Steelers' tight ends get chance to stand tall in restructured offense

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Lake Fong, Post-Gazette
Tight ends, from left, Jerame Tuman, Heath Miller, Jonathan Dekker, Cody Boyd and Matt Spaeth hope to have a bigger impact in the Steelers' offense this season.
By Chuck Finder, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

In the new Steelers realm, these men aren't so much tight ends as they are titan ends.

This was a position relatively unnoticed and unused for a decade and a half, assigned to block or run decoy routes mostly. So why did Steelers coaches and scouting types suddenly upsize their personnel? To stock their offseason basketball team? To plunk another tackle in tight-end clothing at line's end? To try to find another Larry Brown, the hulking, circa-1970s tight end ultimately shoved inside to tackle?

"We'll let them come off the bus first, that's for sure," Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians said jokingly about his substantial quintet.

In fact, only two of the other 84 players on the Steelers' roster stand as tall or taller than any of these tight ends. Those two are 6-foot-8 Max Starks and 6-9 Jason Capizzi of Pine-Richland High School and IUP, both offensive tackles.

It is not easy getting these fellows around the same lunch table at the South Side facility, let alone into the same meeting room after an organized team activity day: Cody Boyd, a 6-8, 264-pound free agent from Washington State; Matt Spaeth, a 6-7, 270-pound third-round selection from Minnesota; Jon Dekker, a 6-5, 250-pound free-agent returnee from Princeton; Heath Miller, the 6-5, 256-pound incumbent starter and former first-rounder, and Jerame Tuman, the 6-4, 253-pound veteran of the big bunch.

"Everybody's all similar size," said Spaeth, though he and Boyd have the other three by a few inches and pounds. "And everybody's kind of a similar style tight end."

Therein lies the reason the Steelers are pumping up the volume and mass at the position.

Arians, who succeeds new Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt as the Steelers' offensive boss, aims to operate from packages containing two tight ends, one running back and the ability to move Miller around a formation from which to run or pass. Miller had 34 catches and five touchdowns last year, but was perhaps underused. Perhaps, all the Steelers' tight ends were: Tuman had seven catches and one touchdown, giving this two-man group nearly half as many scores (six) as the team's four main receivers.

Moreover, it's a position catching on, not only within their division but also around their conference. This was an AFC North where Cleveland got 127 receptions from its tight ends, including 89 from Kellen Winslow Jr., and where Baltimore got 95, including 73 from Todd Heap. This was an AFC where Indianapolis totaled 85 receptions from three tight ends and New England 81.

"We want to have a package of three," Arians said.

So they start work with these five: Boyd, who conjured almost half his career 35 receptions and 466 yards as a Washington State redshirt freshman four years ago, when he was named to The Sporting News all-Pac-10 freshmen team; Spaeth, the Mackey Award winner and first-team All-American who had 47 catches in a senior year twice interrupted by shoulder injuries; Dekker, a Princeton man who caught four passes in the Steelers' 2006 preseason before being among the final cuts; Miller, already redefining a Steelers position with 73 receptions and 11 touchdowns in his first two seasons; and Tuman, the steady vet who started four games last season in two tight-end formations and started 55 games in his nine-year career.

For Spaeth, an April draftee about whom Arians immediately gushed that he was "ecstatic" to land, the learning continues. "The playbook and the [play-]calling is way more advanced, it's not even funny," he said, comparing it to college.

Yet the experienced Miller and Tuman are his pro teachers.

"I'm trying to watch them and learn from them," Spaeth added.

"You like tall guys that can run and block," Arians said. "These guys are tall, but they all bend real well. They can block at the point of attack. They're good receivers. So they're nice complements.

"It's a heck of a group," added this former assistant with the Chiefs, Saints, Colts and Browns. "Maybe the best group I've ever been around. They give us great versatility."

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Chuck Finder can be reached at cfinder@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1724.


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