By Christopher DiMarino
A lot of the pieces I write have involved tight ends as the subject. I believe it’s an important position on the field and on the Steelers depth chart. Many figured Heath Miller would get more involved in the new offense and it appears to be heading in that direction. With the increased focus on the run game, this was to be expected. Also, let’s not forget the Steelers don’t have many other options at tight end or fullback. While this offense may stutter or look very different, I think it will be a successful year for Ben. This can also be true for Miller, especially considering the emergence of other weapons has also taken the spotlight off him.
Upper management has called for a more traditional Steeler offensive transformation. This means running the ball. Todd Haley was hired, likely as an extension of this change. While not a running guru, he was likely given explicit instructions on how to cater his new offense. This new offense will mean running to simplify the playbook early. Rookie offensive linemen can build confidence and chemistry run blocking. Do you need any more reasons that the Steelers will be a run heavy team this year? This might seem directionally wrong in a league that is turning more towards passing, but I am happy about this. Firstly, the Steelers are a running franchise. While this might just be a stereotype due for change, they have a history of being good at running the ball. That opens up a lot things.
Running the ball successfully allows a team to play the possession game, run the clock late in games with the lead and execute the play action. Controlling the clock and dictating the flow is a very undervalued weapon. Also, let’s not forget that you’re decreasing your injury odds by telling your offensive line to block forward, and getting the ball away from your smaller (typically) quarterback and wide receivers and into the hands of a more rugged running back. Finally we have come to the point of relevance to this article, play action. The more you run, the more sense it makes to have a good blocking tight end on the field. He becomes an impromptu extra offensive lineman, until he breaks away on a play action and stings you over the middle. Miller is good enough to beat most defenses as a receiving tight end, but he is at his best in play action situations. The Steelers have the speed at wide receiver to stretch defenses and back up the safeties and open up big gaps for him.
I was a big proponent of Coby Fleener this draft. He likely wasn’t chosen because a run first mentality would’ve limited his impact (and David DeCastro was available!). But without other good pass catching options, there is a large drop off after Miller. None of the Steelers backups will scare defenses enough to warrant much attention. This creates a unique opportunity for a second tight end to prosper, but will likely lead to more 3 wide receiver type formations. Let’s not also forget about the twin back formations that would unleash a guy like Chris Rainey. So while this team is overloaded with weapons, when it comes to tight ends in the passing game, Miller is the main guy.
I think many fans are scared about the playoffs. Let’s face it, even if you run well during the year it is very tough to run successfully in the playoffs. In fact, the past two years have had Super Bowl champs who were in the basement during the season for rushing. I see this as an opportunity. The playoffs are a long time from now and while the run heavy theme will be apparent early, it will fade with time. The more time Haley has with Ben Roethlisberger, the more passing this offense will do. The result will be a playoff team with not as much tape as most on their passing plays. This gives them the upper hand in planning around defenses. So while the offense, in particular passing, may stutter early, I expect it to come into its own later in the year.
I’ve said it all along that I like being the underdog. If analysts think the Steelers will have an off year, then success will only drive them under their radar. Miller being featured in this new offense is equal parts common sense and speculation. Miller is capable of Pro-bowl caliber numbers; we just have to wait and see if it happens. The one thing that puts me at ease is that I know regardless if Miller has 1000 yards or not, he will be a big part of this team’s success.