Paulson, Spaeth and Johnson must play well if Miller cannot suit up for an extended period. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Steelers Need Backups to Produce if Heath Miller is Sidelined

Last December, I was disgusted enough after the Steelers’ offense handed a “win-or-go-home” game in Week 16 to the Cincinnati Bengals.  But what happened to Heath Miller’s knee that afternoon was just the “cherry on top” of Pittsburgh’s “crap-laden sundae” of a 2012 regular season.

As most of us unfortunately remember, Miller’s career-year ended when he tore his ACL, MCL, and PCL on a routine-play late in that game.  Tearing three knee ligaments is downright scary, and many have recently questioned whether or not Heath will be ready to line up and start for the Steelers in Week 1 this September.

Even if he somehow returns for “Opening Weekend,” the tight end’s injury and lack of offseason reps could still limit his productivity over the course of the 2013 regular season.  Thus, if Miller is hobbled or even forced to the bench, then Pittsburgh will need their depth at the position to find ways to help to replace him in the aggregate through their run-blocking and pass-catching.

So like it or not “Steeler Nation,” but at least two of these three players will need to pick up the slack if Pittsburgh’s Pro Bowl tight end is not 100% this fall.


Matt Spaeth

As a blocker, I am not too worried about Spaeth stepping in for Miller for an extended period of time.  The veteran has the size (6’7″ 270 lbs.) and experience to capably fill in for the Pro Bowl tight end in that area of the game.  Unfortunately, Spaeth has never been an effective weapon as a pass-catcher at the professional level.

During his first stint in Pittsburgh, Spaeth snagged only 36 catches for 275 yards and five touchdowns as he played second-fiddle to Miller over that span.  Overall, the 2007 3rd round pick averaged nine grabs for 68 yards during his first four years in the league before he signed with Chicago as a free agent in the spring of 2011.

With Chicago, Spaeth was used as more of a “tackle eligible” than a tight end as he was more or less a non-factor in the Bears’ passing attack.  Matt recorded a total of 13 catches for 78 yards and three touchdowns during the last two seasons, and the Bears eventually made him expendable after they inked Martellus Bennett this past spring.

I am fine with Spaeth as a number two/blocking tight end in Pittsburgh’s offense who can chip in during red zone and short yardage situations. But if his career-production (or lack thereof) is any indication, Matt is not the type of pass-catching threat for an offense to rely on and target heavily on a week to week basis.  Nevertheless, the former Golden Gopher’s experience, as well as the lack of experienced depth behind him, will probably give him an inside track to step in for Miller if the Pro Bowler is unable to play.


David Paulson

David Paulson definitely intrigues me as he heads into his second year in the league, and I am interested to see how well that he challenge Spaeth for playing time this summer.  The 2012 7th round pick was considered by many to be a bit of an afterthought behind Miller, Leonard Pope and Weslye Saunders, and it looked as if the former Oregon Duck was headed to the practice squad for the entirety his rookie campaign.

Paulson however played well enough to force the team to release Saunders, but he even made his way onto the 53-man roster last year.  Heck, by the end of last year, the then-rookie had eclipsed Pope as the team’s number two tight end on the depth chart.  Overall, David made seven catches for 51 yards and gained much more experience than most people thought that he would have during his first year in the league.

Pleasant surprise last season notwithstanding, Paulson is still a bit skinny for the position (6’4″ 246 lbs.) and his blocking at the point of attack definitely needs work.  Nevertheless, he does have the hands and athletic ability to be a threat in the passing game, and that is definitely something that the Steelers will need more of this year if Miller is unable to suit up for an extended period.

Even though Paulson will likely make the 53-man roster again this fall, the pressure will now be on him to improve and beat out the veteran Spaeth for playing time behind and alongside Miller.  With Miller unfortunately sidelined for now, David has a perfect opportunity to play his way into more time on the offensive side of the ball.


David Johnson

David Johnson is a bit of a “wild-card” at the tight end position for the Steelers.  Although Johnson (6’2″ 260 lbs.) was more or less of a tight end during his first three years with Pittsburgh, he was working as the team’s fullback last year until an ACL injury ended his season during the first week of the preseason.

The ultimate “insult” to Johnson’s injury was the fact that his replacement, Will Johnson, performed quite well during his rookie campaign.  In fact, the starting fullback job should be Will’s to lose over the summer, and I for one am excited to see how well that the former West Virginia Mountaineer can play in year two of his career.  If the Steelers elect to go with only one fullback during the 2013 campaign, then David’s best chance of making the team could be as a backup tight end once again.  And with only Spaeth and Paulson in front of him, the task is definitely doable for the soon-to-be fifth-year h-back.

David showed marked improvement over his first three years in the league, and he finally appeared ready to break-out in 2012 after a career year (12 catches, 91 yards, one touchdown) in 2011.  Of course for Johnson to leap-frog over Paulson and Spaeth at tight end, he will have to hold his own as an “in-line” blocker.  Still, Johnson could be a “wild-card” to make the roster this fall, and he will definitely be someone to watch during the preseason period to see exactly where he fits in Haley’s offense.


Final Thoughts

Many believed that Pittsburgh’s brass would target a tight end in April of this year’s draft.  But Colbert & Co. elected not to take one in the draft’s seven rounds, and they did not sign one as a UDFA either.  Thus, it certainly appears that Steelers’ brass either have confidence that Miller will return to the team at 100% by the time the season begins, or they are just that confident that one or more of the trio of Spaeth, Paulson and Johnson will be able to step in and help for an extended period of time.

I for one question how well that Pittsburgh’s offense can function without Miller.  If he is sidelined, Ben Roethlisberger will be without his most sure-handed receiver, his safety-valve, and number one red zone pass-catching threat.  And that’s just what Miller can do as a pass-receiver!  Heath is one of the league’s most underrated tight ends when it comes to his ability to “in-line block” and even pass-protect as a side-car.

As much as I would like to see Miller in the lineup as soon as possible, his health is just too important for him to be rushed back before his knee is fully healed.  I just hope that one or two of Heath’s three backups can play well enough if he is forced to sit for an extended period.  Replacing 71 catches, 816 yards, and eight touchdowns in the statistical aggregate is a tough order for any offense to do.  But replacing solid blocking, a professional attitude and a veteran presence in addition to those numbers are entirely different matters altogether.

Otherwise, Pittsburgh’s offense will probably sputter even more than they did last year.



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