Steelers' Miller grabs top spot among TEs
If Heath Miller could just catch a few more passes, he'd be a shoo-in for the Pro Bowl.
So goes the conventional wisdom regarding the Steelers' talented tight end.
With 24 receptions through four games — putting him on pace for 96 catches, double his career-best total — Miller is taking his rightful place among the top receiving tight ends in the NFL.
"I've always felt he's the best tight end in the AFC," Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians said about the fifth-year pro from Virginia. "His numbers are better. They're right where we'd hope they'd be."
Miller's numbers (24 receptions, 181 yards, two touchdowns) entering today's game against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field are right in line with how tight ends around the league are being used.
A record 15 tight ends are on pace to catch 50 or more passes in 2009. Twenty tight ends have at least two touchdown receptions.
In 2003, only four tight ends had at least 50 catches, according to STATS, LLC.
Atlanta acquired Pro Bowl tight end Tony Gonzalez from Kansas City to bolster the passing game. Gonzalez has 13 receptions and leads the Falcons with 260 receiving yards. No Atlanta tight end had more than 15 catches in 2008.
The Steelers' first-round draft pick in 2005, Miller had a career-best 48 receptions for 514 yards and three touchdowns last season. At his current pace, he could shatter those totals in catches and receiving yards.
"When you get your opportunities, you make the most of them. It feels good to contribute to the team that way," said Miller, who's tied for second in receptions among tight ends with San Diego's Antonio Gates.
Modest about his accomplishments, Miller offered little insight into his success this season.
Arians suggested that defenses are doubling Santonio Holmes more on the outside, leaving the middle of the field open.
Miller agreed that he's taking advantage of more open spaces. He also acknowledged his increased role in the Steelers' balanced attack this season, along with his on-field chemistry with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
"Being with Ben year after year and being on the same page with him, that kind of plays into it," Miller said.
"This is our fifth year together. Relationships only get better over time. We've played a lot of snaps together. A lot of times we're on the same page and that pays off for both of us."
Miller has been targeted 27 times, third on the team behind leader Santonio Holmes (targeted 35 times) and Hines Ward (targeted 33 times).
Miller was targeted a season-high nine times against San Diego, grabbing eight balls for 70 yards and two touchdowns in the Steelers' 38-28 win.
"I've always said when he's blocking he's like another lineman, and when he's out in pass patterns he's another receiver," Roethlisberger said of Miller. "We've been throwing the ball, and he's been a focal point of this offense. He's been getting open. Even when he's not open, if you just put it close to him he's going to make the play."
Conversely, Ward said Miller's increased pass-catching opportunities will open up things for the outside receivers.
"Ben has a great rapport with Heath. In certain situations, he just feels comfortable with Heath," Ward said. "Consequently, that's why Heath's numbers have been pretty good. In certain situations in the red zone, he's probably our first option because he presents matchup problems.
"We're designing plays to give him the ball."
Both of Miller's touchdown catches were in the red zone.
"It's just the way things shake out a lot of times," Miller said. "A lot of plays are just checkdowns, and I'm able to catch the ball and run with it."
Miller's play speaks for itself. He's already paid like a Pro Bowler after signing a $35.3 million extension in late July.
Ward said the new money hasn't changed Miller, but he suggested it has given his unassuming teammate added confidence to take charge.
"It's just high regard for Heath. He's coming into his own," Ward said. "He just signed a new (contract) extension. He is a great tight end. He's going to continue to grow and develop, and we're going to continue throwing him the ball."