Steelers Tight End Matt Spaeth A Bigger Signing Than Many Think

By Matthew Marczi

When the Pittsburgh Steelers elected to re-sign tight end Matt Spaeth after his release following a two-year stint with the Chicago Bears, it seemed that the general reaction to the news was, on the positive end of the spectrum, apathetic. However, the reality is that his return to the team should be received with pleasure, especially in a season in which Pro Bowl tight end Heath Miller is recovering from a severe knee injury.

Many seemed surprised when Spaeth was picked up by the Bears as a free agent following the 2010 season, wondering why they would even bother signing a reserve tight end that nobody ever seemed to give much thought—unless he happened to drop a pass in a game that Miller missed.

And that is pretty much what happened in his last year with the Steelers in 2010 during a regular season game against the New York Jets, a game that perhaps inordinately shapes the public opinion on Spaeth for many of the team’s fans.

Now, nobody in their right mind would try to sell the idea of Spaeth as a potential temporary starter replacement for Miller by leaning solely on his pass catching ability, but that Jets game left a bad taste in a lot of fans’ mouths, despite him scoring a touchdown. However, it does not give an accurate representation of Spaeth’s true pass catching abilities.

Indeed, his professional career is not a true reflection of his pass catching prowess because there has been such a small sample size each and every season. In 2012 with the Bears, for example, Pro Football Focus has Spaeth being targeted on nine passes, seven of which the statistics website deemed catchable. Spaeth caught six of them (one of them a beauty for a touchdown), meaning he dropped one pass all season. But because he was only thrown nine balls, the one drop inflates his drop percentage to an unsavory, and unrepresentative, 14.29.

Granted, that Jets game started off with a dropped pass by Spaeth on the first offensive play of the game. In fact, on passes targeting Spaeth, Roethlisberger was just three for eight for 27 yards. But the only pass, from memory, that could be fairly called a drop was the first. The Steelers had a chance to win with two seconds left in the game, but Roethlisberger’s pass to Spaeth would have taken a miraculous effort to not only catch, but to also stay inbounds.

That, of course, completely disregards the fact that the Steelers spotted the Jets an opening kickoff for a touchdown, a safety, and a bootleg for a touchdown by Mark Sanchez on fourth and one. And more to the point, it ignores Spaeth’s greatest asset, which is his run blocking.

One need look no further than the pancake block that he delivered on Vernon Gholston to help spring Rashard Mendenhall for a two-yard touchdown in the third quarter, which at the time gave the Steelers the lead.

Steelers Matt Spaeth Animated GIF Block Jets

It is indeed his run blocking that is the strength of his game, and for which he was deemed by PFF a ‘Secret Superstar’ for Week 12 of last season (might I add that they also deemed him the top run blocking tight end in the league in 2012). Their excerpt on Spaeth for this game is worth quoting at length, as it highlights the entirety of his game and who he is as a player:

“If there was ever a type of player who needed our Secret Superstar series to highlight all the good work they do, the blocking tight end would be it. Matt Spaeth fits perfectly into that category and, unless you spend plenty of time watching the NFC North, you’d be forgiving [sic] for barely knowing he played football. On the field for 325 snaps this season, he has seen just eight passes thrown his way, resulting in the whopping total of 21 receiving yards through Week 12 of the season.

On Sunday he saw just the one pass through his way, albeit for a 13-yard touchdown. Yet, despite this, he finished the week as our highest graded tight end. That was in no small part due to a quite phenomenal day as a blocker. With no fewer than 12 positively graded blocks in the running game, he stood out despite the Bears averaging just 2.9 yards per carry. His most impressive block of the day came on 2nd-and-20 with 2:00 left in the first quarter. Meeting Vikings linebacker Erin Henderson in the backfield on a pull block, Spaeth was able to drive him back and block him to the ground, clearing the way for running back Matt Forte. It’s definitely not the sort of performance that gets noticed much, but for players like Spaeth, it was as close to a perfect game as anyone has come this season.”

He is not too shabby in pass protection, either. In fact, he had a Pass Blocking Efficiency of 96.6 a year ago. Additionally, in his last season with the Steelers, according to Dave Bryan’s reckoning, he did not get the blame on a single sack.

