Year of the Tight End

<b>PITTSBURGH - </b> Around the National Football League, it's the Year of the Tight End. <br><br>Antonio Gates of San Diego is second in the AFC with 54 receptions and first with 8 touchdown catches.

Eric Johnson of San Francisco is second in the NFL with 57 receptions.

Randy McMichael has 43 catches in spite of the anemic Miami Dolphins' passing offense. Tony Gonzalez has 49 catches. Dallas Clark and Marcus Pollard have 10 combined TD catches, or 32 percent of the prolific Indianapolis output. Jason Witten has 54 catches. Daniel Graham has 5 TD catches. Jeremy Shockey, Alge Crumpler, Jermaine Wiggins, Chad Lewis, Ken Dilger and Freddie Jones all have more than 23 catches.

It's the Year of the Tight End.

"I know where you're going," said Jay Riemersma. "Everywhere but in Pittsburgh, right?"

Well, actually, no. It's the Year of the Tight End, even in Pittsburgh, but for a different reason.

"You're exactly right," said Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt. "They're playing like (Mark) (Bruener) used to play. They're doing a good job. And for this offense, that's important. If that's going, if that's working for us, we're successful."

It is going. It is working. They are successful.

The 8-1 Steelers are second in the NFL in rushing, and most of it's due to a healthy offensive line and the fresh legs of a couple of rejuvenated power backs. The rest of the success is due to the tight ends and fullbacks, and sometimes they are one and the same.

Take Matt Cushing. The third-team tight end was the first-team fullback for most of the last two games. With Dan Kreider in and out of the lineup, Cushing was forced to assume the position at which he'd dabbled only as an emergency player the last two years.

"I think it went pretty well," Cushing said. "I try to make sure there's not a drop-off, and I feel I did that. They knew we were running the ball and we still ran the ball."

Cushing entered the Cleveland game on the Steelers' second series. He was the lead blocker on Jerome Bettis' 5-yard touchdown run.

"It's totally different than tight end," Cushing said. "At tight end, it's all in-the-line blocking and you get about a yard space between the two of you. At fullback, you both have a 5-yard head start. It's a little different."

Isn't the 5-yard head start better?

"Sometimes, but the linebacker gets that head start, too," Cushing said.

Riemersma is the Steelers' second tight end. During his days in Buffalo, he was called a receiving tight end and lived up to the moniker by catching 204 passes and scoring 20 touchdowns in six seasons. But he's not the pass-catching tight end anymore. In fact, he won't even use the term.

"It's definitely been a mindset change," Riemersma said. "I've been known as the other type of guy. But I feel confident I can go in there and do the other part. It's just a matter of getting used to it, understanding what's expected of you. That's what we've done a good job of at the position is understanding that that is our role."

But Riemersma's still considered a receiving tight end.

"Oh, yeah?" he asked with an arching eyebrow. "Well, I don't think that that's something you really kind of give up on. You always hope and wish the right play and the right coverage kind of jell together and you hit a big one down the chute."

So far, Riemersma has 6 catches for 56 yards. His 2-yard touchdown catch against Philadelphia came two games after starting tight end Jerame Tuman's 7-yard touchdown catch against the Dallas Cowboys.

Tuman has 5 catches for 27 yards this season. The key game was Dallas, when he caught 4 passes. Riemersma had 2 catches that day to give the Steelers their best pass-catching production from the position this decade.

"We looked at the numbers and between the two of us that was a normal day for me in Buffalo," Riemersma said. "It's just a different mindset and we're accepting that and understanding that and moving on. We're excited about our role in the running game."

In other words, 1 ring is the greatest stat of them all.

"Are you kidding me? Looking at the playoffs with a chance to win it all?" Riemersma said. "That's what it's all about. The older I get in this league, the more I realize that."

NOTES - Duce Staley was unofficially downgraded to doubtful Thursday because of his hamstring injury. Coach Bill Cowher said he'd probably downgrade Staley because of the health of Jerome Bettis, Verron Haynes and Willie Parker, but Cowher did not make the change on yesterday's injury list. … Both Bettis and Haynes returned to practice Thursday. Missing practice were Staley, Chad Scott (quadriceps), Riemersma (groin) and James Harrison (shoulder). … The key absence in Cincinnati was that of cornerback Deltha O'Neal, who missed his second practice with an elbow injury. He's questionable for Sunday's game. Right tackle Willie Anderson also missed practice with a knee injury, but is expected to play.

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