Monday, September 19, 2016

Tight ends save the day for Steelers

September 18, 2016

Steelers tight end Xavier Grimble catches a touchdown pass in front of the Bengals' George Iloka during the first quarter Sunday, Sept. 18, 2016, at Heinz Field.(Christopher Horner/TRibune-Review)

Xavier Grimble was waiting for this moment, waiting to finally live out his NFL dream after serving two seasons on the scout team.
On his first target, Grimble made his first career catch, stretching all 6-foot-4, 261 pounds of him to get the ball across the goal line for his first touchdown.
It wasn't exactly the stuff of legend as much as it was about replacing one at tight end for the Steelers.
The big story this past offseason was how the Steelers would replace the retiring Heath Miller. It became even bigger when his heir apparent, free agent signee Ladarius Green, was placed on the physically unable to perform list and will miss at least the first six games.
If Jesse James and Grimble didn't answer that question Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals, Ben Roethlisberger did. The tight ends were the first thing the Steelers quarterback talked about after the 24-16 victory over the AFC North rivals at Heinz Field.
“How great were they?” Roethlisberger said. “Guys stepped up when they were needed to, and I was happy to see it.”
Especially when the Bengals were double-covering Antonio Brown, daring the depleted Steelers offense to beat them with someone other than the game's greatest receiver.
With Martavis Bryant suspended for the season, Le'Veon Bell for the first three games and Markus Wheaton out (shoulder), it left Sammie Coates to stretch the field and the tight ends to man the middle against safeties and linebackers.
“Which is what we like,” said Grimble, signed last fall after he was cut by the San Francisco 49ers. “That's mismatches — or supposed to be — for us.”
The Steelers' untested tight ends won the mismatch with plays that made the difference on this dreary day, when rain could have ruined the passing game.
The first one allowed the Steelers to draw first blood. Roethlisberger rifled a 20-yard pass to Grimble, who got inside on free safety George Iloka and lunged for the goal line for a 7-0 first-quarter lead.
“I wanted to score so bad, so I was like, ‘Don't go down. Do what you've got to do to get in the end zone,' ” Grimble said. “It was so close. I needed that. I just wanted to get it in. I've been waiting to have that play, like, ‘Boom, I'm in.' That was pretty much it right there. I felt like I calmed down a bit and my confidence came.”
With that came confidence in the tight ends from the quarterback. Under pressure on a third-and-1, Roethlisberger dumped a pass to Grimble, who made a shoestring catch for a first down. Two plays later, Roethlisberger hit James for a 9-yard touchdown pass and 17-6 lead.
“You see Ben trust us,” James said. “The trust is growing every day. You see our group grow from week to week, from the first preseason practice to now, and we feel like we're progressing.”
It's not to the point where Steelers Nation is calling their names after every catch the way did for Heath. Heck, fans might not have even known the name of No. 85 before this Bengals game.
“I'm not sure, but hopefully they do now,” Grimble said. “I'm planning on building on that.”
Miller was Big Ben's security blanket, so you'd almost expect him to be going through withdrawal. Especially against the Bengals. Miller had 20 catches for 171 yards against them in the regular season last year.
“It was no concern on our part,” Roethlisberger said. “Listen, Heath Miller is Heath Miller. You can't replace that guy. We're not trying to replace Heath Miller. I tell the tight ends to be the best they can be, and I thought today we saw some plays being made, some big-time catches and some effort plays that were awesome.”
Make no mistake: The Steelers tight ends heard all of the talk-show trepidation about their position being the weak link. Instead, James and Grimble combined for very Miller-like production: five catches for 55 yards and two touchdowns.
“We weren't worried about it. I know the fans are, and understandably — not having Heath after all those years — but we look at it as a great opportunity where we get some chances to make plays,” James said. “In this offense, we're going to use multiple tight ends. If we play well, it's going to help the offense in a big way.
“We earn it each and every day in practice so when we get out here for the games, it's natural. It's not forced in any way. He works with us, lets us know exactly what he wants, and we make it happen.”
That they made it happen with Miller-like consistency on crucial downs and in the red zone, and in Grimble's case, with the athleticism we anticipated from Green, is a bonus for an offense that designated David Johnson as a blocker.
With the Steelers, the standard is the standard. What James and Grimble learned the past two seasons is that the tight end position, whether it's following Eric Green or Mark Bruener or Heath Miller, is valued in the Steelers offense.
And can be a dangerous dagger to a defense, especially the Bengals and particularly when they are without Vontaze Burfict roaming the middle.
“We're not waiting for Heath or (Matt) Spaeth to come back,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “They're still legends, and we appreciate what they did for us. These are the guys who play for us now. They're capable, and we have a great deal of confidence in them, and they delivered.”
They delivered, serving notice these tight ends aren't an afterthought or a weak link for this Steelers offense.
And now you know their names.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.

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