As we hit the second off day for Pittsburgh Steelers training camp, having gone through eight practice sessions, a pretty obvious pattern has emerged: head coach Mike Tomlin has been alternating rest days for tight ends Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth.
No, this is not an indication that the two veterans are no longer getting along and need to be separated. Although it may strike some as a bit odd that the team’s top tight end pairing has yet to actually work together this summer due to the rotation, I think that it makes a lot of sense given their specific scenario.
The Steelers are in a position in which they are very actively seeking new blood at the tight end position, and they have zeroed in on three candidates that they like, after the recent release of Michael Egnew.
Those candidates are first-year former seventh-round draft pick Rob Blanchflower, rookie fifth-round draft pick Jesse James, and rookie undrafted free agent Cameron Clear. The three appear to be battling for two positions—one on the 53-man roster, and one on the practice squad.
Having only one of the two top players on the depth chart going at the same time provides a great deal more opportunities for these young tight ends to get looks with the first-team offense and with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
It also has a trickle-down effect on the hierarchy, with one of those three having the opportunity to run as the featured tight end with the second-team unit, which is, again, a higher quality of rep than they would be able to get otherwise.
Perhaps a bit underrated is the fact that this is also getting Spaeth a lot of opportunities to work as the top tight end. While he is on the verge of turning 32 years old and is about past the stage where development can be expected, I suspect that there is a reason for this.
I have speculated earlier this offseason that the Steelers might want to give Miller some more time off to save some wear and tear on his body. In spite of the fact that he was in his age 32 season last year, he logged more snaps than any tight end in the league.
Should that actually happen, then it would be Spaeth who is spelling him the majority of the time, in all likelihood, and it wouldn’t hurt to get him more looks in that role, especially as it pertains to receiving.
Another advantage of this rotation is that it gives the coaching staff an opportunity to get a look at a number of different pairings between veteran and apprentice, to see which combinations work well together.
It is possible that in a couple of years, one or two of these young tight ends will be replacing both Miller and Spaeth, who each have two years left on their contracts, so it doesn’t hurt to get a peek at the future in that respect.
Of course, this alternate work day schedule will not last the length of training camp. It may even end on Wednesday when they resume practice. After all, Miller and Spaeth do need to work together as the top pairing. But in spite of Tomlin’s protestations recently that there’s no rhyme or reason in his decisions to give players a rest, this particular decision, I find, makes a ton of sense.