Training camp is now upon us, in case you have failed to take notice. The Pittsburgh Steelers reported to Latrobe on July 28, and began practicing the following day in preparation for their first preseason game on August 12, and eventually, for the 2016 regular season in April.
Every NFL season is like an investigation of sorts, with the offseason and preseason serving as the fact-finding portion, gathering the questions that are most prudent to ask in order to understand the story of the team in the current season. And it is in training camp that we really begin to start finding the answers to those questions.
You can rest assured that we have the questions, and we will be monitoring the developments in training camp and the preseason looking for the answers as we look to evaluate the makeup of the Steelers as they head into a regular season in which they are among the favorites to win the Super Bowl.
Question: How will the Steelers’ tight end hold up as blockers?
The Steelers are undergoing a major transition at the tight end position at the moment, and with any transition comes transitional growing pains. And questions. The question on the top of my mind as they shift from one generation to the next is whether or not the next group of tight ends can live up to the same sort of blocking prowess as their predecessors.
Admittedly, the aging Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth were not perhaps the blockers that they once were as each crept closer to their mid-30s, Miller after 11 seasons, all with the Steelers, Spaeth after nine, spending seven of his years in the NFL with Pittsburgh.
But they were still the best blocking tight ends on the roster, and were crucial to the success of their running game, which was particularly efficient last season, averaging closer to 4.5 yards per carry and boasting the NFL’s leading scorer on the ground.
The Steelers turned to free agency to replace Miller with Ladarius Green, but the two are hardly alike. Green is a vertical threat, and will be used as such, but he was never regarded as much of a blocker. He is also still trying to work his way back from having had surgery on his ankle in the offseason. The longer that lingers, the more difficult it will be for him in the season opener.
Second-year tight end Jesse James has shown promise, but while he may be more youthful and athletic than Spaeth was, he is not yet the same sort of blocker, nor with the same sort of tenacity—not yet anyway. He has shown progress, of course, as has Xavier Grimble of late. David Johnson is also a known quantity, but of a lesser quantity than those who were here last year.
I believe the blocking performance of this tight end group will be an underrated storyline over the course of this season, one that will not go as noticed as perhaps it should be. Do the replacements have what it takes to keep the offense from missing a beat?