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.
“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.”
Atlanta’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."