Gorman: Miller's a matchup 'nightmare'
The popular theory of why the Steelers will beat the New York Jets in Sunday's AFC Championship Game revolves around the return of a Pro Bowl performer who missed their previous meeting at Heinz Field.
Strong safety Troy Polamalu is arguably the NFL's best defensive player and the catalyst for the league's No. 1 defense because of his ability to make heart-stopping, momentum-changing plays.
But tight end Heath Miller might be the difference between the Steelers losing to the Jets and playing in Super Bowl XLV.
"They're both Pro Bowl players. What Troy does for the defense definitely has an impact, but what Heath does for us is help give us balance," Steelers receiver Hines Ward said. "We put me and Heath in the middle and our fast guys outside. You can't match up everywhere. You put him one-on-one on the back side — they play a lot of single coverage — and if you want to put (Antonio) Cromartie and (Darrelle) Revis on us, then somebody's got to cover Heath. I like him. I like the matchup there."
Covering Miller is a matchup problem the Jets didn't have to worry about in their 22-17 victory Dec. 19. He was out with a concussion, courtesy of a head-snapping hit by Baltimore's Jameel McClain. Just ask Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who called Miller "the best tight end in the game."
"It's huge," Roethlisberger said. "Heath Miller's a special player, and even when he's not getting the ball, he opens up things for the guys on the outside and he's a great safety valve for me."
With Miller out against the Jets, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said that he expected a "Heath-like" performance from Matt Spaeth. Unfortunately, the backup tight end was more Spaeth-like in dropping two passes in the end zone on the Steelers' final drive that could have provided the winning points.
"We left some things out there with Matt," said Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, who otherwise complimented Spaeth's play against the Jets. "Hopefully, we can get them with Heath."
Predictably, Spaeth blamed himself for the loss.
"You've got to move past it," Spaeth said. "As competitors, you want that one back, but I can't let that one play take away from my body of work throughout the game or even the year."
Spaeth's words echo those spoken by Miller, who consoled Spaeth afterward, assuring him that everyone has been in his shoes at some point in their career. Miller pointed out the positives: Spaeth not only had three catches for 27 yards, including a 9-yard touchdown that tied the score in the first quarter, but his perimeter blocking helped running back Rashard Mendenhall rush for 99 yards on 17 carries.
It's just one example of how the humble Miller is a consummate teammate, one who hasn't complained even though his statistics have dipped from Pro Bowl-worthy (76 receptions for 789 yards and six touchdowns) in 2009 to pedestrian (42 catches for 512 yards and two touchdowns) this season.
What makes Miller special to the Steelers is not just his pass-catching skills but his blocking ability. While Miller plays a pivotal part in protecting Roethlisberger, Big Ben wasn't kidding when he called Miller his safety valve. Ten of his catches have come on third down, including seven for 65 yards on downs of third-and-6 or longer.
"Heath is a nightmare for defenses because there's not many guys that can do everything that he does so well, as far as being a well-rounded tight end," Spaeth said. "It's nice to have him back, that's for sure."
Miller has 14 receptions for 167 yards and two touchdowns in the past three games. He could be due for a breakout performance, considering the Jets have allowed 100-yard receiving games to tight ends Aaron Hernandez of New England and Joel Dreessen of Houston this season. If there's a weak link to the Jets' defense, it's that it seems to be susceptible to passes over the middle.
Not that Miller will ever admit as much.
"When I look at the Jets, I see a really good defense: a good defensive front, good on the back end, they can play a lot of schemes, they can play a lot of personnel packages because they have a lot of those type of players," Miller said. "So, I don't look at them and say, 'Hey, this tight end caught a lot of balls on them.' I concentrate on how good they are."
When it comes to Miller, the Steelers do the same.