Monday, November 17, 2008

Spaeth finds niche with Steelers

Second-year tight end adds versatility to Pittsburgh’s revamped offense

November 15, 2008

By MATT PAWLIKOWSKI, Correspondent

It's no secret that Steelers offensive coordinator Brice Arians loves to utilize his tight ends.

Just ask former Steeler fullback and Lancaster County native Dan Kreider, now with the Rams. He was not resigned last year, a main reason being the utilization of the two-tight end set on many downs, instead of the traditional I formation.

It is also a reason that in 2007, the Steelers surprised many when they drafted Matt Spaeth, who won the John Mackey Award as the nation's top tight end that fall. They already had Heath Miller, their top pick in 2006, but in adding Spaeth to the equation, it allowed Arians to diversify the offense even more.

"He is big, tall and fast. He can block. He is an outstanding, prototypical tight end," Arians said of Spaeth. "At 6-7, he can help stretch the field and he can also handle the point of attack. He gives us good flexibility to take Heath and move him around a lot more.

"I like having three tight ends on the field a lot of times. It gives us a good personnel group, with two tight ends that can stretch the field, and all three guys can block the point of attack."

Asked if he was surprised when the Steelers called his name in the third round, Spaeth, who was selected behind Greg Olson (Chicago, No. 31) and Zach Miller (Oakland, No. 38), said he wasn't sure what would happen.

"I didn't really know what to expect in the draft process. You have inclinations and I think that is the best way to go into it," Speath said. "But it's been unbelievable here, especially when it comes to fan support. Coming from Minnesota, it's not like this at all."

Although Speath has not seen a lot of action since his rookie year, with Miller nursing a high ankle sprain against the Colts, he emerged as a favorite target of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, catching six passes for 53 yards.

"I'm just trying to do what I can in there," Spaeth said. "Heath is our go-to guy. I was trying to step in and take advantage of the opportunity and leave us some underneath stuff. Every day, I've taken some extra time to study film and different things like that."

That he has been a quick study should come as no surprise. His father Ken played the same position at Nebraska, and was drafted by Buffalo. His receiving ability also should not be unforseen.

Despite being 6-7, 270, he has 4.7 speed, and at Minnesota his senior year, Spaeth had 47 receptions for 564 yards. Thus far, he has nine catches for 79 yards. Last year, four of the six passes he caught were for touchdowns.

"Everyone loves to catch the ball," Speath said with a smile. "Last year, it seemed that a lot of my stuff came in the red zone. If you're open, Ben will find you. If you're not, he's going to find the open guy."

His blocking is another reason Spaeth has become a viable part of the offensive scheme. When he is in the lineup, the team not only has another lineman for protection, but an extra player to clear the paths for Melwelde Moore or Willie Parker.

"The NFL game is a lot more complex in the things you learn, and I'm still learning as everyday in practice there is something new that comes up," Spaeth said. "So it's a constant learning process. My main focus ever since I was in college was to have a great game blocking and whatever opportunities come and present themselves in the passing game, to go out and take full advantage of them."

After starting hot and looking as if they would run away with the division, of late the Steelers have struggled to find a niche, losing games they should have won. Spaeth still believes the best is yet to come.

"Anytime you lose it is tough, and when you lose close ones like we have it is tough," Spaeth said. "But we can't hang our heads low and we're not. That's what makes this team special. We're weathering some things right now, but we're not going to make excuses or blame it on that. I think when we get people healthy again, it's going to be great."

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