Big Spring for the Big TE

Matt Spaeth (Ken Blaze/AP)

One of the most productive Steelers this spring was 6-foot-7 tight end Matt Spaeth, who tells Jim Wexell why he feels so confident about improving on his rookie season this year.

The Steelers committed to throwing to the tight end last season, and they did. The cumulative numbers in 2006 were smashed in 2007 -- by Heath Miller himself.

Miller caught 47 passes last season for 566 yards and 7 touchdowns. The corps in 2006 caught 41 passes for 466 yards and 6 touchdowns.

The rest of the Steelers' tight ends didn't help the totals much last season. Third-round rookie Matt Spaeth started with three touchdowns among his first four catches, but he caught only one more pass – against the New York Jets – the rest of the season.

Spaeth finished his rookie season with 5 catches for 34 yards and 3 touchdowns. He bettered that output the first week, maybe the first day, of spring drills.

"A year makes a huge difference," said Spaeth. "In college, I hate to say it, but very rarely did I drop balls. And when I got here last year I was frustrated because I was dropping balls. But it's such an adjustment that first year because you're learning everything new, especially early, and everything's happening faster, the ball's there faster. Now I'm so much more confident in everything. Everything has slowed down and everything's so much easier."

Spaeth said that while he caught only one pass for six yards in the final 12 regular-season games, and one pass for seven yards in the playoffs, he wasn't slumping.

"I was probably playing better towards the end of the year," he said. "I didn't have the catches, but there's a lot more to the game than that. I was blocking better. I knew all my assignments a lot better towards the end of the year." After a slow start, Spaeth arguably developed into the best blocker among the Steelers' tight ends last season. But Spaeth won't say that.

"I don't want to say that because Heath is an all-around great player," he said. "I've learned a lot from him in both aspects of being a tight end – blocking and receiving. Heath's solid in every aspect. And I know my role. I've got to be there when the opportunities are given to catch the ball, but as of now I understand my role, which is going to be more of a run-blocking tight end."

What about it Heath? Was Spaeth a better blocker last season?

Miller chuckled. "I don't know," he said. "I think Matt's a good blocker. I definitely try to learn from him because from Day One, when he stepped on the field, I knew he was really sound fundamentally and is someone who'd be good to watch, for me just to kind of check myself on because his footwork's always good, his leverage is always good, his hands are always good, so I just try to learn from him and stay on top of my game."

"I think a lot of it has to do with how you study the film," Spaeth said. "It's a little different from college to now. At first I was worried about technique. I would watch film and say, ‘I've got to do this on this play. I'm responsible for blocking this guy in this look,' or something like that. And then later on in the year you'd know that, so now you're studying your opponent saying, ‘He likes to play this block this way, or this thing this way.' You kind of get a better understanding."

Were the coaches pleased?

"Yeah," Spaeth said. "Everything I got from them, postseason and now, was positive, and now I'm going out and trying to prove myself every down so my role will only be expanded."

Spaeth, at 6-7, 270 pounds, is representative of the target size the Steelers presented to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger this spring. He's one of four tight ends who are 6-5 or taller.

"I'm trying to still improve on my run-blocking, even though I'm not trying to put on weight or size," Spaeth said. "I think I'm carrying my weight a lot better this year, because I came out last season and didn't really have an offseason. I came off of a reconstructive shoulder surgery and I really didn't do much training. Because of it I was laid up for three months not doing anything. I had another surgery before that, so this is kind of like the first real offseason I've had in a long time, so I'm excited to see the results with all the hard work I'm putting into it."

Does Spaeth have a goal this season?

"I never have a goal as far as catches," he said. "My only goal is to have a great year run-blocking and then, with every opportunity that I'm given, to make the most of catching the ball."

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