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.
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.