Steelers tight ends on road to recovery heading into season
The Steelers will arrive at training camp at Saint Vincent College on Friday facing uncertainty at several positions, and chief among them is tight end.
No one within the organization knows when Heath Miller will be prepared to play this season. Miller, who led the Steelers with 71 receptions last season, tore his ACL, MCL and PCL. He is still mending from reconstructive surgery.
If Miller isn't ready for the season opener against Tennessee at Heinz Field on Sept. 8, then either Matt Spaeth — in his second tour of duty with the Steelers — or second-year tight end David Paulson is expected to fill in until Miller recovers.
David Johnson, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in the first quarter of the preseason opener at Philadelphia last season, is another question mark. He began last season as the starting H-back, but offensive coordinator Todd Haley figured he would play a more significant role in the passing game.
With Johnson out and wide receiver Mike Wallace easing his way into a new offense after a contract dispute, Miller became quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's go-to target, particularly during the first half of the season. Ultimately, Miller became the first tight end to lead the team in receptions in 46 years.
The absence of Wallace and Miller leaves an apparent hole in an offense that struggled mightily down the stretch in 2012. The tight ends accounted for 96 of 354 receptions and amassed 11 touchdowns, but were largely ineffective during the team's failed bid to advance to the AFC playoffs.
“We're not out here trying to get ready for a game tomorrow,” Roethlisberger said during the OTAs. “We're just out here learning and getting better.'
So far, Johnson is getting better — albeit slowly. But there remains doubt about how much progress Miller has made the past several months. And Paulson was slowed some during minicamp with a couple of nagging injuries.
“I'm about 85 to 90 percent. It continues to get better and better each day,” Johnson said. “I'm coming out to work in hopes of getting the feel back.
“Every day, something knew comes back to normal. It's all I'm focusing on and keeping it together mentally. It's not perfect, but things are coming back.”
For all the questions, second-year veteran Will Johnson appears to be the answer at H-back. He seemingly has a grip on a starting position, in part, because David Johnson isn't quite where he needs to be physically.
The injuries could force Haley to redefine the role of his tight ends. David Johnson is simply hoping to fit in anywhere after sitting out the entire 2012 season.
“We all are trying to find out what the coaches needs us to do,” Johnson said. “It could be we'll do a few things differently this year. We have to find the best player for the job and every situation.
“Sure, we need to know where we fit. Then, we have to buckle down and compete for it.”
At this point, Johnson will settle for having the chance to compete for a roster spot. He spent part of last year stressing over the possibility of having suffered an injury that jeopardized his career — an injury similar, if not exactly like Miller's.
“It was tough, because I was really looking forward to last year,” Johnson said. “I probably never worked that hard my entire life. I was physically and mentally prepared. I was crushed because I couldn't play when my team needed me.
“I really wanted to be out there playing. It was first time in my career that was sitting on the couch watching my team play.”
David Johnson and Miller have consulted often during the offseason. Johnson knows just how hard the road to recovery will be for Miller.
“We always share things about getting healthy,” Johnson said. “Heath and I talk quite a bit because we have the exact same injury. So, we share things about what we're doing as far as rehab goes.
“I'm giving him suggestions because I'm further along in the healing process than he, so I'm telling him things and he's sharing things with me. It's been very helpful for both us. I do believe it'll make a difference in us making it back to play at 100 percent this season.”
“We all know that injuries are part of the game, but that doesn't make any easier to accept,” he added. “I can't think about what it takes to be successful, especially if I'm concerned about getting injured. You can only limit yourself by thinking about getting hurt.”
Ralph N. Paulk is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @RalphPaulk_Trib.
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