Tight End Receiving Numbers Behind Heath Miller Historically Lacking For Steelers

By Matthew Marczi

It would be quite a challenge to ignore the recent trend around the league of employing two tight ends in the passing game by teams such as the Baltimore Ravens, the New England Patriots, the Indianapolis Colts, and others—including the Cincinnati Bengals after drafting tight end Tyler Eifert.

Yet the Pittsburgh Steelers have only very rarely incorporated multiple tight ends into the passing game. Certainly not in recent years. Given the injury to Heath Miller and the near certainty that he will need time to regain his form, even if he is able to play week one, it raises the question about how the Steelers have used their tight end depth in the passing game in recent memory—and how they have performed.

Last year, of course, the Steelers brought in Leonard Pope to serve as second fiddle to Miller as he helped the team transition to new offensive coordinator Todd Haley’s playbook, having played under him for both the Arizona Cardinals and the Kansas City Chiefs.

But Pope was ineffective in his role as second stringer, and it was not long before David Paulson, a rookie seventh round draft pick, surpassed him, ultimately playing nearly four times the amount of snaps as the veteran.

Still, neither player was targeted much. In fact, on over a third of Paulson’s passing snaps, he was asked exclusively to stay in and block, whereas almost 60% of Pope’s passing snaps were exclusively for pass protection.

Between the two, they only ran just over 100 routes, and combined for 11 targets. Pope caught all three of his targets, two of which went for touchdowns, while Paulson secured seven of his eight targets. Combined, the reserve tight ends netted 10 receptions for 60 yards and two touchdowns.

All told, Pope played less than 9% of the team’s snaps, while Paulson came in at just under 30%. Due to the duo’s inexperience, Miller was forced to remain exclusively in pass protection more than he had in years, perhaps in his entire career, with nearly a quarter of his snaps in the passing game asking him to block.

In comparison, he was relatively unburdened in 2011 with David Johnson and Weslye Saunders. Johnson played pass protect nearly a third of the time he was in on passing downs, while Saunders remained in to block on about 30% of his passing snaps. This duo was on the field more frequently than last year’s pair; Saunders saw action on over 20% of the team’s snaps, whereas Johnson’s usage exceeded 40%.

Still, they did not exactly make a splash in the passing game. Johnson caught 12 passes on 14 targets for 91 yards and a touchdown, while Saunders added four receptions on seven targets for 29 yards and a touchdown. Combined, that is 15 receptions for 120 yards and two scores.

Johnson, remember, primarily played in a more fullback-oriented role, and in fact had his struggles when the team tried to make him an inline blocker, so that must be noted in these statistics. In 2010 and his rookie year, he played nearly exclusively at fullback. In 2010, he caught four of six passes aimed his way for 46 yards.

2010 was also the last year in the first stint with Pittsburgh for Matt Spaeth, who is now back with the team. He got quite a lot of usage in 2010, playing just about half of the team’s snaps, and being asked to pass protect on nearly 30% of his passing snaps.

Still, he received 18 targets, catching only nine of them, with two deemed dropped passes. He totaled 80 yards and scored one touchdown. Add in Johnson’s production and the reserve tight ends amassed 13 receptions for 126 yards and one score in 2010.

Johnson saw little usage as a rookie in 2009. He played pass protect eight times out of his 23 passing snaps as a fullback and saw four targets in the passing game, catching two for nine yards. It was a two-man show at tight end, however, with Spaeth being the only other fulltime tight end.

Spaeth played over a third of the team’s snaps in 2009, though mostly as a run blocker. Of his nearly 400 snaps, barely 130 of them were in the passing game. Of those, over a third were in pass protection. He was ultimately targeted but six times, catching five for 25 yards and a score, making the total output for reserve tight ends that year seven catches for 34 yards and a score.

Going back one year further to 2008 brings us to another former hybrid player, Sean McHugh. Like Johnson earlier in his career, he played primarily fullback. Still, he saw just 16.6% of the team’s snaps, and only about a third of them came at tight end. Primarily a run blocker, he saw little time in the passing game, but he caught three passes on four targets for 24 yards.

Spaeth, meanwhile, had a more productive season, especially as a receiver, although 20% of his passing snaps were in pass protection. He was targeted a career-high 26 times and caught 17 passes for 136 yards. Unlike in 2007, however, when three of his five receptions netted a touchdown, 2008 was the only season in which he did not score.

