PITTSBURGH — Tight end appeared to be a position that was a big question mark for the Pittsburgh Steelers entering the season.
Heath Miller retired at the end of last season after setting every major franchise receiving record for the position during his 11-year career. Matt Spaeth, Millerâ€™s top backup, was released after spending seven seasons in Pittsburgh in two different stints.
Ladarius Green, the Steelersâ€™ biggest offseason acquisition, is on the physically unable to perform list after being signed to a four-year, $20-million contract in the offseason.
Yet the Steelers are off to a 2-0 start and their three tight ends have played a major role with a combined 11 receptions for 91 yards and two touchdowns. They are also drawing praise for their blocking in the running game, as DeAngelo Williams has rushed for 237 yards and two touchdowns.
â€œWeâ€™re not waiting for Heath or Spaeth to come back,â€? Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. â€œTheyâ€™re still legends and we appreciate what they did for us. These are the guys who play for us now. Theyâ€™re capable, and we have a great deal of confidence in them, and they (have) delivered.â€?
James has eight receptions for 60 yards and one touchdown in his second season. Grimble had the first two catches of his career for 26 yards and a score Sunday in a 24-16 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals at Heinz Field. Johnson, a seven-year veteran, has one reception for five yards.
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger insisted throughout the preseason that he was not concerned about the tight end situation and the trio has proven him correct so far.
The tight ends shined Sunday. In addition to Grimble, James had three catches for 29 yards and a touchdown while Johnson made his first reception of the season
â€œListen, Heath Miller is Heath Miller,â€? Roethlisberger said. â€œYou canâ€™t replace that guy and we arenâ€™t trying to replace Heath Miller. I tell our tight ends to be the best that they can be. And I thought today that we saw some plays being made, some big-time catches and some effort plays that were awesome.â€?
The Steelers often used two tight-end formations against the Bengals and occasionally had all three on the field at the same time.
â€œTheyâ€™re doing their jobs,â€? Tomlin said. â€œWe talked earlier in the week about how significant their matchup would be with those large and long-bodied ends. Largely, I thought they did an excellent job and made some contributions in the passing game. Theyâ€™re developing like weâ€™re developing, collectively. Thankfully, we were able to get a win today in that process of development.â€?
The Steelers needed the tight endsâ€™ production on a day when the Bengals were able to neutralize All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown, who was held to four receptions for 39 yards.
â€œObviously, they were trying to take away A.B. as much as they could,â€? James said. â€œSo that opens us up one-one-one on safeties, on linebackers and thatâ€™s how we were able to work it. We feel good about it. We know we are growing as a group each and every day.â€?
Grimble showed a lot ofÂ growth in his second NFL game. After playing collegiately at Southern California, he went undrafted in 2014 then bounced from the New York Giants to the San Francisco 49ers to the New England Patriots before spending last season on the Steelersâ€™ practice squad.
He scored a touchdown on his first career reception, hauling in a 20-yarder from Roethlisberger in the first quarter to open the scoring.
â€œThereâ€™s a great standard here,â€? Grimble said. “From the day I stepped in here, I was (in the shadow of) Heath Miller and Matt Speath. I just tried to understand what it means to be a tight end here. I made sure going forward that I would do everything to try to emulate those standards, be the best version of myself.â€?