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Steelers embrace luxury of 3 tight ends

By Mike Prisuta
TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Sunday, May 20, 2007

The first time the Steelers tried three tight ends in a non-traditional situation (non-short yardage) a week ago Saturday in minicamp, Jerame Tuman, Jon Dekker and Cody Boyd collided on the way to the line of scrimmage.

Let the record show the Steelers' new three tight ends approach was born of humble beginnings.

But let it also show that offensive coordinator Bruce Arians' the-more-the-merrier approach to tight end deployment isn't necessarily a sign of the apocalypse.

"I have to laugh because everybody thinks if we put two tight ends or three tight ends in there, we're throwing the ball to 'em," Arians said. "Hell, they're in there to block. We'll throw it to 'em if they're open. We are blessed with some cats that can run and catch the football."

And catch it they shall.

Yet, as you continue to recoil in horror while wondering if the scouting department and coaching staff were collectively "Lost In Spaeth" when they drafted a tight end from Minnesota in the third round, understand that the idea is to play three tight ends at a time no more than 15 percent of the time.

Also understand that it's a formation Arians can and has run out of effectively.

"My philosophy, if there's a game that states it, it was when we played the Steelers in the playoffs when I was coordinating in Cleveland," Arians said.

That would be the oft-cited wild-card game on Jan. 5, 2003, at Heinz Field.

The underdog Browns threw it all over the field and achieved big leads before finally succumbing, 36-33.

Kelly Holcomb passed for 429 yards, but a drop by Dennis Northcutt with about 2 1/2 minutes remaining ultimately helped Cleveland come undone.

"We knew it was going to be tough sledding, running the football against that defense," Arians said. "But we felt like we could create some mismatches in the passing game. And our backup quarterback threw for 400-and-some (yards).

"At the end of that game, we had a three-tight end formation out there. And we busted a run for about 20 yards. We ran the same play again and had a mental error, or we would have busted it for 20 again. The game would have been over, and Northcutt wouldn't have had to drop that pass on third down."

So there you have it.

The idea is to create mismatches more than it is to push the creative limits of tight end involvement.

In January 2003, "We felt our fourth receiver (Northcutt) was better than Pittsburgh's fourth cornerback (Hank Poteat)," Arians said.

In fall 2007, Arians might ask himself, "Is Heath Miller better on this linebacker than, say, our third receiver is on their nickel back?"

Should Matt Spaeth help create mismatches for Miller or for himself, the pick will ultimately be lauded rather than ridiculed.

"The best feeling in the world is when you just pound it 30 times and the game's over and you win," Arians said. "That's the easy way. But you gotta prepare for the hard way, too."

That's where all the tight ends may yet justify their presence.

If they can get 'em into formation without bumping into one another, the Steelers just might be onto something.

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