By Matthew Marczi
David Paulson sure has looked a lot better since Heath Miller returned to the lineup, hasn’t he? I hardly ever notice him slipping off blocks early, allowing a running back to be tackled behind the line of scrimmage any more.
Oh, that’s right, that’s because he’s effectively been benched.
During the first two weeks of the season, Paulson was essentially the starting tight end, and accordingly, he logged 106 of the team’s 111 snaps. The Steelers offense has logged 145 since then.
Paulson has logged 16.
13 of those snaps came a week earlier, when Miller was on a pitch count and monitored as he tested his surgically repaired knee in game action for the first time. As Miller and the team felt more comfortable with where he is in the past game, Paulson played just three snaps, despite the Steelers logging a season-high 79 snaps.
The return of Miller—and the fact that he has been able to come in and contribute positively right away, without much of a grace period to get back into form—has been huge for the Steelers, even though it has not been reflected in the wins column, at least not yet. Making Paulson and his snap count expendable has been a big part of that.
There is another factor, however, and it should not be dismissed. That is, of course, the return to health of David Johnson.
Despite the fact that Miller has eaten up a ton of snaps the last two weeks, they have not come at the expense of Johnson at all. In fact, he has logged more snaps the past two weeks than he had during the first two. That is because he is getting healthier, as Mike Tomlin noted the week before.
Johnson also tore his ACL last season—in the first game of the preseason, in fact—and many, including myself, essentially wrote that off as the end of his career with the Steelers, and maybe in the NFL. But he is back now, and he is the team’s second-string tight end, at least until Matt Spaeth returns.
In fact, this past game may have been the best—certainly one of the best—of his career, particularly as a tight end. His run blocking was much improved over past weeks as he’s gotten healthier and more comfortable; he was key on both of Le’Veon Bell’s touchdown runs, for instance.
What’s more, he has managed to become a contributor in the passing game as well. He already has four receptions on the year for 70 yards. In 2011, he finished the year with 12 receptions for 91 yards. With Miller back, Johnson playing his way into form, and Paulson playing less, the tight end position is looking a lot better now than it did in the season opener.