For what it is worth, the only other time that Matt Spaeth ever spent a significant stretch of time as the primary tight end with Miller injured, outside of 2010, was during a two-game span in 2008. In those two games, Spaeth was targeted 14 times and caught 12 of those passes for 108 yards. This indicates that, given the chance, he can indeed be an efficient player and contributor in the passing game.

Early offseason reports are that, despite continuing to rehab a knee injury, David Johnson has been taking first team reps at tight end, and there are indications that even second-year David Paulson may be higher than Spaeth in the pecking order, but perhaps training camp and the preseason will provide more clarity.

Regardless, as explained above, there is reason to believe that the Steelers should be in capable hands with Spaeth if Miller is not ready to go in week one. Either way, he will still play an enormous role in two tight end sets as the best blocking tight end on the team, and should provide a boost in the running game.

Perhaps many have forgotten this, or never even realized, but the Steelers did not meekly let Spaeth walk away after the 2010 season. Remember, that was the year of the lockout, during which new rules were added to the Collective Bargaining Agreement.

The Steelers tendered Spaeth a restricted free agent offer that the new CBA later rendered meaningless. So if the team quickly scooping him up after being released this past offseason was not enough of an indication of how much they value Spaeth’s game, this small history lesson should help paint a clearer picture.

Passionate Steelers fan with a bit of writing ability. Connoisseur of loud music. Follow me on Twitter @mmarczi.
  • Caesar

    Pancake block? He is #89 right? He got his arse handed to him on this play. The only reason he ‘pancaked’ was that his man got caught in the logjam the LT created. If not for #72 (soory, cant’t tell who that is) his man totally blows up the play. Terrible example to make your point.

  • VaDave

    That was Keisel. Spathe is on the left.

  • Caesar

    Right, 89 on the left. He got completely beat.

  • walter mason

    I seem to remember “Lost in Spaeth” dropping 2 passes in the end zone as time expired. Good to hear he can block.

  • VaDave

    This is a great clip, a clinic on why we had so much trouble running the ball in short yardage. Notice the jets selling out to stuff the AB gaps It looks like Foster was trying to help on a combo block on the NT leaving his man for Adams, who whiffed on the cut off block. The question here is why is Foster and Pouncey trying to push the NG into the hole that that Mendenhall is trying to run through? Or was this play set up to run right, and Mendenhall saw the missed cutoff, that was picked up by Legs and therefore couldn’t hit his LB assignment and took it left? Make sense??? Now you know why BA is in Arizona.

    The best block of the bunch was Johnson taking his guy right at the point of attack head on and driving him out of the hole….Honorable mention for Kemo’s take down of the DT. I think he learned this trick from Hartwig who got caught in the Superbowl and drew a safety.

  • VaDave

    Oh, that “Right”. I thought you were talking about the right side of the LOS. You are correct. Having J.Scott’s butt plugging the gap the guy was trying to shoot was more effective.

  • steeltown

    If you click on the link (underlined caption) you’ll see the play from a different angle. He didn’t get beat, he didn’t allow penetration and he took his guy off his feet and basically out of the play altogether

  • steeltown

    I don’t understand all the negativity surrounding this signing. Our run blocking and pass protection has been terrible the last 2yrs, Spaeth will help in that department. Like mentioned above, with Miller out, Spaeth is easily the best blocking TE on roster

    TE’s do so much more than pass catch

  • Caesar

    Still looks beat to me there. he got no drive and his man beat him inside. The traffic inside him saved him.

  • steeltown

    Well, the way it looks, his man didn’t touch Mendy

  • cencalsteeler

    I agree with you. We need to protect our qb and open some holes. The Spaeth pick addresses that and at a bargain price as well.

  • steeltown

    Yea.. some people (obviously) don’t agree and are to caught up in the whole pass catching TE craze.. I think they forget how Football is played, ‘control the line of scrimmage’ and everything else will fall into place

    We have plenty of pass catchers on roster.. what we lack is blocking from a run and pass standpoint. Our OL is young and lacks depth. They will need all the help they can get. Spaeth is 6’7 270lbs.. he is basically another OLinemen out there with way more athleticism and the ability to catch a few passes

  • charles

    Hartwigs “safety” was only him tripping over himself. Further the ref who made the call has a history of bad calls against the Steelers.

