Todd Haley described Heath Miller as a perfect football player. Ben Roethlisberger called Miller his best teammate for the past decade. Miller, with his aw-shucks grin, said in his typically understated, cliché way that he's just one of the guys, putting his hand in the pile and carrying his weight for a Steelers offense designed by Haley, the coordinator, and executed by Roethlisberger, the star quarterback. What Miller didn't say is he will have a bigger role than ever this season in that offense. I have no problem saying it for him. Miller has to be great for the Steelers to have their best chance of making the playoffs for the first time in three seasons.
People forget Miller was the Steelers MVP in 2012 when he had 71 catches for 816 yards and eight touchdowns before a serious knee injury in the next-to-last game against the Cincinnati Bengals. His rehabilitation was difficult.
"You can't rush Mother Nature," Miller said. "That's the hardest thing for an athlete. We're always telling ourselves that hard work solves everything, but that isn't always the case with an injury. Sometimes, you have to back off. You have to be smart."
Miller missed the first two games of 2013 and, despite his claim that he was healthy in the final 14 games, clearly wasn't himself. He had 58 catches for 593 yards and just one touchdown, quite a hard fall from the previous season.
He had key drops against Oakland, Detroit and Baltimore, prompting him to freely admit, "I always have said I have to make the most of my opportunities. I didn't do that last season. There were some plays I left on the field."
Miller's knee is fine and he's going through all of the drills at training camp. "He's as tough as anyone I've been around," Haley said.
Miller should thrive in the no-huddle offense that Haley endorses and Roethlisberger loves. The coordinator and quarterback know they lost 113 catches, 1,342 yards and 16 touchdowns from last season when wide receivers Jerricho Cotchery and Emmanuel Sanders left as free agents. They are counting on Miller to make up some of that production. Roethlisberger loves looking for him in tight spots when the pocket breaks down and chaos takes over.
"Heath is always going to know who's hot and he's always going to be in the right place," Haley said. "He's such a steady pillar to hold on to when things get crazy ...
"I know those drops last season bothered him. He takes his job to heart. When he drops a ball or jumps offsides, he doesn't sleep that night, I can promise you that. He can't wait for his next opportunity."
Miller, starting his 10th NFL season, is probably the most respected player in the locker room because of his production and professionalism. Only Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor and Roethlisberger have been with the team longer. Like Polamalu, Miller leads by example.
"Those few times when he does say something, we all better listen because he's probably right," Haley said.
Miller is the teammate Roethlisberger turns to when he needs advice or reassurance. When the Steelers started 0-4 last season, safety Ryan Clark told ESPN, "You have to protect Ben against Ben," adding that by trying to extend plays, Roethlisberger often hurts the team by taking sacks or committing turnovers. Roethlisberger was troubled by the observation and went to Miller to ask if he thought Clark was right. Miller told him to keep playing the way he knows how to play.
"When you're facing a little negativity, it's good to hear a reassuring comment," Miller said. "Ben is our leader. He's got to know the guys in the locker room have his back."
Miller practically blushed when told that Roethlisberger called him his best teammate.
"As a player, when you have the respect of the guys you work with, it's the ultimate compliment. We've been together my whole career. I don't take that for granted. Some guys play with five or six quarterbacks. I know how fortunate I've been to play with a franchise guy."
The message Miller is delivering at this training camp to Roethlisberger and all of his teammates on offense is for them to pay close attention to detail. He hears "the outside people" talking excitedly about the Steelers' 6-2 finish last season and how the no-huddle offense helped them score more than 28 points per game in the second half of the year. "I'm excited about this season, too, but we've got to realize every year is a new year," Miller said. "We can't overlook what we have to do out here now. We can't take anything for granted. If we do what we're supposed to do, we should be OK."
The Steelers are counting on Miller to do his part. Haley said he can't wait to hear the familiar shouts from the Heinz Field crowd when Miller makes his first catch in the opening game against the Cleveland Browns.
"That's such a boost to everyone, including the quarterback," Haley said.
It's a shout the Steelers plan to hear often this season. It's a boost they will need to be successful.
Ron Cook: firstname.lastname@example.org. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Cook and Poni" show weekdays from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.