Rebuilding A Champion: Matt Spaeth Still Playing Second Fiddle

The Pittsburgh Steelers spent much of the time between their last playoff victory and now replenishing their roster in preparation for their next chance to make a push for a championship. Last season showed signs that the team was on its way out of that transitional phase after posting a division-winning 11-5 record following back to back .500 seasons.

Still, the Steelers failed to make it out of the divisional round, and have lost their last three postseason contests, dating back to Super Bowl XLV. They followed up that 2010 run with a 12-4 wildcard campaign that saw a first-round exit, and subsequently failed to return to the playoffs the following two years.

Because the fifth skill position player on the field can vary significantly depending on the personnel package, whether it’s a third wide receiver, a second tight end, or a fullback, each will be looked at separately. Given that the fullback has been scarcely used recently, the usage of the second tight end would be the logical next position to analyze.

Fortunately, in this instance, veteran Matt Spaeth has been the second tight end during each of the three stages that we have been looking at: the 2008 Super Bowl champion team; the 2010 Super Bowl participant team; and the present team.

Spaeth, however, was at different stages of his career at each point. In 2008, he was entering just his second season, during which he still lacked a clearly established role. He was a John Mackey Award winner in his final collegiate season after posting 47 receptions for 564 yards and four touchdowns.

That receiving production never traveled with him to the NFL, although the fact that Heath Miller has been in tow for the length of the ride no doubt plays a significant factor in that aspect. 2008 was actually his most active as a receiver, catching 17 passes for 136 yards, yet it is the only season in which he failed to record a touchdown.

After fully emerging from a separated shoulder he suffered in December 2006, Spaeth’s blocking began to develop in 2008, but it lacked game-to-game consistency, and some of his biggest issues were magnified during postseason play.

The veteran number two tight end’s role continued to evolve, as did his skill set, at which point Spaeth was generally well-regarded as the run-blocking tight end in 2010, which was the final season he played with the Steelers before signing with the Bears in free agency.

Early on that season, the Steelers favored more three-receiver sets with the newly-obtained (and returning) Antwaan Randle-El, but he gradually fell out of favor and let more opportunities for two-tight end sets. Spaeth struggled early on with a lower snap count, but improved as the season progressed and his usage rose as he became an important part of the team’s running game success.

After a two-year stint with the Bears, he was released, and the Steelers re-signed him two days later. His return to the lineup coincided with a noticeable increase in the efficiency of the running game, even if the rise of the three receiver sets has curtailed his usage in this era of the team. His recent performances indicate, however, that he is as good a run-blocker as he has been when he is healthy.

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