Share This Page

Steelers tight ends on road to recovery heading into season

| Monday, July 22, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
The Steelers' Heath Miller watches OTA on Tuesday, May 21, 2013, at the UPMC complex.
Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
The Steelers' Heath Miller, with his knee wrapped in ice, watches as tight ends practice during OTAs on Wednesday, May 22, 2013, at the UPMC Sports Performance Complex.

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 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 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.”

Ralph N. Paulk is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rpaulk@tribweb.com or via Twitter @RalphPaulk_Trib.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.