On the Steelers: Miller's role keeps growing
Steelers tight end Heath Miller, right, goes through blocking drills with Leonard Pope during practice on the South Side.
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It's not as if the Steelers rarely threw to tight end Heath Miller in past seasons. He set the team record for tight ends in 2009 with 76 receptions and 789 yards.
But never has he been on a pace like this. This tight end whose main job is to throw a block, has thrown a wrench into some fantasy football owners and leagues with his receptions through the first six games of '12.
Miller is tied for the scoring lead among NFL tight ends with 32 points, which ties him for sixth among all scoring non-kickers. Holy Tony Gonzalez, what's going on here? Miller still plays for the Steelers, where tight ends often have been regarded as extra offensive tackles.
"I may catch a few the first few weeks and then defenses may determine to play us differently and someone else will make those catches," said Miller, who talks softly but plays a big game. "It comes and goes, you just try to make the most of your opportunities when you get them."
Coordinator Todd Haley has made good on his promise to involve Miller more in the receiving part of the passing game. Miller has been targeted with 40 passes and has caught 31 for 290 yards and five touchdowns. He also tacked on 2 points with a conversion catch in Cincinnati. He has not dropped a pass this season.
At that pace, he would be targeted for a career-high 107 passes and catch a career-high 83 with a career-high 13 touchdowns, which would rank second in team history by a receiver (Louis Lipps, 15, 1985). He caught 56 passes last season.
His current pace may not continue, but Miller should soon tie Elbie Nickel for the team's career touchdown catches among tight ends at 37. He passed Lipps this season for third-most receptions by any Steelers player. He has 368, behind only Hines Ward at 1,000 and John Stallworth at 537.
"If you stick around long enough, I guess those things come," the humble Miller said. "I've been here for a while and, fortunately, I've been with a good quarterback for all those years. I think that counts for a lot."
The quarterback had similar things to say about his tight end.
"He's always been a comfort zone and blanket," Ben Roethlisberger said. "He is a great player, great teammate, maybe the best I've ever had at any level. That's a high compliment, but he deserves it. That touchdown he caught [in Cincinnati Sunday night], he catches it and gets hit by a bunch of guys. He held on. You have to enjoy throwing it to a guy like that."
Miller showed an unusual display of emotion when he caught the 9-yard touchdown pass that helped tie the score 24 seconds before halftime. It wasn't much, just a little clinching of the fists in a downward thrust.
"I was excited," Miller said, laughing a little when it was mentioned.
"It was an emotional game for our whole team, and I think we were all excited, myself included."
Said Roethlisberger: "It's fun and gets you going because he doesn't show emotion. When he does, you know it's time to go."
Rookie offensive guard David DeCastro has made steady improvement from a serious right knee injury Aug. 25 in Buffalo. He has begun running and, officially, next week he can rejoin his teammates in practice, although that might not occur so soon.
"We'll see how this week goes, how it feels," DeCastro said.
"I've been running and stuff. It feels good. Running's a lot different than playing football. We'll see how it goes, one day at a time."
DeCastro was injured in the third preseason game and placed on the designated to return injured-reserve list Sept. 7, before the opening game. By rule, he was eligible to start working out on the field last week and would be eligible for full practices next week.
Once the Steelers determine he is ready to practice, they must notify the league. The clock then starts on a 21-day period when the Steelers can add him to their 53-man roster at any point, and he could then play.
Once that three-week period ends, the Steelers must decide to put DeCastro on the 53-man roster or put him on injured reserve for the rest of the season.
That clock does not start until he starts practicing.
"I have no idea," DeCastro said as to when he might return. "I've never been through anything like this."
Washington's Robert Griffin III will test Dick LeBeau's record against rookie quarterbacks. Since LeBeau returned as defensive coordinator in '04, the Steelers are 13-1 against rookie quarterbacks, adding four wins a year ago (beating Cincinnati's Andy Dalton twice). Joe Flacco leads the pack with three rookie losses to them in '08.
• Game: Steelers (3-3) vs. Washington Redskins (3-4), Heinz Field.
• When: 1 p.m. Sunday.
• TV: WPGH.
• Favored: Steelers by 4 1/2.
The only rookie quarterback to beat the Steelers in that time was Baltimore's Troy Smith in '07. Smith was with the Steelers this spring but was released.
"Normally going against a rookie quarterback, I wouldn't be sweating," linebacker Larry Foote said. "I wouldn't even look at film. But this guy presents some challenges. All around the league, you see young quarterbacks, but he's phenomenal.
"Just the highlights [coach] Mike Tomlin showed us this morning kind of woke you up. You come in Wednesday dragging a little bit. As soon as he popped those highlights in there, everybody woke up and sat up to get ready for him."
The Steelers were without their top three halfbacks at practice as Jonathan Dwyer turned up absent along with Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman. The latter two have injuries. Dwyer had to attend to a personal matter, but should return to the team today.
It doesn't look as if Redman will return this week. He said he isn't over the high left ankle sprain injury from the third preseason game, and now he has a right ankle sprain.
"It's a long season. We'll be in the playoffs. We have a long way to go, and I hate to keep setting myself back," Redman said. "My left one was a high ankle, I'm still battling through that. That's why it's kind of tough to come back from the right one because the left one is still bothering me."
Also missing from practice was linebacker Jason Worilds, who was ill, and two players Tomlin already has declared out for the game: safety Troy Polamalu and offensive right tackle Marcus Gilbert. Center Maurkice Pouncey, however, returned to practice after missing the past seven quarters with a right knee injury.
"I've had 12 days off, so I'm feeling pretty good," said Pouncey, who said he will play Sunday.
The Steelers also reported that kicker Shaun Suisham went through a limited practice because of an ankle injury, as did linebackers Brandon Johnson (hamstring) and Adrian Robinson (concussion).
First Published October 25, 2012 12:00 am