By Matthew Marczi
For a team facing so much adversity in the past season and heading into the next with a litany of questions to address, it’s natural to consider the issues and how they can either go right or wrong, as well as how they will affect the broader dynamics and future success of the team, both heading into this season and into the future.
Though not statistically true, it is technically true that every team enters the offseason with the potential to finish the year as the league champion or as the first team on the clock in the next draft.
Some teams have a wider realistic range than others, and I think the Pittsburgh Steelers are one of those teams. Think of them as Schrödinger’s franchise; in February, they are both future champions and future owners of the top draft pick.
In order to gain a better feel for not only the issues facing the team this year, but how those issues might play out, it’s useful to take the devil’s advocate approach. This is the pessimistic side of the coin.
Question: Do the Steelers have enough at tight end to get by through the 2014 season?
The Steelers’ top tight end will turn 32 by mid-season and often visibly looked worse for wear last year while playing on his surgically repaired knee for the last 14 games of the season. The new backup—which is the old backup that they just brought back—missed three quarters of the year due to a foot injury. And there’s really nobody of note behind them, even considering free agents.
A pessimist might look at this situation and say that there’s something wrong here.
There’s no beating around the bush here: Heath Miller can no longer gain separation from linebackers, let alone safeties, out in coverage, which makes it all the more difficult for Ben Roethlisberger to get him the ball, and to produce yards after the catch.
That’s probably why he had the lowest yards per catch total of his entire 10-year career with a paltry 10.2 yards, more than a yard shy of his career average. Over the last three seasons prior, in fact, he averaged just under 12 yards per catch by less than a tenth of a yard. That’s a pretty significant, and telling, decline.
Oh, and he also had just one touchdown all year, despite 58 catches, the third-highest total of his career. And that touchdown came on a shovel pass.
What’s more, Miller wasn’t looking any better out there blocking, either. He had already gradually been trending downward in that regard, but after a couple games back this past season, his performance as a blocker, particularly in the running game, became quite spotty, and he had some downright poor performances.
Meanwhile, Matt Spaeth proved unable to stay healthy before even playing in the preseason, and his foot injury lingered for months before he was finally able to return in December. While he was eventually able to play well, he’ll never be mistaken for Miller in his prime. And neither will Miller at this point
David Paulson is simply not a blocking tight end, based on two years of evidence, and any time he’s on the field in that capacity is a one-on-one victory for the defense. And how often are the Steelers going to throw to their third tight end?
David Johnson has spent the majority of the past two seasons on injured reserve. After a couple games of getting his feet underneath him, Johnson played okay last season, but how long can he stay healthy?
Meanwhile, Michael Palmer is just a guy. Outside of him and Paulson, all of the other tight ends now have a serious medical history with no clear evidence that either re-injury or hindered performance won’t be a recurring theme for them.
Even if the available group is able to perform up to their highest level when healthy, the question of how long they will stay that way is a prominent one, as we all saw last season. Mike Tomlin spoke about the team’s inability last season to insulate themselves against injury at key positions, and that could easily be the tight end position once again in 2014.