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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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Pick #241: Steelers select David Johnson

April 26, 2009 By: Admin Category: Draft/Free Agency

April 26, 2009
By Donald Starver

With their final pick in the 7th round, the Steelers selected David Johnson, tight end, Arkansas State.   Johnson stands 6’2″, and weighs 268 lbs. 



Johnson wasn’t highly rated as a tight end.  Many teams probably didn’t even have him on their draft board. 

Johnson had a career high of 22 receptions for 356 yards in 2008.  His 2008 reception total more than doubled his 2007 output of 10 catches (for 204 yards).  This performance earned Johnson second team All-Sun Belt conference honors.

Johnson was actually an H-back at Arkansas State, and this is probably what the Steelers found appealing about him.   He was used primarily as a blocker in college, though he has very good hands.   He averaged 16 yards per catch in college. 

Johnson runs a 4.7 second 40 yard dash.  That is pretty fast for a player of his size.  He also has a 32.5 inch vertical leap, and did 21 reps in the bench press at the NFL Combine.  He also played baseball in high school, and is an excellent athlete.

Johnson is probably a better athlete than the Steelers’ current H-back Sean McHugh, and he should provide competition at the position.

To read about the Steelers’ previous pick, click here.

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