PSR ANYTIME. ANYWHERE. Introducing the Pittsburgh Sports Report eMagazine. Click to read and watch the best sports coverage in the region.
Saturday April 19 2014
Leave this field empty.

Elite Performer

PSR Logo
His numbers speak for themselves. The player wearing No. 83 in black and gold entered this December third in Steelers history in career receptions, with more than any other tight end in franchise history. His 38 touchdowns are more than any Steelers tight end before him.

Yet the term “underrated” still gets tossed around when people—fans, media and players alike—talk about Heath Miller.

“He’s underrated because of the media’s interest with fantasy football,” said long-time Steelers tight ends coach James Daniel, who has coached Miller his entire career.

But it’s not just media, or Fantasy Football general managers, who seem to forget about Miller.

Despite his lofty ranking among Steelers receivers, despite his two Super Bowl rings—and despite owning the longest touchdown reception by a tight end in the NFL since 1974 (an 87-yarder in the opening game of the 2006 season against Miami)—Miller has only been to one Pro Bowl, selected after the 2009 season as a replacement for the Colts’ Dallas Clark, who was playing in the Super Bowl.

Miller’s lack of recognition can be blamed on many factors. The Steelers used to run the ball a ton, limiting his opportunities to put up big numbers. They’ve never used their tight ends the way teams like New England do, splitting them wide in their base offense and letting them run routes typically run strictly by receivers in the past. The Steelers have needed him to stay in and block for various reasons – injuries to the offensive line, poor play by the offensive line, a pass offense with a bevy of talented wideouts, etc.

Or perhaps Miller doesn’t get the recognition players like Rob Gronkowski, Vernon Davis or Antonio Gates do is because he’s simply not looking for it.

“He doesn’t ask for the attention,” says his teammate, receiver Jerricho Cotchery. “He just comes in, shows up for work every day and works hard, plays hard, makes plays for the team, goes back home and chills with his family.”

Whatever the reason, the people in the Steelers locker room—players and coaches—know exactly what they have in Miller.

“I’ve always looked for him. He’s always been a comfort zone and blanket,” said Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who came into the league one year before Miller. “He is a great player, great teammate, maybe the best I’ve ever had at any level. That’s a high compliment but he deserves it. He makes plays.”

The unique thing about Miller’s play-making ability is that it’s visible whether Roethlisberger is passing the ball or handing off to a running back.

Photo by Charles LeClaire“I think he prides himself in the blocking phase of the game more so than a lot of guys do,” contends Daniel. “A lot of tight ends nowadays just want to be pass receivers but he wants to be a complete tight end, and he does a good job of it.”

Cotchery explains why Miller is such an asset to the Steelers offense.

“When you have a guy that’s just a pass catcher, you may play him differently defensively. You may bring in an extra cornerback to line up against this guy because he’s only a pass catching tight end,” said Cotchery. “With Heath, what makes it so difficult is when we get in a two receiver set, he’s just a tight end but he can beat you either way. He’s a great blocker. He’s not just a good blocker, he’s a great blocker and he’s a great pass catcher, so who are you going to line him up against?”

“If there are, there are not many,” answers Steelers linebacker Lawrence Timmons to Cotchery’s question. Timmons deals with the best tight ends in the NFL on a regular basis and knows even better than Cotchery what a tight end like Miller brings to the table.

“He’s been a big time playmaker for many years now. Especially in the playoffs, he’s made a lot of big catches for us,” said Timmons. “He’s definitely a premier tight end.”

No one understands that better than new Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley, who praised Miller upon his hiring, calling him “one of my favorite players that I have studied and prepared for.”

“I had done some work on him when he came out of college,” said Haley about Miller, who broke ACC records for most career receptions (144), yards (1,703) and touchdowns (20) by a tight end during his career at the University of Virginia. “Having coached against him, and I watched him play for a number of years, I just always thought he was a heck of a player… He might be one of the best football players I have ever been around, taking everything into account.”

