While reading Grantland.com NFL analyst Bill Barnwell’s piece on the recent rise of tight ends as significant pieces in league offenses, my thoughts couldn’t help but drift to the Pittsburgh Steelers’ own multi-talented Heath Miller.
Although Barnwell’s thesis revolved around prolific pass-catchers like the Saints’ Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski of New England and how success at tight end is historically difficult to maintain, it seems like Miller could defy the trend and deliver elite-level production in his eighth NFL season.
The 6-foot-5, 255-pound Miller will turn 30 in October, so he is theoretically on the downward arc of the traditionally-short career of a professional football player. Against the odds at such a physically-taxing position (especially since run-blocking is a huge part of his value), Miller has missed only four games since arriving in Pittsburgh in 2005 out of the University of Virginia.
As statistical analysis has revealed in recent years, staying healthy is a repeatable skill, and it’s one that has served Miller extremely well. Partly due to his durability, he has never failed to catch fewer than 34 passes in a given season, helping him contribute more than 400 receiving yards in every year but 2006, in which he had 393.
Those numbers tell us it’s not a stretch to say Heath will be a key to the Steelers’ offensive success this autumn; furthermore, the circumstances seem to be lining up for a potential career year. As life often dictates, happenstance can be the difference between average and great.
New Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley seems committed to spreading the ball around via the short passing game. As we saw in the team’s preseason opener in Philadelphia, everyone from backs to tight ends to wide receivers will be relied upon to fill space five to 15 yards downfield, giving quarterback Ben Roethlisberger numerous high-percentage options.
Uncertainty makes this approach wise. The Steelers are looking thin at running back with Rashard Mendenhall still rehabbing a torn ACL and presumed starter Isaac Redman injuring his groin, as Matt Shetler wrote earlier today. Add that tenuous situation to the predicted late arrival of deep-threat receiver Mike Wallace to training camp, and the Black and Gold will have to find production via alternate means.
Miller knows the additional responsibility will be shared among many, as he told Steelers.com, “I think the tight end position is going to have a lot of responsibility and we don’t take that lightly as a group.”
Miller’s refusal to self-promote is expected, but his tenure and track record clearly makes him the leader of that group, which will likely include Leonard Pope and Weslye Saunders.
It’s not like Heath Miller to act like a star, but there’s a great possibility a Pro Bowl-type season is in the offing for the Steelers’ No. 83.
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