  • VaDave

    Hartwig was late getting over, and yes you can call it a trip if you want, I prefer to call it not having his legs under him when impact occurred, regardless, he had both hands in plain sight, and looked like he pulled the guy down. If you look at Kemo in this gif, he has both arms around the guy when his knees buckled, then pulled the guy down.
    As for the Ref, agreed, it was a tacky call on Hartwig. That said, if that’s holding, what do you call what Kemo did in the gif.?

  • dgh57

    I agree, we could’ve stayed with what we had last year! At least he’s a upgrade from from that awful Leonard Pope who couldn’t do anything for a guy his size!! Spaeth will help in this new outside ZBS that’s being put in this year because of his mobility & blocking skills!

  • steeltown

    Exactly… the Steelers brass usually know what they’re doing

  • Kevin Gobleck

    Man we need to have Keisle at RT look at that block , stopped the guy in his tracks hahaha

  • Matthew Marczi

    Watch Spaeth’s hands. He was in control the whole play. There are numerous other examples that I could have used to make my point. I just used this one because it came in the same game that many believe was ‘terrible’ for Spaeth.

  • Matthew Marczi

    The first pass in question was intended for Emmanuel Sanders, and to call the second pass a “drop” would be incredibly harsh. In fact, your memory of the game is an example of my point, which is that that one game, which was not nearly as bad as it seemed, inordinately shaped the opinion of Spaeth afterwards.

  • Caesar

    I’m sure there are other examples, I remember him being a decent blocker, but this one doesn’t do it justice. Judging blocking by hands is like judging a novel by its grammar. You can’t have a good book with out good grammar and you can’t have good blocking without good hand use, but if you want to know whether a block has been effective you have to look at feet and hips. They show the results. And here Spaeth’s guy is the reason Mendenhall doesn’t go in untouched. The hole is huge, and his guy almost manages to blow it up.

  • steeltown

    Think you might wanta re-look… Jonathan Scotts man gets an arm around Mendy, but even then he was already crossing the goal line and by that time Spaeths guy was nearly off his feet

  • Christopher Wilkes

    Damn, did you see that block by David Johnson on the MLB? That looked like a pretty “reliable” block to me, lol. I love our depth at TE, aside from Heath’s injury. I’m a big fan of Spaeth too. I loved the pick coming out of college, and even though his receiving skills haven’t been great throughout his career, he’s going to help out our run game. I’m not sold on Paulson yet either, so glad Spaeth is back, and most likely in the #2 spot.

  • Matthew Marczi

    I don’t think there’s really much of worth to say in quibbling over the merit of a particular block on a particular play, but I will say this. The block was much closer to being a “pancake” than Gholston was to blowing up that play. And I’m not sure what you’re talking about, but Mendenhall does go in untouched. Pouha doesn’t touch him until he’s already scored. And if you watch Scott’s feet, you see that Spaeth and Gholston had nothing to do with Pouha eventually beating his man, even though it was too late at that point.

  • JohnnyV1

    Spaeth was a good signing!

  • Brendon Glad

    I’m not a Spaeth guy, in fact I thought that he was consistently aggravating me more on blown blocks than on any receiving deficiencies as I watched his Steeler tenure. But I hope you are right.
    Tight-end is my chief concern heading into the season so between the severely injured returners, Paulsen, and the inauspicious free-agent signings, I hope we find 2 guys to fill the snaps. I’m not planning on seeing anything resembling the Heath Miller we know until very late in the season…(although I’d be thrilled if Heath shoved that expectation down my throat).

  • Rob

    That is sure not what I would call a pancake block, A pancake stops the man in his tracks and knocks him on his back, this guy continued to press down on the line and got caught and trampled by the tackle.

  • Shannon Stephenson

    Nice stats.

  • Shannon Stephenson

    actually it was Scott who made the play. He made a big push on his guy.

  • Mike.H

    WT hell? what was Kiesel 99 doing [ DE] on the Right side of line of scrimmage of offensive line???

  • steeltown

    Ha someone doesn’t like the fact that the Steelers FO is knowledgeable?? Either that or they were big Leonard Pope fans haha!

  • steves

    Looks like he is playing “Patty-Cakes” with his man, but he was taken out of the play, which is all that counts. How bout Kiesel hosting “Kids for a day fishing” on the Tri Review. Gotta love it! Great Guy. Took kids from Childrens Hospital out to fish. I’ll bet they loved it. Out with the BIG kid – Kiesel.

