Analyzing the Steelers Tight Ends: Spaeth Keeps Surprising

To finish off my play-by-play analysis of the Steelers’ second preseason game, I took a look at the tight ends. As you would expect, I skipped right on past Heath Miller’s work–he’s really good, we all know that. But I did keep an eye on each of the other four tight ends, partly to see who has improved and partly to see who is making the best argument for the No. 3 tight end job.

Once again I tallied up how many successful plays each player had. As always remember that we don’t know the play calls, so there are no promises that these grades are perfect by any means. And I’m only looking at the result, not the technique that got a player to those results.

Bright 7 of 10 70.0%
McHugh 19 of 21 90.5%
Johnson 24 of 31 77.4%
Spaeth 17 of 20 85.0%

Matt Spaeth: You don’t see much talk about it, but the most improved player on the Steelers may be Spaeth. For the past three years, Spaeth has been horribly miscast as the second tight end on a team that throws to only one tight end (Miller). The Steelers’ No. 2 tight end typically lines up to the inside of Miller and is often asked to pass block. For the past three years, that’s meant that Spaeth has been tossed aside by linebackers and defensive ends to blow up plays all over the field. Considering that Spaeth caught a grand total of five passes last year, it has been fair to wonder why the Steelers would play a pass-first tight end when blocking is so much more of the job.

At 6-foot-7, 270 pounds, there is no real reason Spaeth couldn’t develop into a solid blocker, and it seems like that is finally dawning on Spaeth. He was great as a blocker in the Lions’ game, and I was interested to see if he could keep it up against the Giants.

Generally he did. Spaeth had some very good blocks in the running game and he handled Osi Umienyora several times as a pass blocker. He did almost completely whiff on a block of Justin Tuck on one occasion and he could sometimes stick with his block a little longer, but if Spaeth can keep this up, it will make a significant difference in the Steelers’ running game.

And why is that important? In 20 plays on Saturday, Spaeth only went out for a pass five times.

Play Result Good Play
1 Asked to pass block Unimeyora by himself, does good job as he rides him inside Yes
2 Run his way, blocks down on LB, slides off too soon to pick up second man and LB makes tackle. Hard to say if it was by design or not Yes
3 Out in pattern, catches pass Yes
4 Dominating block. Puts his man on the ground and drives him 3 yards Yes
5 Blocks Umienyora by himself, holds his own and drives to the whistle Yes
6 Blocks #59, moves him inside, but loses him late. Could have sustained block longer. Doesn’t matter as Mendenhall already tackled Yes
7 One-on-one block on Boley. Locks him up, moves him and creates hole Mendenhall runs through Yes
8 Goes out for pass. But locks up his man as it was a designed screen. Yes
9 OK job on DE (#91) on run the other way Yes
10 Surprises DE with block on double-team. Gets DE’s feet off ground, then loses him. Needs to sustain longer No
11 Beaten terribly by DE on pass rush. Tuck gets a QB pressure No
12 Playing as second fullback in full house. Cut block puts Kiwanuka on the ground Yes
13 Good job pass blocking Tollefson. Stuffs him at line Yes
14 Goes out for pass. Open underneath, but Wallace open for 68 yd TD Yes
15 Solid job blocking DE on backside of nice run to left Yes
16 Goes out for pass—not on TV screen Yes
17 Flanked out as slot WR. Decoy Yes
18 Asked to stand still on fake spike/sneak Yes
19 Easy block on quick pass other way Yes
20 Poor cut block doesn’t work on run other way No

David Johnson: The favorite for the third-team tight end job showed excellent blocking ability last year as a rookie. He’s also shown some versatility as he can line up at fullback or tight end.

But on Saturday, I didn’t see much of the outstanding blocking that is Johnson’s key to a job — he’s easily the worst pass catcher among Pittsburgh’s tight ends. There were several plays where Johnson’s man made the tackle. But Johnson did show flashes — he popped a defensive end so hard to put him on the ground and he managed to chip a defensive end before blocking a linebacker a couple of times.

