PITTSBURGH – Heath Miller needs just 46 yards to join Buddy Dial as the only tight ends and sixth player in Steelers history with 5,000 receiving yards.
At the rate he’s going, Miller might need four more games to reach that milestone.
A year after being named team MVP and leading the Steelers with 71 receptions for a career-high 816 yards and eight touchdowns, that’s not what was expected.
Miller’s numbers this season, a more pedestrian 25 receptions for 274 yards and one touchdown, are down, a surprise even for a player coming back from a major knee injury.
Miller missed the regular-season finale last year after suffering a torn ACL in a loss to Cincinnati. He spent the offseason rehabbing the injury and missed the first two games this season before making his return Sept. 22 against Chicago.
After catching 15 passes in his first three games, Miller has been an afterthought for the last month. He heads into the Steelers’ game Sunday against Detroit (6-3) at Heinz Field with only 10 receptions for 72 yards and one touchdown since Oct. 13.
Miller says the knee is not holding him back.
“It’s gotten better and stronger as we’ve gone on,” said the 32-year-old Miller. “That’s kind of what we expected it would be.”
The statistics show that Miller’s decline is more about a lack of opportunities instead of a decline in play.
After being the target of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s passes an average of 6.7 times per game last season,that number fell to 5.6 times per game this year. Over the past four games, that number shrunk to 5.0 targets per game.
“Teams do a really good job of trying to lock him up,” said Roethlisberger. “They send two guys on him, hold him and do anything they kind of can to slow him down.”
But Miller also had a tough game Sunday in Pittsburgh’s 23-10 win over Buffalo. The usually sure-handed tight end caught only one of the five passes thrown his way.
While Miller has seen his catches decline, others have seen an increase in their production. Wide receiver Antonio Brown leads the NFL with 67 receptions, and No. 3 receiver Jerricho Cotchery has already matched his career high with six touchdowns. Cotchery has 31 receptions, which has cut into Miller’s totals.
“They try to minimize Heath, and that provides opportunities for Jerricho, and visa-versa,” said Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin. “I don’t think there have been many weeks where both guys have had outstanding numbers because they essentially work in the same spaces. They work in the interior of our formations, generally on the strong side. If one guy is being covered, there is potential for the other guy to be open.”
The Steelers began working Cotchery (6-1, 200), who is their biggest receiver, as a replacement for Miller in training camp, when they weren’t sure when Miller would return from the knee injury. That work has continued, even after Miller’s return.
“It’s the nature of the way things go,” said Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley. “If one guy’s making plays, defenses generally are going to look for ways to take that away. It creates opportunities for other people.
“That’s why you’re seeing more from (Cotchery). We’ll continue to try to move guys around and give them opportunities. Heath’s at the front of the line in (doing) whatever it takes to win. He’s taking multiple guys out of plays a number of times, so that’s a good thing.”
Odds and end zones
Linebacker LaMarr Woodley (calf), defensive end Brett Keisel (foot) and guard Ramon Foster (ankle) missed their second consecutive day of practice. … Offensive tackles Kelvin Beacum and Marcus Gilbert, guard David DeCastro and center Fernando Velasco returned to practice.