PITTSBURGH – Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel – a former Wyoming Player of the Year as a tight end in high school – sidled up to tight ends coach James Daniel at Wednesday’s practice and asked him this:
“Heath Miller and I would’ve made a pretty nice set of bookends, wouldn’t we?”
Daniel didn’t respond, but he had to be dreaming the dream: If only Keisel had stayed on the offensive.
“No,” Keisel said with a laugh. “I’d much rather be on the other side of the ball. Honestly. Too much thinking over there (on offense). ‘Is it zone? Is it man?’ With our defense we can just get the call and get the guy with the ball.”
The subject arose this week because Sunday’s opponent, New England, is all about … well, the Patriots are all about Tom Brady. But after Brady, the player mentioned most often in the Steelers’ locker room Wednesday was Rob Gronkowski, the young tight end who scorched them last season as a rookie.
In the Patriots’ 39-26 win last season at Heinz Field, Gronkowski caught 5 passes for 72 yards and 3 touchdowns, and he did more than that for his offense.
“They have two tight ends who are great receiving threats,” Steelers safety Ryan Clark said of Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. “They’re guys you have to pay attention to, and that allows Wes Welker to run the intermediate routes.”
Welker leads the NFL with 51 receptions, but reporters spent Wednesday trying to find answers to the New England tight end attack.
Meanwhile, Miller, one of the quietest yet toughest of the Steelers, enjoyed another productive practice. His catch of a Ben Roethlisberger deep pass – without even a whisper of sound when ball hit hands – was the play of the afternoon.
Could Miller be the real tight end to watch Sunday against New England?
“No question,” said Keisel. “He’s elite. We look at true tight ends here, not Antonio Gateses split out, or this guy in New England who’s split out. Heath lines up with the offensive linemen and can move a defensive end, can scheme-block, and will go out and make incredible catches, too. What makes him special is all the little things that he does that people don’t see.”
Miller, of course, wants nothing to do with crowing about his skills.
“I think I’m playing OK,” he said. “I try to do whatever I’m asked to do to the best of my ability every week.”
Playing OK? Miller stepped up last Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals and caught a 12-yard touchdown pass among his 4 receptions for 59 yards.
With Hines Ward injured, Miller did the dirty work in the middle of the field while the young greyhounds – Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders – combined for 15 catches, 266 yards and 2 touchdowns.
Miller was noticed a bit when a large chunk of turf stuck to his facemask and the Steelers had to pull him out of the game for a play. Other than that, his touchdown catch was just – ho hum – another part of another day at the office.
And Keisel thought Miller’s move after the touchdown was poetry in motion.
“He turns, looks for the closest official, hands him the ball, and goes back to the huddle,” Keisel said. “I love it.”
Miller believes that he and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger have seen so much in seven years together that there’s a genuine comfort level between the two. In those seven seasons, Miller’s caught 309 passes. He’s 20 behind the franchise’s all-time tight end, Elbie Nickel, and 50 from passing Louis Lipps as the third best overall. Miller just turned 29 last Saturday.
“I didn’t realize that,” Miller said of his statistical rise. “I’ve been here a few years now. I guess if I’m playing like I’m supposed to be playing those things should maybe happen along the way.”
One of these days Miller might break out and brag a little bit, and he might even spike a football in the end zone. Maybe that day is coming soon.
(To read the entire Heath Miller interview, click here and go to our message board.)