Due to the nature of short weeks that teams face when tasked with playing on Thursday Night Football, the Pittsburgh Steelers figure to have a low probability of having the services of a number of injured players who will not have a sufficient time to recuperate from injuries.
Among them is veteran tight end Matt Spaeth, who has been a key cog in the Steelers’ running game for a number of years now, barring his two-year overlay in Chicago. Since the team re-signed him prior to the 2013 season, their success or failure on the ground has often been tied with his playing. That includes the 2015 season opener, which I broke down, as the two longest plays of the day he helped to spring.
While the Steelers do not make great use of multiple tight end sets, preferring to rely heavily upon three wide receivers instead, the snaps that Spaeth does get are key to providing balance on offense, as these tend to be the run-heavy plays, and he has continued to do well as a run blocker this season.
But he figures to miss tomorrow night’s game after failing to participate in practice this week with what is listed as a hand injury, which means that the Steelers are going to have to find a way to make do without him when it comes to running the ball.
Should he indeed sit this game out, which is what all the signs are pointing to, it figures to be highly likely that his spot on the active roster will be given the Jesse James, the Steelers’ rookie fifth-round tight end, who bears some similarities to Spaeth, but is too raw and young to be regarded as a major contributor.
While he may see some snaps, the likelihood is that the role of second tight end will be filled primarily by Will Johnson, who has spent the past few years more as a tight end than fullback anyway. These days, while his snap count seems to be on the decline, he plays nearly exclusively as an in-line or offset blocker rather than lined up in the backfield.
Serving in that capacity is first-year fullback Roosevelt Nix, who also figures to get an increased workload in Spaeth’s absence, especially given the likelihood that the Steelers will be forced to rely more upon the ground game without Ben Roethlisberger in the lineup.
Nix has been a surprise contributor in the early goings, and is clearly a favorite amongst the coaching staff, receiving valuable work in situational football in short-yardage scenarios and near the goal lines.
While none of the three players listed above could sufficiently duplicate what Spaeth brings as a run blocker to this offense, perhaps the combination of the three, and the variety of skills that each brings, will serve as a sufficient supplement in the interim until he is able to return to the lineup.