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Steelers position review - Tight Ends

April 11, 2011 By: Admin Category: Draft/Free Agency

This is Part 7 of our Steelers position review series.  If you haven’t read Part 1 - 6, please click the links below.

Steelers position review - Cornerbacks

Steelers position review - Safeties

Steelers position review - Linebackers

Steelers position review - Defensive Line

Steelers position review - Quarterbacks

Steelers position review - Running Backs

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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The Steelers’ challenges (Part 6)

April 17, 2010 By: Admin Category: Draft/Free Agency

This is part 6 in a series evaluating the Steelers’ off-season needs.  So far, we’ve looked at the cornerbackssafeties, linebackersdefensive linemen, and offensive linemen.  The next position that we’re going to look at is tight end.

Tight end used to be a forgotten position on the Pittsburgh Steelers.  Bill Cowher used it as a 6th offensive lineman.  That was pretty much the purpose of a tight end in Cowher’s offense.

Mike Tomlin and offensive coordinator Bruce Arians seem to view the tight end position a little differently.  Starting tight end Heath Miller’s most product seasons have been the three that he has played under Tomlin and Arians.  In Bill Cowher’s last season as head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Miller caught 34 passes for 393 yards.  Last season, Miller caught 76 passes for 789 yards.  See the difference?

TE Heath Miller

Heath Miller is undoubtedly one of the best tight ends in the NFL.  He has great hands, and is on a par with Hines Ward when it comes to dependability as a receiver.  But just as importantly, Miller is a great blocker.  And he never complains when he is utilized primarily as a blocker.

Backup tight end Matt Spaeth is a completely different animal from Heath Miller.  The 6’7″ Spaeth was brought in to provide a big target for Ben Roethlisberger.  He won the John Mackey Award, which is given to the best tight end in college football, during his last year in college.  Heath Miller was also a John Mackey Award winner.  But unlike Miller, Spaeth has not thrived on the Steelers.

Spaeth caught a grand total of 5 passes for 25 yards in 2009.  Not quite the production one would expect from a big target like Spaeth.   Moreover, Spaeth seems to struggle as a blocker.  And that description of his blocking ability is being extremely generous.

The Steelers’ third tight end, David Johnson is used primarily as an H-back, rather than as a true tight end.  An H-back is essentially a tight end whose primary role is as a blocking fullback.  Johnson is a vicious blocker, and he is well-suited to this role.

Miller and Johnson’s positions are both secure.  However, Spaeth is vulnerable.  He has never established himself as an important part of the Steelers’ receiving unit.  And his poor blocking makes him a liability in the running game.  So his future with the Steelers is not assured.

What  should the Steelers do?

While it is not an urgent need, the Steelers must start looking for a better backup tight end.  While this back-up doesn’t need to be as skilled a receiver as Heath Miller is, he should probably pose a meaningful threat in the passing game.  But unlike Matt Spaeth, he also must be an effective blocker.

It would not surprise me at all if the Steelers selected a tight end in the middle rounds of the upcoming NFL Draft.

In 2009, there were only 2 tight ends taken in the first two rounds of the draft.  Tight end is usually not a high priority position unless a player has exceptional athletic ability like the San Francisco 49ers’ Vernon Davis.

But there are a few tight ends that could go in the 3rd-6th rounds that I think would be good picks for the Steelers.  Let’s take a look at some of them

Anthony McCoy (USC) - McCoy may be the most well-rounded tight end in this year’s draft.  He is not the best pass catcher, but he is solid as a receiver.  More importantly, he is also a solid blocker, which is important to the Steelers.  He had some academic issues at USC, but he is a good football player.

Colin Peek (Alabama) - Like McCoy, Peek is a very well-rounded tight end.  He is best as a blocker, but he has the hands to make a play as a receiver when needed.  The fact that he is comfortable with being used primarily as a blocker would make him an attractive candidate for the Steelers.

Jimmy Graham (Miami) - A former member of the Hurricanes basketball team, Graham is a big target in the red zone who will go up and get the ball.  He is still a bit raw and will need to be coached, but he has good athletic ability and is a willing blocker.  He will take a few years to develop, but should be worth the effort.


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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.

Miller jerseybuynow

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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Steelers sign Heath Miller to extension

July 30, 2009 By: Admin Category: Players

July 29, 2009

The Steelers ended 2008 with lots of players going into the last year of their contract.  During the course of the off-season, they have done an excellent job of locking up most of them.

Yesterday, the team signed tight end Heath Miller to a six-year extension.  The deal is reported to be worth $35.3 million, including a $12.5 million signing bonus.

This writer has often argued that Miller is one of the best tight ends in the NFL.  Because Miller plays in the Steelers’ run-oriented offense, he doesn’t get as many opportunities to catch the ball as some of his counterparts do.  But Miller’s hands are as good as any tight end’s in the league.  Moreover, Miller may be the best blocking tight end in the NFL. 


