Is Steelers' Miller NFL's most underrated tight end?

Bob Bajek
Steelers TE Miller tears ACL

When discussing the NFL’s elite tight ends, people will say Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham, Antonio Gates, Tony Gonzalez and Vernon Davis are the ones who make an enormous difference on their football teams.

But the one who always seems to be overlooked in the conversation is Steelers TE Heath Miller. 

Actions speak louder than works for Miller, who declined an interview request by PFW, as he hates talking about his accomplishments. However, others eagerly wanted to give the hardworking eighth-year veteran his due.

Steelers TE coach James Daniel, who has coached Miller his entire career, thinks he knows why Miller is consistently underrated.

“He’s underrated because of the media’s interest with fantasy football,” said Daniel, who thinks Miller compares with complete players like Mike Ditka and John Mackey, both of whom are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame for their accomplishments at the TE position. “When you talk about fantasy football, you don’t talk about guys who block and do the little things. It’s the guys with the most receptions and touchdowns. Who is considered a great player is more media-driven than anything.”

Usually, a tight end is either just a good blocker or just a good receiver. Miller, recognized as the top tight end prospect of the 2005 NFL draft and picked 30th overall by Pittsburgh, performs both skills at a high level.

And this isn’t lost on his teammate and friend, Steelers OLT Max Starks.

“Obviously, a lot of tight ends now these days really work on their speed and receiving skills,” Starks said. “A true tight end is one who can block and catch passes. He’s a stronger type of tight end, making him a more versatile athlete, and you have to pay attention to him.”

The Steelers’ offensive line has struggled mightily in recent years. QB Ben Roethlisberger has been smashed harder than a Mexican piñata the past three-plus seasons (sacked 139 times since 2009, one more than Bears QB Jay Cutler).

To remedy that, the Steelers use Miller primarily as an extra offensive lineman. He has easily busted holes for running backs like Rashard Mendenhall, Willie Parker and Jerome Bettis throughout his career.

“He looks like an O-lineman out there,” Starks laughed. “You sit there and look across the line and go, ‘OK, there’s C Maurkice Pouncey, ORT Marcus Gilbert and OLT Max Starks, and Oh, Heath Miller.’ He kind of blends in the crowd.”

The 6-5, 256-pound Miller wasn’t a good base blocker coming out of college, though he has worked hard to improve in that area over the years. During the Steelers’ 24-17 victory over the Bengals in Week Seven, Miller delivered an amazing block that changed the game. 

He lined up next to Starks before the Steelers executed a fourth-quarter run play to RB Chris Rainey in a 17-17 game. Miller noticed that Bengals LB Vontaze Burfict was blitzing on the inside where Rainey was supposed to run.

Miller read the play perfectly and annihilated Burfict right-of-center, allowing Rainey to streak 11 yards untouched into the endzone for the game-winning touchdown. That play needed perfect timing or Rainey would have been stuffed at the line of scrimmage.

“(Heath) came in as a heck of a player,” Daniel said of the University of Virginia product. “He’s been a steady, good player. He’s good in the run and passing games, but probably what he’s greatest at is the finer details of all the things you ask him to do. He’s willing to spend the time and do the things that it takes to do the details that other guys don’t have the patience to do.”

Miller, also known as “Big Money,” also can haul in the big catch. He broke ACC records for most career receptions (144), yards (1,703) and touchdowns (20) by a tight end. Surgery to repair a hernia forced him to sit out of the NFL Scouting Combine in ’05 and also slowed him during his rookie campaign.

Despite that injury, Miller has been Roethlisberger’s security blanket for the past eight seasons in red-zone situations, hauling in 37 TDs and 4,248 yards even though he isn’t the featured weapon on offense. That’s only two fewer touchdowns than Vernon Davis has caught in his seven-year career.

Despite WRs Antonio Brown and Mike Wallace dropping some key passes and the running game being inconsistent early on, Pittsburgh has been respectable offensively thanks in large part to Miller. He has 39 catches, 384 yards, six TDs, a two-point conversion, and has helped the offensive line surrender 17 sacks through eight contests.

New offensive coordinator Todd Haley is featuring Miller a bit more in red-zone situations, and who would blame him as Miller keeps finding paydirt, scoring in five games, including a two-TD performance against the Raiders.

In fact, Miller has more touchdowns than Davis (four), Gonzalez (four), and Graham (five), and is only one behind Gronkowski (seven). Not bad company to chill with.

Both Starks and Daniel reiterated how unselfish and competitive Miller is and what a great teammate and extremely hard worker he is. Roethlisberger thinks highly of Miller, stating a couple weeks ago that Miller was by far the best all-around tight end in the NFL. Daniel enthusiastically agreed.

“I would definitely second that,” Daniel said. “No question, I think he is. … The Pro Bowl team is media-driven and there is a lot of politicking and publicity involved, too. I will say this, he is well deserving of making it and he was well deserving to make it some other years. If he makes it or not, I’m not sure. If I had a vote, I would vote for him.” 

With one Pro Bowl selection (in 2009) to his credit, Miller is a strong candidate to gain another nomination — leading a 5-3 squad as it contends for a coveted playoff spot in the wide-open AFC race.