Miller believes tight end position in good hands
For years, it was the one guarantee of every Steelers season: They would talk about throwing to the tight end but wouldn't do it.
They finally did so under offensive coordinator Todd Haley a year ago, when Heath Miller caught a team-high 71 passes — only the second time since 1966 a tight end topped the Steelers in receptions.
But with Miller out indefinitely following knee surgery — he was injured in December — the Steelers might go into the season without not only their top downfield threat from a season ago in Mike Wallace but also their most reliable receiver in Miller.
Surprisingly, Miller doesn't think there will be a drop-off with what he believes might be the Steelers' best group of tight ends since he was a first-round pick out of Virginia in 2005.
“We have a really good room, a lot of capable guys in there,” Miller said. “I think maybe one of the best top to bottom that I've been starting camp with. Hopefully we'll be able to keep everybody healthy, and I think everybody is capable of contributing and doing a good job.”
If Miller can't start the season — and that appears to be a strong possibility — the starting tight end is likely to be Matt Spaeth, who is renowned for his blocking but never has caught more than 17 passes in six seasons, four with the Steelers. He caught 13 passes for 78 yards and three touchdowns the past two seasons in Chicago, where he was frequently utilized in two tight end sets.
Spaeth insists he didn't sign a two-year, $2 million deal with the Steelers just because he knew Miller might not be ready to start the season.
“I came back here because I love this organization, I love this team, and I enjoyed it all four years I was here,” Spaeth said. “That's why I'm back.”
He understands he probably won't see the ball as much as Miller did even if he is the starter, and he is comfortable with that. He knows his role; last season, Pro Football Focus rated him as the best blocking tight end in the league.
Don't think that wasn't attractive to Haley and coach Mike Tomlin, who have emphasized the necessity of re-establishing an effective running game. The Steelers, who have led the league in rushing since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970, were 26th in rushing last season.
A strong blocking tight end could help trigger that running game, especially when Miller returns and can line up with Spaeth in twin tight end formations. Last season, Leonard Pope and rookie David Paulson were the primary backup tight ends.
“I'm a role guy, I know I've got a role, and I never worry about how many balls are being thrown to me,” Spaeth said. “My goal is to go out every day and every game and play as well as I can, whether that's catching passes or blocking, it doesn't matter.”