PITTSBURGH — Clinging to a one-score lead just past the two-minute warning, the Steelers faced a crucial third-and-1 with the ball at the Atlanta 44 last week.
Make it, and the Steelers seal victory. Don’t, and Matt Ryan and Co. are back in business with plenty of time on the clock.
Credit Todd Haley for making the gutsy call. Credit Ben Roethlisberger for making the perfect throw. But also credit Heath Miller.
With a must-win game on the line, tellingly, the ball went to the tight end, who, not only made the catch but wisely knew to slide to the turf. The Steelers were able to run out the clock, seal victory and inch closer to securing a playoff berth.
"He's kind of Ben's safety blanket in a lot of ways," tight end Michael Palmer said. "He's a guy who's not very flashy. He just gets the job done."
Quietly, as if there has ever been any other way with the soft-spoken Virginian, Miller has been getting the job done consistently for the Steelers for a decade. He's a two-time Pro Bowler and is third in franchise history and third among all active NFL tight ends with 522 receptions. But on a high-powered unit that features Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown, it might be easy to overlook Miller’s contribution to the NFL’s top-ranked offense. Except in the Steelers’ locker room, where, among teammates, respect for Miller borders on reverence.
"To me, I think everything revolves around him," backup tight end Matt Spaeth said. "He does so much. So versatile. We can ask him to do anything. He’s going to do it. He’s not going to ask any questions. He just does everything and does everything perfect."
In this pass-happy era where the tight end position has morphed into a glorified receiver, Miller is a throwback to a time when tight ends actually blocked and could catch. In the Steelers' crucial AFC North win two weeks ago in Cincinnati, Miller was outstanding even though he had just one reception for 1 yard. Miller was instrumental in helping Bell rush for a career-high 185 yards against the Bengals.
"If he’s not the most complete tight end, he’s in the top two ... maybe," said Spaeth. "There's not many guys that can do anything as well as he does. That’s what makes him so great."
"I think he's the best tight end in the game who's a true tight end," Palmer says.
And it's not like Miller hasn't gotten the ball. He's had 56 receptions for 652 yards, an average of 11.64 yards per reception — placing him above San Diego star tight end Antonio Gates — to go along with three touchdowns. With two games remaining, Miller is just 164 yards short of his career-high set in his team MVP season of 2012. That year, in Week 15, Miller suffered a torn ACL. Though he missed the first two games of last season, Miller refused to use the injury as an excuse. But if there were any remaining questions about his health, the 32-year-old has answered them emphatically with his play this season.
"I enjoy the process of preparing for a season and preparing for games," Miller said. "I was able to do that this year throughout the spring and training camp. If anything, mentally, that helps me I guess."
Palmer says it's Miller's preparation that sets him apart and inspires others. Though Miller doesn't say a whole lot in the meeting room, when he does speak, people listen.
"Very, very smart, very detail-oriented," Palmer said. "Guy can tell you everything about any run concept, can tell you anything about any pass concept. He knows what Ben is thinking. He knows what (center Maurkice) Pouncey is thinking and truly understands it all."
Though not a charter member of the Big Three or whatever moniker has been bestowed upon Roethtlisberger, Brown and Bell, Miller says he understands his role. If that leads to his third Lombardi Trophy and a fourth Super Bowl appearance? All the better.
"Obviously, those guys are playmakers and certainly our stalwarts on offense," Miller said. "I just try and do whatever I'm asked to do and do it to the best of my ability. I think everyone’s kind of bought into that on offense. We don’t care how it’s done as long as we’re productive at the end of the day."