As we did last year, we’ll review the Pittsburgh Steelers position-by-position, player-by-player, based on what I’ve recorded in my Game Rewind throughout the season.
After taking some time off to cover the NFL Draft, we’ll get back in it today by breaking down the Steelers’ tight end group.
Heath Miller: I had said before the start of the regular season his decline was imminent. And though there were still vintage Miller moments, by the end of the season, the consensus started to shift towards that realization the end is near.
I hope there wasn’t any bias coming into play but combing over my notes, it was alarming to see how many times I wrote about him falling off his blocks in either phase of the game.
Though it’s no easy task even for a player in his prime, Miller struggled with blocking in space. Repeated missed cut blocks, starting in Week One against the Cleveland Browns.
Doubling over in pass protection and getting beat.
Or falling off in the run game.
All this came within the first three weeks of the season.
Toss in a game-sealing fumble against the Baltimore Ravens, something that would be mirrored in the playoff game, and you have a rough beginning to the season.
Week Four against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers brought back the old Heath Miller. The veteran tight end would catch ten passes on 11 targets and find the end zone once.
Never being a top athlete has its perks. You’re forced to become a technical, creative route runner who can create space. And Miller still is – and will always be – that type of receiver.
Finds and sits down in the soft spot in zone coverage against Jacksonville.
And stems his route to get the DB to open up and break it back inside.
But still, as the season wore on, the evidence his blocking fell off continued to diminish.
His worst moment may have come in Week Seven, getting reverse pancaked in pass protection.
The Steelers ask a lot out of their tight ends, involving them heavily in the protection scheme, and it isn’t always easy. But Miller struggled.
He was still involved in the passing game with specific plays designed to get him the football. The Steelers had certain packaged plays to hit Miller down the seam. Something that was usually effective. And they ran Miller down the seam off playaction to gain easy separation and pick up chunk yardage.
There were glimpses of his blocking prowess, sticking in space to spring Martavis Bryant in the playoff game, and he still sets his hips as well as any tight end in the league, but Miller has fallen from the ranks from the list of top, complete tight ends in the league. Players like Greg Olsen and Jason Witten hold those honors.
His drops and fumbles, once a rarity, became too common for any player, let alone one who had a sterling reputation for his sure hands.
Miller is under contract for two more years through 2016 but I’m not confident he’ll make it that long. Looking ahead, the team will save $2.3 million in 2016 by releasing him. If his decline continues, and tight ends age like milk, the discussion will only continue to grow.
Every Steelers’ fan adores Heath Miller. But like virtually any other player, the end of a player’s career is unceremonious. Harsh reality of the game.
Matt Spaeth: Spaeth’s role isn’t hidden. He’s a glorified blocker. Always has been, always will be. Giving the team another blocker in pass protection and the run game. With the Steelers use of 13 personnel, especially early in the game, Spaeth’s skillset is needed. The Steelers like to use those heavy packages to create an extra gap for the defense to account for.
That 6’7 270+ frame allows him to seal and wash defenders. At his best, even possible MVP JJ Watt couldn’t best this backup tight end.
That size lets the team put him on an island in both phases. And he is successful. One of his best blocks came on a true base block versus Cincinnati Bengals’ defensive end Carlos Dunlap. Dunlap, listed at 6’6 280, is easily driven out of the play.
He was a two-phase player, serving as a wing on field goals and a blocker on kick returns.
And that’s where his injury occurred. He injured his left elbow falling to the ground on a kick return Week 15 against the Atlanta Falcons. He gritted out the rest of the season, sporting a brace the final three games. It’s likely he will, or already has, undergone offseason surgery, but should be fine in the next few months.
Three receptions across 341 snaps tells you all you really need to know about his use in the passing game. But he made an impact on one of those, hauling in a 33 yard touchdown to seal the victory against Baltimore in Week Eight.
Of course, it helps when four defenders key in on Antonio Brown, leaving you wide open.
He is set to become a free agent but with the position thin and the good snaps Spaeth still gives the team, it would be a surprise if he didn’t return on a cheap, one-year deal.
Michael Palmer: A dime-a-dozen blocker, Palmer’s biggest contribution came on special teams. He served as the wing on punt coverage and opposite of Spaeth on kick returns.
He logged just 29 snaps on offense, the majority coming in goal line packages. Aside from some pre-snap motion information, my notes rarely made mention of the Clemson alum.
He dropped a pass in the end zone against the Carolina Panthers in Week 3 but made up for it with a one yard touchdown against Jacksonville two weeks later.
That would be his only catch of the year. It puts him in rare company. He’s only the second player in team history to finish a season with exactly one catch for one yard and one touchdown. Larry Brown in 1979 was the first.
Like Spaeth, he’ll be a free agent after the season. It’s truly 50-50 if he’ll return. Not much harm bringing him to camp but Palmer is easily replaceable. Nothing wrong with letting him hit the open market and see if you can draft/develop another player.
Rob Blanchflower: Someone like Blanchflower could be that developmental prospect. It’s easy to be discouraged by his rookie season. Derailed by an ankle sprain training camp, seeing scant snaps in the preseason, and spending the entire year on the practice squad.
As much as he was hyped before training camp – by myself included – perspective is still key. He was a 7th rounder pick. Not a third rounder. And that college tape hasn’t changed. There was obvious talent despite playing on a UMass team that played ugly football.
The door is open for him to make noise in Latrobe this summer. He’s arguably coming in as the most athletic returning tight end on the roster. With his experience as a blocker in college and year in the weight room, I’m hoping for a big leap. The window of opportunity is small for any player. Especially a late round flier. He needs to grab ahold of it. And fast.
Michael Egnew: He’s a “name” player who signed a futures/reserve contract after the season ended. But it’s been all bark and no bite for Egnew. A third round pick in 2012 by the Miami Dolphins, he has just seven career receptions. He flamed out in Miami in two years, spent a week with the Detroit Lions, and part of this season on Jacksonville’s practice squad. Ho hum.
Not exactly a player to think highly of coming into training camp. Assuming he even makes it that far. Which at this point of his career, isn’t a certainty.