Lack of depth at tight end could hurt running game
By Ralph N. Paulk
Published: Saturday, August 18, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
Updated: Tuesday, February 19, 2013
The Steelers appeared set at tight end when camp began last month.
That's before David Johnson tore an ACL in the preseason opener at Philadelphia.
But Johnson's departure, coupled with the four-game suspension of Weslye Saunders, creates some semblance of uncertainty, particularly in the run game.
How much so will be seen Sunday night at 8:10 against Indianapolis at Heinz Field.
Heath Miller is the anchor at tight end in a position slightly redefined by first-year offensive coordinator Todd Haley.
“I feel like there's competition every year,” Miller said. “This year, it's a little different because most of the guys haven't had a significant amount playing time on the team. There's usually one or two of us who have a played quite a bit.”
With the exception of rookie David Paulson, two new additions — Leonard Pope and Justin Peelle — are veterans with a combined 17 years experience. And Jamie McCoy spent the last season on the Steelers' practice squad.
“My career has been mainly blocking,” said Peelle, who spent time in San Diego, Atlanta and San Francisco. “I'm not going to catch 200 balls.”
Tight ends coach James Daniel said it may be difficult to replace Johnson, at least as the lead blocker — a role he filled last season.
“All of our tight ends can't play fullback,” said Daniel, who may audition a couple of tight ends at fullback against Indianapolis. “Heath is capable of doing that, but as high-cut as Pope (6-foot-8) is, you're not going to use him as a fullback. We are a little limited there, but we'll sort the talent out to see who fits.”
“Obviously, losing DJ really hurts us, but we've got some quality guys in camp,” Miller said. “I think one of the guys in the room will get the job done.
“It may be easier for veteran players to pick up things a little quicker just because they may have been exposed to two or three different offenses, and this offense may be similar to offenses they've played in the past.”
If numbers matter, then Johnson and Saunders aren't likely to be missed, particularly in the passing game. They amassed a combined 16 receptions and two touchdowns in 2011, while Miller was the third-leading receiver with 51 catches and two scores.
However, their absence will matter in the run game. Johnson's blocking abilities enabled him to transition rather easily to fullback or H-back in an offense in which the demands are greater for the tight ends to create an alley for running back Isaac Redman.
“I think we're going to be asked to do all of the above,” said Miller, whose 337 receptions are a franchise best for tight ends. “We've been involved in the run game as always, but may have more opportunities in the passing game and do some things from the backfield.”
As the Steelers prepare for Sunday night, Pope likely will be asked to fill the void behind Miller until Saunders comes off suspension.
“We'll see at the end what we have,” said Pope, who played for Haley in Kansas City last season. “I'm fighting and competing every day. I don't have it made because I played for Coach Haley. I'm here to work.”
“(Pope) is a veteran with a lot of snaps under his belt in big games,” Haley said. “He went out in the first game and did a reasonably positive job. He'll get time this week by virtue of the situation with DJ.”
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