In early 2013, the Steelers fell into the "laughing stock" category.
It wasn't a tough argument to make that the Steelers were the worst team in the league. When the Steelers lost to the eventual 5-10-1 Minnesota Vikings, they appeared to have hit rock bottom.
Now we all know how the Steelers made a complete turnaround with a 6-2 record to close out the season, but the holes that led to the poor start haven't all gone away.
Looking back at the first four games of 2013, the area of weakness that wasn't in the limelight was the tight end position. Heath Miller didn't get on the field until Week 3 against the Bears, but one could make the argument that he never was fully healthy all of last season after suffering a severe knee injury against the Bengals in 2012. But, even at less than 100 percent, he still was miles ahead of the tight end group that he returned to.
With Matt Spaeth's lisfranc injury in training camp that sent him to injured reserve with the ability to return, former 7th round pick out of Oregon David Paulson became temporarily number one on the depth chart. But, his chance to make a name for himself didn't go well.
There aren't many other plays that better sums up the Steelers 0-4 start than David Paulson's catch and run Week 2 at Cincinatti. The former Oregon Duck came across the middle, took Ben Roethlisberger's pass and went 34-yards down the field. Of course, since this play was during the Steelers 0-4 start, a play like this was too good to be true. As Paulson was tackled, Bengals cornerback Adam Jones stripped the ball from Paulson, giving the Bengals an early momentum shift. Ultimately In his three weeks as a starter of sorts, Paulson had four receptions for 55 yards, representing the let down he gave the Steelers.
Why do I bring these dark days up once again? Because the dark days might not be gone for the tight end position.
The hope is that Miller will go back to being his 2012-self, but at the age of 31, he certainly isn't getting any younger.
Matt Spaeth is a solid tight end, but he is nothing more than a strong run blocking tight end with average at best hands. He could fill the void if Miller were to miss a game, but much longer than that would be asking a lot of Spaeth. He will continue to be a good number two to Miller, but not much more than that.
The rest of the tight end room consists of David Paulson, Michael Palmer, 7th round pick Robert Blanchflower, and undrafted-free-agent Eric Waters out of Missouri. While all four will compete for at max two roster spots, no one from this group will be keeping defensive coordinators up at night.
Paulson showed last year that he can't handle a starting role, but he might not even make the team as a third or fourth tight end. Never known as much of a run-blocker, Paulson also showed early last season that he isn't that strong in the passing game either.
Palmer's work mainly consisted as a special teams player last season, but if you have big expectations of him going into his fifth season in the league, you're bound to be disappointed. Blanchflower and Waters could make the roster, but if either if forced to make large contributions in their rookie year, the Steelers are in trouble.
Ultimately, if the Steelers want to avoid a third consecutive 8-8 season, they need Heath Miller to stay healthy. If he doesn't, the running game and passing game will suffer due to the lack of depth the Steelers have at the tight end position, especially in the passing game.
Jermichael Finley anyone?