Miller’s performance in the Steelers 24-17 win in Cincinnati in October illustrates precisely just how much be brings to the table across both facets of his game.

With the Steelers trailing 14-6 late in the first half, Miller extended his route while his quarterback bought extra time in the pocket, working himself open in tight quarters in the end zone and made a difficult catch for a touchdown.

He then tied the game by catching a corner-fade for a two-point conversion, a catch that normally receives SportsCenter notoriety when made by Calvin Johnson or Larry Fitzgerald.

Finally, with the game tied in the fourth quarter, Miller recognized a blitz on a Chris Rainey run from the 11, pulling inside to pick up Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict and completely blowing him up, springing Rainey for the game-winning touchdown. It was a picture-perfect block that surely earned plenty of ooh’s and ahh’s in the film room by both teams later in the week.

“Heath is definitely a one of a kind tight end for us. He is great in the backfield as a blocker and he has deceptive speed too, which a lot of people don’t talk about,” continued Timmons. “He’s tough because he’s a tight end you can split out and he can make the big catches on the goal line, make the play on the fade, and he has great ball skills.

“I feel he’s on a Vernon Davis or Antonio Gates type level.”

Photo by Charles LeClaireAtlanta’s Tony Gonzalez, 36, is generally considered the dean of active tight ends, but it’s New England hot shot Rob Gronkowski who gets most of the hype. Defensive players throughout the league, though, usually refer to the 49ers’ Davis or the Chargers’ Gates as the best at their position.

Within the corridors and locker rooms of 3400 South Water Street, however, there is a different consensus.

“He’s absolutely the best all-around tight end,” insists Roethlisberger. “People are going to argue, but all-around tight end, there’s no doubt about it."

It’s all starting to make sense. The Steelers have not made the playoffs the past two seasons. Those two years have seen the team part ways with players who were integral to a sustained run of success that resulted in a pair of Super Bowl championships.
Editor's DeskFeature OnePure Steel
The play of Penguins captain Sidney Crosby has a tremendous impact on every game the team plays. Whatever success the Penguins have in the Stanley Cup Playoffs will depend largely on the opposition’s ability to contain No. 87. But he is not doing it alone.
Blue LineFeature TwoTop Story
A champion won't be crowned in the NHL for nearly two months, but the quest for hockey's holy grail begins now. Sixteen teams are lacing up their skates and preparing for the upcoming hunt for the Stanley Cup. Here are the four favorites.
Blue LineFeature Three
Pirates' righthander Charlie Morton put an exclamation point on his recovery from Tommy John surgery in 2012 with the best major league season of his career, posting 7-4 record with a 3.26 ERA.
Feature FourNorth Shore NotesTop Story
PSR VIDEO
Full size video and summary... Misc YouTube Player 1 USS HS GOTWHigh School TV Channel
Full size video and summary... Misc YouTube Player 2Xfinity HS FootballHigh School TV Channel
Full size video and summary... COGOS Feature MatchupMisc YouTube Player 3High School TV Channel
The newest crop of rookies will enter the NFL on May 8, when the 2014 NFL Draft gets underway at Radio City Music Hall in New York. The Houston Texans own the first selection, and it's a South Carolina defensive end who sits atop PSR's board.
Custom 1Pure Steel
The Steelers’ offseason additions and subtractions have given a peek into what may be going on in the team’s South Side War Room as the team prepares for one of the deepest drafts in years. Several players have emerged as potential targets for the Black and Gold in 2014.
Custom 2Pure SteelTop Story
Several local players could be off the board before the second round is completed on May 9. Pitt's Aaron Donald is the top prospect, but Penn State has a pair of players who expect to hear their names called early as well.
Custom 3Penn StatePitt FootballSmall CollegesWVU
The 2014 NFL Draft is shaping up to be one of the deepest in recent memory. But even in the deepest of drafts, there are studs, duds, snubs and flubs. How is one to know if a draft pick is worth cheering for, or if he should be booed mercilessly?
Custom 4NationalPure Steel