

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Matt Spaeth - Not many teams have two John Mackey Award winners on their roster, but that is exactly what the Steelers have.  The John Mackey Award is given annually to the best tight end in college football.  Heath Miller won the award in 2004, and Matt Spaeth won it in 2006.

Big Ben has publicly stated that he likes throwing to tall receivers, and at 6’7″, Spaeth is a very tall target.  Moreover, Spaeth has excellent hands.  Unfortunately, Spaeth is only an average (okay, below average) blocker.  That means that he will probably never be a starter for the Steelers.

Sean McHugh - McHugh was signed by the Steelers in 2008 after being released by the Detroit Lions.  While he has been the Steelers third tight end, he is their primary fullback.  Bruce Arians believes in using a tight end as an H-back, rather than using a traditional fullback for blocking purposes.

Perhaps this offensive philosophy has contributed to the decline in the Steelers running game (though most of the blame probably belongs to the offensive line).  Willie Parker has stated that he prefers running behind a traditional fullback, and that he misses former Steeler Dan Kreider.

McHugh played in 15 regular season games last year and caught a total of 3 passes, so it is clear that he is not viewed as a viable component of the Steelers passing game.  However, as long as he is the best blocking option on the Steelers’ roster, he will maintain his spot on the roster.

Which brings us to……….

David Johnson - The rookie out of Arkansas State is clearly the best blocker among the Steelers’ tight ends.  As I watched the Steelers’ tight ends doing blocking drills at training camp, Johnson jumped out at me.  Firstly, when they did blocking drills with the blocking sled, Johnson consistently drove the sled back farther than any of the other tight ends, including Heath Miller.  Moreover, when Johnson hit the sled there was always a loud popping sound that sounded like an explosion.  It was that sound that made me start paying attention to the tight end blocking drills in the first place.

Besides excelling at clobbering blocking sleds, Johnson did something that almost never happens at Steelers training camp.  I watched him stop James Harrison’s bull rush dead in his tracks.  For those of you who have never been to Steelers training camp, when James Harrison goes up against any blocker, it is pretty much like watching Germany battle France during World War II; Harrison wins in devastating fashion.  But that was not necessarily the case against Johnson.

Johnson plays at essentially the same weight as Sean McHugh, but he is 3 inches shorter.  That means that he is stockier and more powerfully built.  Based on the fact that McHugh was used almost exclusively as a blocker, I believe that Johnson has a very good chance of supplanting McHugh as the Steelers’ H-back.

Dezmond Sherrod- The fifth tight end battling for a spot on the Steelers’ roster is Dezmond Sherrod.  Sherrod spent 2008 on the Steelers’ practice squad, and is now hoping to earn a spot on the active roster.  Unfortunately, Sherrod finds himself in a precarious position.  He is not as good a pass catcher as Heath Miller or Matt Spaeth, and he is not as good a blocker as Sean McHugh or David Johnson.  This leaves Sherrod little chance of making the team.

So in summary, I believe that the Steelers are going to enter the 2009 season with Heath Miller, Matt Spaeth, and David Johnson as their tight ends.  What do you fans think?  Agree?  Disagree?  Let me hear your comments.

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2 Comments to “Steelers Training Camp: Tight ends”

  1. As always I think your commentaries about the Steelers players are pretty spot on, especially since you get to actually see the players actually practice and this installment is no different. The only thing I find curious, as I watch the game versus the Redskins, is the fact that you still refer to the Steelers as a running team. I know that our personnel looks like a run based team but these days I see them as a very pass happy team which makes it so weird to not see Heath or Matt pull down more passes, particularly in the red zone.

  2. Thanks Benny. I appreciate the compliment.

    As far as the Steelers being a running team, I think that they are philosophically. Unfortunately, with the offensive line that they have, they haven’t been able to run effectively, so last season Ben ended up throwing it when we needed short yardage because the running game just couldn’t produce. The increase in passing has been out of necessity, not due to a change in philosophy.

    As far as the preseason games go, I think they are throwing it a lot because they want to see how Charlie’s recovery has gone, and what they have in Dennis Dixon.


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