What to Make of the Pittsburgh Steelers' Tight-End-by-Committee Approach
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While Heath Miller continues to rehabilitate the knee he injured at the end of the 2012 season and Matt Spaeth sits on the injured reserve/recall list until Week 9, the Pittsburgh Steelers have chosen to get a bit creative at the tight end position.
Pittsburgh intends to combine the skills of second-year player David Paulson, free-agent signing Michael Palmer, Will Johnson (who is nursing a hamstring injury), David Johnson (who is limited after knee surgery last year and another this summer) and backup offensive lineman Kelvin Beachum (who played tight end in parts of the team's Week 3 preseason game).
This is an unorthodox approach, but it's also a necessary one.
The Steelers frequently employ two tight ends in their offensive scheme, in both blocking and receiving roles, and all of their presently available options have different skill sets.
None are a do-it-all type like Miller, so different configurations based on the situation is the only way they can make it work in the interim.
Paulson has put on some weight and strength in the past year, but is still primarily a receiving tight end. In preseason, he led the Steelers at the position in receptions with eight for 90 yards and a touchdown.
Pro Football Focus (subscription required) calculated that 65 of his 141 snaps were in the passing game, while 76 were as a run- or pass-blocker.
Palmer was the blocking component of the Atlanta Falcons' two-TE formations, so it is not surprising that only 27 of his 74 preseason snaps were as a receiver while 47 were as a blocker. Still, he had three catches for 43 yards, making him a potential target for Ben Roethlisberger, much like Spaeth.
The two Johnsons are much in the same mold—run- and pass-blockers who can catch a pass or even run with a handoff on occasion.
Neither, however, will be making a significant weekly impact in terms of producing yardage or touchdowns.
And Beachum? According to Jim Wexell of SteelCityInsider.net (subscription required), the backup offensive lineman has been working at tight end all week in preparation for the season opener against the Tennessee Titans.
In terms of blocking, this makes absolute sense. And in goal-line situations, he also makes for an intriguing, powerful potential receiver.
Desperation is often the mother of invention and this use of Beachum at tight end might be one of the most interesting developments while the position is so unstable.
It's something that could even continue once Miller and Spaeth return to action.
Added protection in both the run and pass games is exactly what the Steelers often find themselves needing and an offensive lineman reporting as a tight end would be a new wrinkle for opposing defenses to try to figure out.
Were Miller never injured, clearly the Steelers wouldn't be in this position. But they've done a good job in the offseason of amassing pieces that can be fitted together to mimic Miller's contributions, even if they don't have the same reliability or rapport with Roethlisberger as Miller.
With so much time to prepare for this situation, the rotational approach cannot be called a stopgap method, but instead a workable and unique solution. It's not a sign of trouble, but rather a sign that the Steelers have put much thought into handling Miller and now Spaeth's absences.
Having so many players working in and out of the rotation actually provides the Steelers with a level of competitive advantage.
Though Miller is a key component to making Todd Haley's offense work smoothly, the Steelers have avoided a crisis at tight end by being patient and creative. It's now less of a gamble that they hope pays off than a carefully crafted plan that addresses every issue raised by Miller's injury.
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