Matt Spaeth Could See Career-High Usage In Pass Protection This Season

By Matthew Marczi

After recently writing about the production in the passing game from the reserve tight ends, a reader mentioned in passing that perhaps one of the reasons that former Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Matt Spaeth was brought back this offseason was to supplement right tackle Mike Adams, who has had his weaknesses in pass protection.

In my article, I noted that when Spaeth is in on passing plays, he tends to be in pass protection exclusively on a somewhat frequent basis—in fact, over a third of the time. And that is still true. It is important, however, to note that Spaeth is primarily a run blocker, and that his playing time has been skewed heavily in that direction, both with the Steelers and the Chicago Bears.

Throughout his career, he has always played significantly more snaps during rushing situations, both with the Bears and the Steelers, and it is not likely that that changes meaningfully in his second stint in Pittsburgh.

That is not to say that he has been a poor pass blocker throughout his career, and in fact he has fairly consistently been on an upward trajectory in that regard. Given that and offensive coordinator Todd Haley’s emphasis on protecting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, it is not unreasonable to suggest that he may see a career-high in passing snaps—or at least a career-high in percentage of passing snaps played, as there are indications that the team would like to run the ball more.

Given that Spaeth is expected to be a key role player as a legitimate second tight end (and perhaps a starting tight end if Heath Miller is unable to go to start the season, which is a potentially huge reason why Speath would see a career high in passing snaps), it is worth taking a closer look at how he has been used in the past to try to determine how he might be used this season.

Below is a breakdown of the snaps that Spaeth has taken over the past five years, divided by the roles that he was asked to play. As can easily be seen, his snaps have almost always come overwhelmingly on running plays, with just one season coming under 60% of all of his snaps.

Year Total Snaps Rush Rush % Pass Pass % Pass Block Pass Block % Pass Block Total %
2012 430 276 64.2 154 35.8 55 35.7 7.8
2011 369 209 56.6 160 43.4 91 56.9 24.7
2010 469 291 62 178 38 52 29.2 11.1
2009 391 258 66 133 34 46 34.6 11.8
2008 535 326 60.9 209 39.1 43 20.6 8
Average 438.8 272 62 166.8 38 57.4 34.4 13.1

Interestingly, 2011 was the year in which the highest percentage of his snaps were in pass protection, with nearly a quarter of all of his snaps fulfilling that role. It was his first year with the Bears, and Cutler missed six games that year. And as a matter of fact, most of his games with the highest pass protection numbers came with Cutler out.

These numbers, of course, do not reflect the plays in which players are asked to chip or to stay in as a release valve and block accordingly. These are only snaps in which his assignment, at least seemingly, was specifically to pass protect.

It is clear, however, that historically Spaeth has spent the bulk of his time blocking for running backs, rather than quarterbacks. But what about his usage overall? How often is he on the field relative the team’s snaps as a whole?

The following chart shows just that. The percentages show how often the team either ran or passed the ball, and, where indicated, the percentage of those plays in which Spaeth participated.

Year Total Snaps Spaeth % Rush % Spaeth % Pass % Spaeth % Pass Block %
2012 1073 40.1 478 44.5 57.7 595 55.5 25.9 9.2
2011 1045 35.3 469 44.9 44.6 576 55.1 27.8 15.8
2010 1061 44.2 471 44.4 61.8 590 55.6 30.2 8.8
2009 1077 36.3 443 41.3 58.2 634 58.7 21 7.3
2008 1079 49.6 485 45 67.2 594 55 35.2 7.2
Average 1067 41.1 469.2 44 58 597.8 56 27.9 9.6

It must be pointed out that Spaeth missed two games in 2010 and one game in 2011, which influences his totals somewhat in those two years. Additionally, it might seem odd that Spaeth’s usage in 2009 was so drastically diminished in comparison to 2008. While he did receive more usage overall, he was also asked to start in place of Miller for two games in 2008 (as well as 2010), which contributed to the higher usage.

It is interesting, however, to see that Spaeth has played such an important role in the running game. With the exception of 2011—his first with the Bears, and a year in which he played 15 games—Spaeth has played in excess of 55% of the team’s rushing snaps. He still played nearly 62% of the Steelers’ rushing snaps in 2010 despite missing two games.

In contrast, however, he did not average a great deal more than a quarter of all passing snaps, and only pass protected on just under 10% of all of the team’s passing snaps. The exception, again, was in 2011 with the Bears. It seems that the Bears quickly learned that Spaeth’s greatest strength was in the running game, because he was used to run block much more and pass protect much less in 2012.

One last observation is that Spaeth had his highest usage numbers in 2010, his last year with the Steelers before 2013. Extrapolated on a per-game basis to factor in his missing two games, his usage rate in 2010 exceeded even 2008 when he played nearly half of the team’s snaps. In fact, he would likely have had a usage rate of just over 50% if he played the full season.

While the numbers do not suggest that he will be spending a massive amount of time strictly being the bosom buddy of Mike Adams in pass protection over at right tackle, I do expect him to be used more in that area of the game this year than in his prior years with the Steelers, for the aforementioned reasons.

His increasing skill in pass protection, the re-emphasis of protecting the quarterback in the team’s offensive scheme, and the rehabilitation of Heath Miller all suggest Matt Spaeth will be a greater part of the pass protection scheme. Although I would not go so far as to project that he will be asked to pass protect on nearly 16% of all passing plays as he did in 2011, with Miller tying a league-high in pass protection snaps despite missing the season finale, Spaeth may come close to that number again.

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