Monday, August 13, 2007

Spaeth: A Matt made in football heaven

By: Mike Bires
August 11, 2007

PITTSBURGH - For a guy who caused quite a stir when the Steelers drafted him, Matt Spaeth has sure had a quiet training camp.

A 6-foot-7 giant, the rookie has been flying way under the radar.

That's partly because he was held out of Sunday's preseason win over New Orleans due to a shoulder injury that forced him to miss a few practices earlier in camp.

But tonight when the Steelers play the Green Bay Packers at Heinz Field, Spaeth will play.

"Up until the injury, he was starting to impress," coach Mike Tomlin said. "He was doing things that excited us. Now we're excited to see what he can do in a game. That will help us determine where he is right now.

"We've been somewhat intrigued by what he's done on the practice field. So it will be exciting to see him play in a football game."

In April when the Steelers used a third-round draft pick on a tight end, skeptics wondered why. After all, Heath Miller, a No. 1 pick in 2005, is the franchise's tight end of the future. In backup Jerame Tuman, the Steelers have a savvy veteran whose strength is run blocking.

But Steelers scouts and coaches felt Spaeth was just too good to pass up at No. 77 overall in the draft.

There were some concerns about Spaeth's shoulder, which he originally hurt at the University of Minnesota. But his production with the Gophers suggested he could be a valuable addition to the Steelers' offense.

As a senior when he caught 47 passes, he won the John Mackey Award, presented annually to college football's finest tight end. He's Minnesota's all-time leader in receptions (109) and receiving yards (1,291) for a tight end even though he played on a team that emphasized the run.

So although perceived as a pass-catching tight end, his blocking skills are by no means inadequate.

"On one of the first days (at camp) when we had our tight ends taking on outside linebackers, Matt held his own against James Harrison, who's as strong at the point of attack as anyone on our team," said offensive coordinator Bruce Arians.

"He's an impressive guy," Arians added. "This is my 15th year (as an NFL assistant coach), and I tell you, he could have started for most teams I've been on. As a rookie, he could be a starter right now for a lot of teams. The kid's got some talent. We thought he was a steal (in the third round)."

Tonight, Spaeth gets the chance to prove the Steelers' scouting report was accurate.

In Arians' first year as offensive coordinator, he plans to use plenty of two, and even three, tight end sets. Last week in the 20-7 win over the Saints, three tight ends - Miller, Tuman and Matt Dekker - lined up side by side by side on the right side of the formation. And the Steelers passed on that play.

"I hope they do use a lot of multiple tight end sets," Spaeth said. "That's why I'm here. We've been working on stuff, so we'll see what I can do once I get into some games. But it's something we definitely have been working on."

Even though Spaeth originally went to Minnesota as a defensive end, he's been playing tight end from the moment he first played football. His father, Ken Spaeth, was a 6-foot-5 tight end at Nebraska who started two seasons for the Cornhuskers under coach Tom Osborne. Ken Spaeth was picked in the fifth round of the 1978 NFL Draft by Buffalo, but didn't make the team.

Making the Steelers' roster shouldn't be a problem for Matt Spaeth, who switched to tight end permanently after redshirting his freshman year at Minnesota. He started four straight years for the Gophers.

"He has all the tools," Miller said. "He's big. He's got good hands. He runs good routes. He has good feet in the blocking game. He just does everything well.

"So when he becomes more comfortable and stops double-thinking about his assignments, and just goes out and turns it loose, we'll really see how good a tight end he can be. He's got the goods to be a good tight end in this league."

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