Battle at tight end brews between Steelers' Paulson, Spaeth
Perhaps there's no substitute for speed, but the Steelers still have enough at the flanks with Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders that the loss of Mike Wallace might not significantly impact the offense.
However, the absence of tight end Heath Miller will influence a passing game that largely was inconsistent last season. While Wallace was clearly the game-breaker, Miller became quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's lean-on possession receiver.
Miller put up career numbers — 816 receiving yards and eight touchdowns — and hauled in 71 receptions before sustaining a season-ending knee injury against Cincinnati in December.
In contrast, those seeking to replace Miller lack awe-inspiring numbers. David Paulson, one of four seventh-round picks last year, and Matt Spaeth had a combined 13 catches during the 2012 season.
Spaeth, who spent two seasons in Chicago after leaving Pittsburgh, spent much of minicamp as the apparent No. 1. Paulson started the final game last season and appears to have a better grasp of Todd Haley's offense.
“I try not to think about the order of things right now,” said the 6-foot-4, 241-pound Paulson. “I'm trying to take advantage of the reps I'm getting and get better every day.”
On Monday, Paulson blocked well, didn't drop a pass and wrestled away a couple of balls from linebackers.
A more accurate measure of Paulson's progress, though, might come in the preseason opener against the New York Giants on Aug. 10 at Heinz Field. Spaeth, a third-round pick of the Steelers in 2007, must prove 13 catches in two seasons with the Bears isn't reflective of his potential to supplant Miller.
While Miller and David Johnson mend — Johnson missed last season with a torn ACL — Paulson and Spaeth will battle during training camp. They probably won't be looking over their shoulders at Jamie McCoy and Peter Tuitupou, but they can't afford to drop their hands — or the ball.
“Hopefully Heath will be ready to go by the time the season starts,” Paulson said. “With Heath and David (Johnson) out, I have to take a play off.
“I didn't know what to expect last season. I just showed up ready to work. As the preseason progressed, things looked better for me to make the team.”
Paulson spent plenty of time in the weight room during the offseason.
“I'm big time better than last year,” he said. “I can't say I have it all figured out, but I'm more confident with the offense. I'm doing a lot less thinking and more reacting.”
The question isn't whether Paulson will make the team but rather whether he can outduel Spaeth for the starting job until Miller returns.
“Matt has played here and has played in the league a long time, and we know he's more than capable,” Miller said. “Paulson did a great job.
“We're going to be OK.”
The 6-foot-7, 260-pound Spaeth has the edge in experience and size. But Paulson has shown that he has improved in pass catching, blocking and knowledge of the offense.
“(Paulson) is a hair undersized, but he doesn't play that way,” Spaeth said. “He does everything the right way, and he's technically sound, so he can get away with (his size) a little bit.”
Paulson and Spaeth pushed back against the assertion that a battle is brewing in camp. But they acknowledged that they are fighting to gain Roethlisberger's confidence.
“Competition brings out the best in everybody, but it isn't so much about competition as it is the camaraderie,” Spaeth said. “It's not like we're hoping we do good and the other does bad. We try to help each other as much as possible because it's all about winning.”
Ralph N. Paulk is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @RalphPaulk_Trib.
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