  • dgh57

    This fan needs to realize that we could have a FO like some awful teams that are in the NFL! Then where would we be?! Looking up in the standings every year, I’m sure!! As for the 2nd one: obviously he/she knows very little about football.

    Third possibility could be Trolls!!!

  • walter mason

    It would be great to watch a clip of the 2 plays. I agree the passes werent perfect but he was wide open and seemed to have a problem adjusting to the ball. I guess I will have to search for it and post it.

    You have to catch those lofted balls with the game on the line. I remember reading that Jets named Spaeth MVP. All that work in the closing seconds to get to the end zone. We need someone dependable. Even one drop is too many in that scenario. Miller was down. He had his big chance and he blew it. Some players do not get another chance.

    As far as the block goes, yes Spaeth pushed his man backwards but it was Scotts butt that saved the day. Scott deserves the credit here… and Johnson.

    I like your writing Matthew. You chose your topics well. They are a bit controversial and you got 32 replys here. Your last post got at least that amount if I remember correctly. And that cant be bad.

    Im still looking but found this.
    “Backup tight end Spaeth stunned by two key drops” http://triblive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/sports/steelers/s_714543.html#axzz2Wg5V7jS1

  • walter mason

    Hey Matthew the same Trib article I just posted says this. “Spaeth’s 9-yard touchdown catch of a Roethlisberger frozen rope between two defenders capped a 16-play, 96-yard drive to tie the game at 7-7 midway through the first quarter, but he finished with just three receptions for 27 yards despite being targeted eight times.”

    It says he only caught 3 of 8. Did Trib get it wrong? Maybe the one to Saunders doesnt count.

    “Spaeth cut in front of intended receiver Emmanuel Sanders in the back of the end zone on second-and-goal from the 10 only to let the pass go through his hands”

    Im not searching any further. I guess 2 people can look at the same thing and see it 2 different ways.

  • SteelersDepot

    Hard to pin the second one on Spaeth & here is your GIF http://twitpic.com/show/thumb/cy465r.gif

  • walter mason

    Ha! I wish you would reply directly to the person you are speaking about. Trolls… I doubt it. Are you serious? Just differences of opinion. I think controversial subjects are beneficial to this forum. We expect our RBs to run as well as block. Is it too much to expect a TE to be able to catch? An upgrade on Pope? Sure, but thats not saying much. What kind of comparison standard is Pope lol? Since he is such a good blocker maybe the Steelers can convert him to OT aka Larry Brown (in an emergency). I agree with someone that said hes basically another OL.

    Spaeth is a Steeler so I will support him. I will worry when we have to throw to him in the redzone when the game is on the line. I will not worry about his blocking. Sure he is a good addition but nothing to rave about….sorry.

    Go Steelers!!! Thanks for the GIF Dave.

  • walter mason

    I reread your post and I see you got it the same as Trib. 3 for 8 passes thrown. My bad.

  • dgh57

    What the HELL are you talking about? I was responding to Steeltown! Who else is there, a Troll? Provide a link and I will!!!! I’ve seen others refer to the possibility of Trolls, afterall non Steelers fans visit this site. Pope was on our roster who else was I to use to compare Spaeth to?!!! I was staying inside our own roster! Spaeth can block and he himself said he benefited from his 2 years with the Bears as to the passing game! I’m all for having Sparth on the roster, the Steelers FO seems to agree with me by their action, and I could care less if you don’t!! FYI: I don’t RAVE about players until they back it up on the playing field!

  • walter mason

    OK you are correct Spaeth is an upgrade over Pope. Does that mean much? I seriously doubt you were calling Steeltown a troll and I am not a troll. I was born in Homestead, raised in Clairton, West Mifflin live in Florida and a die hard Steelers fan all my life. Pittsburgh was a great place to grow up and I have fond memories. Im not sure who you are referring to. Caesars comments dont sound like a troll either. He was simply making an observation…different point of view.

    I seem to remember Pope was signed to a 1 year contract so I dont think hes on the roster. I may not be the football genius that you are dgh57 but I have more common sense than most. Common sense tells me Spaeth will not catch many balls. Hopefully I am wrong and I am leaning toward a decent signing nonetheless after reading all the replys..

