Pittsburgh Steelers Training Camp Preview: Tight Ends and Receivers
The Pittsburgh Steelers have a deep group of tight ends and wide receivers.
These positions are a healthy mix of experienced veterans as well as youth with potential. Despite the depth, the drop-off in talent beyond the starters is pretty significant.
Heath Miller is continuing to develop into one of the best all-around tight ends in the league. The depth behind him are effective in their respective roles, but none have starting potential.
At wide receiver, Hines Ward is an all-time great and Mike Wallace has the potential to be one of the best playmakers in the league.
However, behind these two, the Steelers are crowded with third and fourth receivers who would set back the offense if they have to step in.
In spite of this, there is a positive outlook for both of these positions entering the 2010 season, and there should be plenty of competition come camp time to earn their places on the depth chart.
Tight Ends – Starters
Last season, Miller finally became one of the focal points of the Steelers offense, with a team-record (for a tight end) 76 receptions for 789 yards and six touchdowns, earning his first Pro Bowl berth.
Averaging 10.4 yards per reception, Miller was a solid intermediate option and he has potential to have that number increase this year.
Without Santonio Holmes, Miller’s role in the offense should become even bigger, and he may be viewed as a downfield option more often.
Throughout camp, keep an eye on how Miller is used. He has the ability to stretch the middle of the field, particularly with Wallace drawing attention on the outside.
Miller was often used as a safety outlet for Ben Roethlisberger and it is yet to be determined what chemistry with Byron Leftwich will develop.
With an emphasis on the running game, also expect Miller to be held in a lot to block, as well as to give extra help on the right side of the offensive line, where there will be a new starter at right tackle for the injured Willie Colon.
Tight Ends - Backups
Matt Spaeth has been the Steelers primary backup at tight end for three seasons.
Winning the John Mackey Award as the nation’s top tight end in college, Spaeth had some upside. He displayed this as a rookie, with three touchdowns on five total receptions, and then increased his receptions total to 17 in his second year.
However, Spaeth’s play dropped off last season, as he finished with only five receptions. More importantly, he has not developed into a dominant blocker, which is essential as a backup tight end in the Steelers offense.
Look to see if Spaeth has improved his blocking abilities as Bruce Arians will likely increase the amount he uses the two-tight-end sets. Last season the team got away from this with the emergence of Wallace at receiver.
Tight Ends - The Rest
Pittsburgh has an interesting scenario for the last tight end spot.
Considering Arians does not believe in a true fullback in the offense and that Mike Tomlin values position flexibility, the final spot will come down to David Johnson and Sean McHugh.
A seventh-round draft pick last year, Johnson played in 15 games while starting three. He is an average pass catcher and showed some blocking ability as a fullback.
At 6'2", Johnson has a fairly low center of gravity for a tight end/H-back and should be improved with a year of seasoning.
McHugh played that role two years ago, but missed all of last season with an injury.
Though a taller than Johnson at 6'5", McHugh impressed the Steelers enough in 2008 to earn a three-year contract.
Between the two, McHugh was probably the more effective player, but it is yet to be seen how he comes back off his injury. If he comes back to camp at full strength, Johnson will have to show significant growth if he wants to beat out McHugh.
Eugene Bright will provide camp depth.
Wide Receivers - Starters
Ward is coming off a 95 reception, 1,167-yard season, and does not look to be slowing down.
At 34, though, that will be the top concern regarding Ward this training camp.
The crafty veteran is still the Steelers' top option at receiver, and while he is not a downfield threat, Ward’s route-running is what separates him from other receivers.
Ward will have more of a responsibility this year without Holmes in the starting lineup.
Luckily for Ward and the Steelers, Wallace emerged into a playmaking receiver last year, averaging 19.4 yards per reception and six touchdowns to lead all receivers on the team.
There are questions as to how Wallace will adjust to being the focus of the defense, and the Steelers will probably test him throughout camp.
Expect them to match Wallace’s speed with Ike Taylor.
Taylor is the closest thing that the Steelers have to a shutdown corner and that is what Wallace will face all year.
Based on the evidence seen last year, Wallace should not have many problems with this adjustment. He has the straight line speed to go deep, the route running skills to run shorter routes, and the toughness to go over the middle or to make the big third-down reception.
If Wallace is able to exploit the Steelers’ improved secondary, it would be a good indication that he is in for a big season.
Wide Receivers - Backups
Antwaan Randle El will likely take on a vocal leadership role as he returns to the slot position for Pittsburgh.
After having at least 50 receptions for each of the last three seasons, Randle El will be expected to put up similar production this season.
Randle El is a crafty veteran who will likely focus on working underneath routes. It should be expected that he has a strong comfort level with the offensive scheme, given his history with the Steelers.
It will be interesting to see if Arians implements trick plays using Randle El’s skill set. While reverses are likely to go to the speedy Wallace or rookie Emmanuel Sanders, Randle El’s passing ability is second to none as a receiver.
Ideally, Sanders will stand out and earn the fourth spot on the depth chart and eventually move up the chart, similar to Wallace last season.
During training camp, it became very apparent that Wallace was the real deal. He was consistently getting open and making tough catches. If Sanders can flash some of the same skills during camp, the coaching staff will take notice.
If Sanders is not ready to step in, Arnaz Battle will be. At worst, he should earn the fifth spot on the depth chart.
After decreasing his reception total from 59 in 2006 to only five last season, do not expect Battle to be much of a threat as a receiving option, but he certainly has the experience to step in when needed.
The wild card will be Antonio Brown.
The rookie receiver selected in the Sixth Round is said to have impressed during OTAs, and will really have to stand out if he is to make the roster.
Pittsburgh needs to improve on special teams, which is one of the reasons they signed Battle, so Brown will have to be outstanding as a return as well as show the ability as a receiver.
There is a possibility that the Steelers keep six receivers.
Wide Receivers - The Rest
Brown and Battle will be competing for the final roster spots leaving Tyler Grisham, Brandon London, and Isaiah Williams.
Grisham is a favorite amongst some fans, likely due to his underdog status. He is only 5'10" and 180 pounds and does not have exceptional speed. However, he did play well enough to earn playing time in four games last season.
In his only action at receiver, Grisham had one catch for 14 yards and one drop.
At 6'4" and 6'3" respectively, London and Williams provide taller options at the bottom of the depth chart.
Though neither will likely make the team, any prospect with size always adds some intrigue to training camp.