Despite numerous injuries at position, tight ends still expected to perform for Steelers
A newly constructed sign bearing the Mike Tomlin-minted motto “The Standard ... Is the Standard” is posted near the entrance of the Steelers' locker room for everybody to see and, the coach hopes, believe.
Even so, when it comes to Steelers' tight ends, Tomlin may be starting to question the validity of his catchphrase — and for good reason.
• Heath Miller is on the physically unable to perform list, and the date of his return from December knee surgery is unknown.
• Matt Spaeth, who was supposed to pick up some of the slack until Miller's return, is out at least a couple of months after having foot surgery Saturday.
• David Johnson had cleanup knee surgery two weeks ago on the surgically repaired knee that kept him out all of last year and remains on the PUP list.
• Jamie McCoy, who's been on the Steelers' practice squad for three years, has a sore right wrist that kept him out of Saturday's 18-13 preseason loss to the Giants.
That leaves the position in the hands of David Paulson, Michael Palmer, Nathan Overbay and Peter Tuitupou for the foreseeable future.
“It must be something we are drinking in the room or something,” McCoy said. “It seems like every week somebody has a nagging injury or something.”
But, as the sign says, the standard is the standard, and for the Steelers, that standard is Miller: 71 catches, 8 touchdowns, the franchise quarterback's favorite target and the reigning team MVP.
“I'm not going to discount the guys that are working,” Tomlin said. “We'll continue to work with those guys. Obviously, we've got some guys down at the position that we need to get back, and we will when they're healthy. Meanwhile, we're focusing on the ones that are working and making sure they have the mentality that's geared toward improvement on a daily basis.”
Tomlin's words lend support to what they already have.
His actions speak much differently.
The Steelers added three tight ends within a span of just over a week, including two in one day, and continue to scour the waiver market.
Tomlin was so cognizant of not risking any more injuries to the position that he decided to sit McCoy and instead allowed a tight end the team picked up 36 hours prior — Palmer — to start, play more than a dozen snaps and help protect quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
“We were kind of laughing about it on the field because I had the playbook for about 36 hours,” Palmer said. “I have enough experience that I know how to play the game. It is just more of putting me in the right position and the right spots.”
Right now, the choices are limited.
Paulson is penciled in as the starter but has only 316 snaps and seven receptions on his resume. Palmer played three years for the Falcons but averaged only 13 snaps per game.
To put that into perspective, Miller missed only 10 snaps last year before tearing his ACL late in a Week 16 game against Cincinnati.
The uncertainty at the position has become an issue for an offense that likes to use its tight ends in a variety of ways.
“It's been tough to keep bringing in new guys that are not familiar with the offense, but that is the game of football,” backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski said. “You are going to have injuries, and the next guy has to step up. We have talented tight ends here, and I'm real confident in them.”
After all, the standard is the standard.
Mark Kaboly is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @MarkKaboly_Trib.
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