    Take care. 39 replys Matt!

  • dgh57

    I don’t think we agree on what a Troll is. To me a Troll is a non-Steeler fan that comes over here and just for the fun of it leaves down arrow checks on comments and rarely if ever makes comments. When Steeltown made his reply to me where it says “Exactly” and he comes back the next day and someone gave him a down arrow that’s when he made his 2nd reply. I replied with the “possibility” that it might a Troll(non-Steeler fan) since to me he made a perfectly reasonable comment about the FO so why should he get a down arrow. So I’m not calling anyone that posts here a Troll and never would knowingly do so.

    As for Spaeth to me it means something when you consider I question Pope even belongs in the NFL. Pope for as big as he was couldn’t catch or block the 2 things TEs are counted on doing the most! I bet you could count on 1 hand how many snaps he got last year. Spaeth will provide both more blocking 1st & catches 2nd maybe in the 20 to 25 catch area and way ahead of Pope and which is fine as long as Miller does his thing!

  • VaDave

    I agree Johnson’s block was the best of the bunch, Flo Adams gets an honorable mention recovering from a late down block due to being split a little too wide from Foster, knocking his guy over a falling Foster’s behind or legs just in the nick of time. Kemo’s take down is priceless. Did you see his knees buckle when he hit his man?

  • sgtrobo

    uh, wait, what play are we watching? Vernon Gholston (yes, THAT Vernon Gholston) held him off and rode him down the LoS but Jonathan Scott was in the way and Mendenhall ran on the other side of Scott. That wasn’t a pancake block by any stretch of the imagination. He didn’t even win that, he should’ve been graded negatively, or at best, even, because he was completely unable to keep his guy from plugging inside and closing the inside gap. That play was successful because 1) Kemo gets away with tackling Marcus Dixon (#94); 2) Jonathan Scott does a surprisingly admirable job of walling off Sione Pouha (And in the same vein, walling Vernon Gholston out); and most importantly, 3) David Johnson owns David Harris as the lead blocker. The NFL video is completely misleading because you see it from one side of the play and you cannot see how Vernon Gholston (yes, still that same Vernon Gholston) absolutely rode Spaeth down the line of scrimmage without giving up a single yard of depth. Spaeth got beat on that play, plain and simple.

  • sgtrobo

    his man didn’t touch Mendy because the run was to the A gap and he was covering the C gap, yet still ALMOST made the play if Jonathan Scott wasn’t in the way

  • sgtrobo

    WTF? What are you watching? Pouha was driven into the end zone, Gholston didn’t concede an inch to Spaeth and actually covered from the C gap through to the A gap. Gholston is reaching underneath Scott and Pouha to try to make the play because, despite lining up head-to-head, Spaeth was completely unable to even marginally contain one of the biggest draft busts in NFL history. Spaeth’s a decent blocker. This is a BAD example of his blocking.

  • sgtrobo

    VanDave, I think you’re confused. This wasn’t last season, this was 2010 (I’m pretty sure). 71 isn’t Mike Adams, it’s Flozell Adams, and he is downblocking Mike DeVito who lined up and shot the B gap inside his left shoulder.

  • sgtrobo

    hell yeah, Keisel shut down Bryan Thomas there, the guy that led the NYJ in sacks in 2010!

  • VaDave

    I’m pretty sure I didn’t say this was Mike Adams. If you read a little further down on this thread you will see another of my posts where I correctly identified “Flo” Adams as the one executing a down block.

  • sgtrobo

    ah, ok then, my bad. I do see that down below.

  • VaDave

    No prob. I usually screw this sort of thing up anyway. Surprisingly, this was not one of those times. Have a good one.

  • walter mason

    Kemo got away with one.

  • walter mason

    OK thanks

  • Steeler Wheeler

    I can recall dozens, if not hundreds, of terrible blocks by this cat. Not gonna say a bad signing, but I think he gets cut.

  • sgtrobo

    yep. Solid tackle.

  • steeltown

    Mendy was basically crossing the goal line by the time they shifted over, not to mention he was almost off his feet heading to the ground by that time as well

  • sgtrobo

    well sure, but that’s part of the point. He managed to fight down the line against Spaeth. Not saying he made a great play or anything, but to use this as an example of Spaeth blocking *well*, and then to call this a pancake block? Da’fuq???