After recording career highs in receiving yards and touchdowns last season, tight end Heath Miller earned a second Pro Bowl selection and was named team MVP for the first time. Opposing defensive coordinators apparently took notice.
While wide receiver Antonio Brown leads the NFL in receptions and wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery is having a career year, Miller is on pace for one of his worst statistical seasons since entering the league in 2005. One season after catching 71 passes for 871 yards and eight touchdowns, Miller has 25 receptions for 274 yards and one touchdown in the seven games he played this season.
He kept his streak of 81 consecutive games with at least one reception alive Sunday against the Buffalo Bills, but just barely. He caught one pass for 6 yards near the end of the first half when the Steelers were running out the clock.
“Heath is a great player, a guy we feed off, a guy who brings a lot of energy,” Brown said. “Every team we play against is going to do something to try to take him away.”
And they’ve been doing that lately with great success. Miller has been held to fewer than 20 yards receiving three times in the past four games. He had four catches for 43 yards against the New England Patriots, but the Oakland Raiders held him to 19 yards on three receptions and the Baltimore Ravens held him to 17 yards on two.
His teammates say the reason is teams are paying more attention to him.
“Teams really do a good job of trying to look him up,” quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. “Sending two guys on him, holding him, doing anything they can to slow him down.”
Miller was especially effective in the red zone last season. Seven of his eight touchdowns came in the red zone and all seven were from inside the 9. Miller’s lone touchdown reception this season came in an unconventional way, a 4-yard shovel pass against the Ravens.
“You can see it on film,” Cotchery said. “You see him being doubled. In the red zone, teams usually pick out two guys [to double-team]. Our two guys are Antonio Brown and Heath Miller. What he’s put on tape his entire career it warrants that type of response from defenses. They are playing him different and doing things to take him out of the game.
“He deserves that attention, and it’s up to other guys to make the plays when they get the opportunities.”
Miller tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in a late December game against the Cincinnati Bengals, and he is coming off major reconstructive knee surgery.
The knee, however, hasn’t been an issue.
“It’s gotten better and stronger as we’ve gone on,” said Miller, who has one year remaining after this season on a six-year contract he signed in 2009. “That’s kind of what we expected it would be.”
Miller missed the first two games when he was completing his rehabilitation. He got off to a good start in his first three games with 15 receptions and 189 receiving yards against the Chicago Bears, Minnesota Vikings and New York Jets. He has had eight catches for 85 yards in the past four.
“I had a few more opportunities when I first came back,” he said. “The past couple of weeks I’ve had a couple of opportunities and I haven’t taken advantage. That could be part of it. I have to focus on whatever I’m asked to do, and, whenever I get my opportunity, I have to take advantage of it.”
Miller had two drops last week against the Bills and has four for the season. He had as many in 15 games last season. Since 2008, Miller never has had more than five drops in a season.
Ray Fittipaldo: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @rayfitt1.