One tight end returned to practice this week after recovering from a concussion, just in time to replace another concussed tight end.
Starter Heath Miller got a concussion in the Steelers' 13-10 win Sunday night against the Baltimore Ravens on a hit from linebacker Jameel McClain. Matt Spaeth, who got a concussion in the Nov. 21 game against the Oakland Raiders and missed the past two games, returned to practice this week and will most likely play Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals.
"Everything's gone real well this week," Spaeth said. "I was a little nervous coming into the week, but everything's gone real well and I've responded well so I think that's what I needed to get a little confidence back."
Spaeth performed well the last time Miller missed significant playing time. In 2008, when Miller missed two games because of an ankle injury, Spaeth caught 12 passes, six in each game.
"I'm looking forward to it," Spaeth said. "I've done it before, I've done well, so I'm excited."
This season, Spaeth has caught five passes for 49 yards, but started all 10 games in which he was active. He did not catch a pass for the first six weeks of the season, but caught all five of his passes in the past four games in which he played.
Miller had 33 catches for 384 yards and a touchdown in 12 games before the concussion. He did not practice Wednesday, Thursday or Friday and is out for the game Sunday.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin gave Spaeth, a 6-foot-7, 270-pounder in his fourth year in the league, a vote of confidence Tuesday and said he expects his production to be "Heath-like."
"It means a lot, it really does," Spaeth said of Tomlin's support.
"This is what we're here for, as starters in waiting, and that's how I look at it. You're always one snap away from being a starter."
Spaeth said he worried about losing his cardiovascular fitness during the two weeks he did not play because concussion recovery prevents players from working too hard. Once he returned, he tried to cram in as much preparation as possible.
"I told my coach I want as many reps as possible," he said.
"I really do approach every week like he could go down because injuries happen all the time in this game. I know I always got to be ready, I know all the stuff that [Miller] does. Every week, I kind of approach it the same and I'm really approaching it the same this week."
Spaeth and Miller sit next to each other in team meetings and discuss the tight-end position on and off the field. Third-string tight end David Johnson, who took over against the Ravens when both Miller and Spaeth were out, said he, Miller and Spaeth often discuss technique.
"[Miller's] fine-tuning a lot of details on plays," Johnson said. "How to get out on plays, what to look for from the defense.
"They talk to me all the time, make sure I'm right on target just like they are."
Johnson caught three passes for 37 yards and had a career-long 25-yard reception against Baltimore. He said he prepared the same way he always does this week and that his teammates have confidence in him after his performance against the Ravens.
"I just take it one play at a time," he said. "Throw me the ball, and I'll catch it."
Despite the physical difficulties a concussion poses and the challenge of staying in shape, Spaeth said the hardest part was inactivity.
"Seeing the other guys go out there for battle and thinking you should be out there," he said.
"It was a tough time, a tough thing, and you have to take care of things like that."
The final hurdle to clear will be the first contact.
"Getting the confidence back and putting your head on somebody," Spaeth said. "You just kind of got to go with the flow. To be honest with you, once I'm out there I'm probably not going to even think about it."
Bill Brink: email@example.com or 412-263-1158. First Published December 11, 2010 5:00 AM