All told, that is just 20 receptions for 160 yards and no scores. Below is a table chronicling the production in the passing game the Steelers have gotten out of their reserve tight ends over the past five seasons. Of course having Miller present skews the other tight ends’ production; however, reflecting on the data below, the Steelers are certainly hoping that Miller is able to return as soon as possible. If not, they will have to rely on some combination of Spaeth, Paulson, Johnon, and fullback Will Johnson to try to compensate for Miller’s loss.

YearTargetsReceptionsComp. %YardsYPCTouchdowns

About the Author

Matthew Marczi

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

  • steeltown

    I think Will Johnson is the dark horse candidate to help in the passing game more in the absence of Miller.. also we cant really sleep on Paulson just yet either, he was a rookie last season

    …and I have to say again, I love the Spaeth signing, having nothing to do with helping in the passing game and everything to do with run blocking

  • cencalsteeler

    Haley should utilize both Johnson and Bell in both swing passes and short passes in the flats. Paulson should see more balls his way this year and Spaeth will become a favorite of Bens in the red zone. And I guarantee you, Bell will be paying close attention to Spaeths blocks on the corners.

  • woundedvet

    Spaeth was cut by the bears, he is not the answer. He is just big body, thats why he’ll do to occupy a backup roster spot til we get any of the other big bodies available to do what he does.

  • steeltown

    James Harrison was cut 4 different times in his career, maybe 5 now

    Spaeth is in the upper echelon of the entire League in the run blocking dept… he wasn’t brought in to catch passes

  • woundedvet

    Comparing Spaeth with a multiyears All-Pro. Yeah might as well say every player cut at every position would have been an All-Pro if Steelers would have signed them off the street. Reality is Harrison is a very rare exception.

  • steeltown

    Who said I was comparing? You mentioned he was cut.. my point is tons of players are cut every year.. doesn’t mean they are all terrible players

  • dgh57

    All this makes me wonder just how much other teams spend game planning against our offense when only 1 TE is a threat in the passing game! I can’t imagine it would me much from the TE perspective. This lack of a 2nd TE in the passing game has to be made up somewhere and I can see it coming from the RBs including Will Johnson or else Paulson needs to step up and be the man!.

  • woundedvet

    On 2nd thought, now I think I know why Colbert signed Spaeth. I forgot Spaeth is 6’7 270+ lbs, thats near the size of offensiv tackles. I think the staff looked ahead to Adams will be the right tackle & Spaeth’s job will be to therefore stay at Adams’ right wing on all pass plays to help double-team block any pass rusher which Adams is supposed to block. For that reason the Spaeth signing makes perfect sense. Its hedging our bets until Adams learns to pass-block.

  • Shea Fahr

    The Rookie Paulson was targeted 8 times and caught 7 of them. As far as I am concerned, Paulson has the make up to become a very solid number 2 TE.


    I’ve been say this since the injury…where are all of those targets in the middle of the field to Heath LY going until he gets back? Paulson really is the only answer and more RB targets. Spaeth will get a few in the red zone


    I’m sure chipping on Adams side will be a big part of his job…especially on 3rd down…getting him in as a 6th OL on running plays I think is also part…I expect a more effective running game this yr.

  • Shea Fahr

    I completely agree.

  • steeltown

    I agree, I think when he puts on some muscle and gains some more strength he will be a solid #2.. he has experience blocking in the Oregon Offense and the kid has really really good hands, made some nice plays in college. The knock on him is his speed, yet as we all know even Heath isn’t the fastest guy. Its all about finding the creases in the passing game and contesting for balls. The kid is really bright too Pac-12 all-academic first team selection three yrs in a row at Oregon

  • Matthew Marczi

    Your comment inspired my latest article, which will be posted tomorrow. You might be interested in checking it out.

  • Matthew Marczi

    Spaeth’s strength is in his run blocking, certainly. I expect him to be blocking on somewhere around 65% of the team’s running plays, if not more, partly depending on Miller’s health.

  • Matthew Marczi

    I’m really waiting to see more from Paulson before I brand him with anything. I certainly do hope he’s gotten stronger. I remember being impressed with him in the preseason for even being able to block at all, after hearing that he couldn’t. Once I got past that, however, it was obvious that he has a lot of work to do to become a competent blocker on a consistent basis. Not saying he can’t, but I’m waiting to see it first.

  • steeltown

    Yea, he definitely needs to get stronger