Despite being an afterthought in the Steelers’ passing game, Miller has always done his job with quiet efficiency.  He is a blue collar player who does whatever is asked of him.  He never complains or demands more catches.  It is this quality that makes him the perfect tight end for the Steelers.

While Miller may not be the most important signing of the Steelers’ off-season, he is the player that I am happiest to see get an extension. 

Congratulations, Heath.  You deserve it.

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The offense and the Steelers’ draft (part 4)

April 19, 2009 By: Admin Category: Draft/Free Agency

April 19, 2009
By Donald Starver

This is part 4 in a series.  If you haven’t read  the previous installments, please click below.

part 1

part 2

part 3

In the previous installments in this series, we’ve looked at the offensive line positions.  Now we’re going to take a look at the receiving positions, starting with the tight end.

The tight end position is one of the most versatile positions on the football field.  A tight end may be asked to block a linebacker on one play, catch a pass downfield on the next, and then line up in the backfield and lead block for a running back on the following play.  No other position has so many responsibilities.  The tight end is part offensive lineman, part wide receiver, and part fullback.

Unfortunately, the athletes who play the position don’t tend to be as versatile as the position itself.  Most modern tight ends are either skilled pass receivers, or skilled blockers.  Few tight ends excel in both.  That is why most teams tend to carry 3 tight ends on their roster.  One tight end may be primarily a receiver, another may be primarily a blocker, and the third will excel in whichever aspect of the tight end position the team tends to emphasize.  Fortunately, the Steelers’ Heath Miller is one of the few tight ends who is both an excellent receiver and an excellent blocker.

It is probably unfair, but tight ends tend to get recognition only for their pass catching skills.  That is why fans can quickly name tight ends like Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates, and Kellen Winslow Jr.  Moreover, tight ends who are primarily pass catchers tend to get paid more than tight ends who are primarily blockers.

One of the best blocking tight ends in NFL history played for the Pittsburgh Steelers.  Former Steeler Mark Bruener could go head-to-head with just about any defensive end in the league and hold his own.  Bruener also had good mobility, and could lead block on running plays.  Bruener’s game was perfectly suited to the Steelers’ power running attack.  However, despite his blocking prowess, Bruener never received the accolades that his pass-catching counterparts did.

What a team looks for in a tight end is dependent on how they use their tight end.    The criterion will differ from team to team.  Thus, a tight end who is ranked at the top of one team’s draft board might not even be listed on another team’s board.

The Steelers are in very good shape at the tight end position and will probably not select a tight end in the draft.  Heath Miller is one of the best tight ends in the league, and seems perfectly suited to play for the Steelers.  If the Steelers could have engineered a prototype tight end, he would have been eerily similar to Heath Miller.

Some fans may not realize that the Steelers are fortunate enough to have two John Mackey Award winners on their roster.  The John Mackey Award is given annually to the best tight end in college football.  Heath Miller won the award in 2004 while playing for Virginia, and Matt Spaeth won it in 2006 when he played for Minnesota.

Spaeth is not the skilled blocker that Miller is, but he has excellent hands, and is a very big target in the red zone.  At 6’7″, Spaeth is the Steelers’ tallest receiver.

Rounding out the Steelers’ tight end list is Sean McHugh.  While McHugh is technically a tight end, he rarely sees action in that capacity.  Instead, offensive coordinator Bruce Arians utilizes McHugh as the primary fullback in the Steelers’ offense.

It is highly unlikely that the Steelers will draft a tight end this year.  The Steelers’ tight ends are a relatively young group.  Sean McHugh is the oldest of the bunch, and he has only been in the league for 6 years.  Both McHugh and Miller will be 27 years old during the 2009 season.

The class of 2009 has quite a few noteworthy tight ends.  There is both quality and depth to at the position.   However, since the position is not a need for the Steelers, we will only mention  a few players. 

Tight Ends:

Brandon Pettigrew (6’5″, 257 lbs.), Oklahoma State.  Pettigrew is undoubtedly the best blocker in this years’ tight end class.  He is a big, physical blocker who excels in getting to the second level and picking off linebackers.  He wasn’t used much in the passing game, so he will need work in this area.  He lacks top flight speed, but seems to have the athleticism to become a competent pass catcher..

Travis Beckum (6’3″, 237 lbs.), Wisconsin.  Beckum is probably the most accomplished receiver in this years’ tight end class.  He is an exceptional athlete with great leaping ability and very soft hands.  He is rather light for a tight end, and is built more like an overgrown receiver.  Has suffered injuries, and needs to prove that durability is not a concern.

James Casey (6’4″, 235 lbs.), Rice.  Casey is  a unique athlete who will probably be drafted much higher than his on-field experience indicates he should be.  Casey played baseball in the Chicago White Sox farm system before going to Rice.  While at Rice, he has taken snaps at both quarterback and running back, and has lined up at seven different positions in one game.  I’m sure some scout will over-value Casey’s athleticism, and forget the fact that Casey actually has very little experience playing tight end.  His experience blocking from the tight end position is almost nonexistent.

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