Steelers tight ends Heath Miller and Leonard Pope spray their faces start of practice.
Heath Miller, left, goes up against fellow tight end Wes Lyons in a blocking drill Wednesday at the Steelers' South Side practice facility.
Steelers new offensive coordinator Todd Haley during practice at the Steeler's South Side facility.
By Ed Bouchette Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
He has made a Pro Bowl, so it cannot be said that, as he approaches his 30th birthday, Heath Miller can become an overnight sensation.
He has been among the most popular Steelers since they drafted him in 2005, and there was the Pro Bowl season of '09, when he set a team record for tight ends with 76 receptions.
Yet, there always has been a sense around the Steelers that they did not use the 6-foot-5 Miller enough as a receiver, particularly in the shadows of the goal line. That happened even though his 337 receptions are second in franchise history among tight ends to Elbie Nickel, who some argue was more wide receiver than tight end.
And, it might be about to change.
Todd Haley's new offense promises many things, among them is making sure Miller is one of its receiving stars. At his Feb. 9 introductory news conference, Haley called Miller "one of my favorite players."
Coach Mike Tomlin elaborated.
"Haley is excited about what Heath Miller is capable of," Tomlin said. "He's been very clear about that, his excitement to work with Miller. I would imagine that the tight end is going to be a part of our plan."
It likely is the biggest part, in one sense, because the only unrestricted free agent the Steelers have signed is 6-8 tight end Leonard Pope, a veteran of six seasons in Haley's offense in Arizona and Kansas City.
The new offense has emphasized protecting the quarterback, running more effectively and high-percentage passes. They've been working at it for two weeks in practices, and even Miller can see the possibilities for more receptions than he traditionally has seen in six of his seven seasons. His 51 receptions last season were the second most of his career.
"I definitely see opportunities for that to happen. That's not to say there weren't opportunities in the last offense. We are going to be involved a lot."
He has done that, whenever coaches and quarterbacks decided to go his way. Miller has missed four games in his seven seasons. He has not missed catching a football in any game, regular or postseason, since the middle of '08, when an ankle injury forced him out of the first half of a game in Washington, his 52nd consecutive start.
"From my point of view, Heath has always been a big part of the offense," Pope said. "Heath's a great player and a great person to learn from. I'm just happy to be here and playing with that guy."
The two could make an impression as bookends near the goal line and give Ben Roethlisberger those tall targets he has longed to have. The Steelers haven't worked much on red-zone drills this spring, but it would be surprising if Miller is not a big part of them. He has only 31 touchdown receptions, an average of a little more than four a season. In each of the past two seasons, he had two, his career lows.
"It's too early to tell," Miller said of Haley's red-zone plans. "We haven't been through it enough. Right now, we're throwing everything against the wall, putting it all in, and, when the season comes, when game-planning comes, it'll get pared down. That's when we'll see what we have and how we want to approach this."
If, when that happens, they continue to throw everything against the wall, chances are likely to increase that Miller will get the opportunity to catch it.