Play Result Good Play
1 Asked to block Kiwanuka. Kiwanuka gets inside of Johnson’s block, rides the block down the line and tackles Moore No
2 Out for pass, covered well by LB Yes
3 Easy block on quick pass other way Yes
4 Doesn’t really do much of anything on run other way No
5 Double teams Tollefson with Hills. Together they drive him back Yes
6 Blocks Pierre-Paul by himself, drives him off line Yes
7 Back as FB in pass pro. Not much to do with 4-man rush Yes
8 Open underneath on pass, but Sanders open deeper Yes
9 Lined up as full house, tough block to make as Tollefson is past him before he reaches line No
10 So-so block on WR screen. Punches well, but can’t stick the block Yes
11 In pattern on pass other way Yes
12 Blocks no one No
13 Loses Tollefson after initial hit, but does recover to block LB. Hard to say if that was by design or not Yes
14 Blocks Tollefson initially then releases and picks up safety. Nice block Yes
15 Blocks DE OK on pass other way Yes
16 Great job. Blocks DE then helps out on LB Yes
17 Sustains block, but his man (LB) still makes tackle No
18 Not much to do in pass pro Yes
19 Best block of the night by any TE? Ferocious pop on DE puts him on ground. Then locks up LB on Dixon run outside Yes
20 Nice sustained block on outside Yes
21 Nothing pretty, but effective in stalemating DE on run inside Yes
22 Nice block on LB on fumbled snap Yes
23 Drives DE back, although run the other way Yes
24 Helps Jonathan Scott cave the DE Yes
25 Goes out for pass. Was open Yes
26 Helps on DE then picks up LB Yes
27 DT’s #73. Gets bowled over by ball carrier No
28 Dominating block on DE, drives him off ball and down line. Although almost by accident DE makes tackle, but only after first down Yes
29 Screw-up? DT’s DE with Scott, but lets LB run by him for TFL No
30 Blocks backside DE Yes
31 Wisely doesn’t block on bootleg as it may have been clip Yes

Sean McHugh: McHugh spent all of the 2009 season on injured reserve as the Steelers decided they’d rather pay him then watch him potentially go to the Bengals, who were desperate for tight end help. Now he’s facing a tough road to a roster spot; to win it he’ll have to beat out the younger and equally talented Johnson. Both McHugh and Johnson played fullback on Saturday, but McHugh looks much more like he understands the role of a fullback — he is very quick to select a target and has no problems meeting him like an angry ram in the hole. He was the most consistent blocker against the Giants, although he also faced almost exclusively third- and fourth-stringers.

Play Result Good Play
1 Handles Pierre-Paul by himself on pass other way Yes
2 Solid job turning Pierre-Paul on run inside Yes
3 Pierre-Paul takes wide rush, makes McHugh’s block very easy Yes
4 At FB, doesn’t really block anyone as he leads through hole No
5 At FB. Solid block gets a good shove leading on screen Yes
6 Makes blocking Tollefson look easy Yes
7 At FB, good block on MLB Yes
8 Blocking DE. DT help from Johnson puts him on the ground Yes
9 Makes DE look like a safety. Drives him and turns him. Yes
10 From 2 puts his man in end zone Yes
11 Fumbled snap nothing to do Yes
12 His worst block of night. Quickly thrown aside by Tollefson who gets into backfield No
13 At FB. Good cut block on DE Yes
14 Hustles downfield to block S on screen Yes
15 Goes into pattern. Was open but pass knocked down at line Yes
16 At FB. Kicks out S Yes
17 At FB. Meets MLB in hole, but RB cuts back Yes
18 At FB. Finds S coming off edge and crunches him Yes
19 OK block on backside DE Yes
20 At FB. Has to dive to find DE to block Yes
21 Solid block on bootleg first down Yes

Eugene Bright: A converted defensive end who is learning how to play tight end, Bright is the perfect player for the practice squad (a role he filled last year). Bright has a little trouble maintaining his blocks to the whistle, but he does show good inline strength and had as many impressive blocks as bad ones.

Play Result Good Play
1 Very good block on S Greco Yes
2 Loses battle of strength as DE slides off to make tackle No
3 Decent block on DE on pass other way Yes
4 Goes out for pass Yes
5 Cut block on DE who pops up to make tackle No
6 Blocks #73 with help from Johnson. For DT it’s not great as DE stuffs hole No
7 Plays patty-cake with DE giving poor effort Yes
8 Stays locked up with his man, but no push Yes
9 Great job sealing corner on sweep Yes
10 Good block on DE on bootleg Yes
This entry was posted in 2010 steelers, Preseason and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.
  • Cols714

    I’m thinking Spaeth and McHugh make the team. I really like Spaeth as Miller’s backup because he can catch the ball. If Miller gets injured Spaeth is the only other TE on the team that can consistently get open and catch the ball.

    McHugh seems like the best lead blocker type of TE. Without a FB that is capable of doing this job, I think McHugh pretty much has to be on the team.

  • Dean Keaton

    Good to hear about Spaeth, hope he’s consistent going forward. Of course, the next logical step is that Spaeth is the solution to the Steelers’ OT hole instead of Flozell…