On the Steelers: Miller an old school tight end
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Tony Gonzalez will reach a milestone Sunday when the Atlanta Falcons tight end catches his first pass of the opener at Heinz Field. It will be his 1,000th reception, and they will throw the ball to the sideline to preserve it.
At some other point, Heath Miller might catch a pass for the Steelers, which would be No. 245 in his career. But, they ought to throw the next defender he blocks to the sideline to preserve him because, surely, that is another milestone as well.
Gonzalez, 34, may be on a Hall of Fame track as the most prolific receiving tight end in history, but receiving tight ends have mostly a short history because they've been discovered only in the past two or three decades.
Miller upholds a more traditional view of the tight end in football. He's old school. He blocks and catches. There is no better tight end in the game who has such a dual talent the way the Steelers see it.
"I think he's the best," coordinator Bruce Arians said, giving his opinion on the league's two-way tight ends. "Jason Witten has really improved. I think those two guys, to me, are premier true tight ends in both leagues.
"Tony Gonzalez's numbers are unbelievable and he's a fair blocker. He's blocked well, but he was never the blocker in Kansas City that Jason Dunn was.
"As pure tight ends, [Miller is] a John Mackey, a Mike Ditka-type guy with more speed."
Mackey and Ditka are among the seven tight ends in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Lately, however, blocking tight ends are overlooked in favor of those who act more like wide receivers. Mark Bruener, hired recently as a college scout for the Steelers, never made a Pro Bowl even though he may have been the best blocking tight end in the league and played 14 seasons. He just did not catch enough passes.
Miller broke through last season, making his first Pro Bowl, but it took him 76 pass receptions to get noticed. His 2009 season actually compared favorably to that of Gonzalez, who caught 83 passes with the Falcons last season. Both averaged 10.4 yards a catch and both scored six touchdowns.
"I think he's probably the best tight end to have ever played," Miller said of Gonzalez. "I think his stats show that and just the longevity of his career and what he's been able to do for such a long period of time probably validates that. He'll be the only tight end in history to have 1,000 catches. That speaks for itself right there."
Tight end, though, is a traditional hybrid position in which the player is asked to block as well as catch. Trouble is, there are no stats for blocking, so the Pro Bowls go to the tight ends who catch the most passes.
Miller's 76 receptions broke the team record for tight ends set by Eric Green with 63 in 1993. He believes it would be a stretch for him to equal that number this season.
"With the receivers we had on the outside stretching the field, I think we threw the ball more last year, and a lot of those passes came on check downs where I was in protection and leaked out to the flat," said Miller, elected an offensive co-captain by his teammates this week.
He's OK with that number dwindling, as long as his team has success. Plus, he actually enjoys blocking.
"It's fun when you get the ball in your hands, yes. But there's something to be said about blocking, when you're doing a good job and you're moving guys and you're controlling the line of scrimmage. That's a pretty good feeling in itself."
When Mike Tomlin announced his captains this week, he said: "A worthy man in Heath Miller, who really exemplifies what we hold dear and what we think is important in terms of how he approaches his job."
What do you get when two big feet collide in a football practice? Perhaps one fewer offensive lineman.
Left guard Chris Kemoeatu's size 15 left foot stepped on left tackle Max Starks' size 19 right foot in practice Wednesday and the result was either a sprained foot or ankle for Kemoeatu, who did not practice Thursday.
What the Steelers do not need now is to lose another starting offensive lineman. They lost right tackle Willie Colon for the season and released center Justin Hartwig.
"It's like stepping on a football," Kemoeatu said. "It's a big foot. We always step on each other; I just stepped on it the wrong way."
Kemoeatu said he hoped to practice today and guessed he would play on Sunday. If not, Doug Legursky or Ramon Foster would replace him.
"Last year, that was my role being the backup for a lot of the interior guys," Legursky said. "I feel comfortable stepping in. I'm ready to go."