I think I can speak for all of Steeler Nation when I say that we all dearly miss Heath Miller; the person and the player. From the timid interviews, to the ‘HEEEEEEEAAAAATHHH” howled throughout Heinz Field, or any stadium for that matter, when he made a single catch. When Jesse James makes a catch, a low-vested ‘Heeeaath’ gets murmured. As I shed a man tear… It’s just not the same.
The retired tight end was the safety net that was without a doubt trusted fully by Ben Roethlisberger. Most of the time, Miller was asked to move the chains on third down, or make an impact block to create room for the running back. It wouldn’t be incorrect to say that Miller was a ‘jack of all trades’ tight end, something the Steelers have been longing for since his departure.
Jesse James was drafted in 2015, the draft before Miller retired. Having only one season to learn from the gritty vet, James took in what he could. In 2016, with Miller retired, the Steelers decided to acquire a tight end who hit the free agency market. Ladarius Green, known as a receiving tight end, was going to change the Steelers offense as a vertical threat and put points up on the board. This never came to fruition, as Green suffered injuries that would have him playing in only six games as a Steeler, starting just two. The acquisition of Green inferred that the Steelers felt that James was in fact, not ready to be involved heavily in a high paced offence where he may steadily be counted on. With injuries to Green, James was forced to answer the call to be the number one tight end in a situation where he would be the number two tight end on almost every other team. This leaves Mike Tomlin, Todd Haley, and Roethlisberger and company without a high caliber tight end that the team has leaned on so heavily the past ten years.
In the 2017 NFL Draft, the tight end class was loaded with talent. The Steelers decided many times to pass on a tight end in favor of other positions. This may have been due to lack of value, lack of interest, or a higher faith in Jesse James than we anticipated. The third year tight end out of Penn State was slated to be the clear-cut number one tight end to start the 2017 season. James had ups and downs in Training Camp and preseason, which would lead Kevin Colbert to trade for tight end Vance McDonald. McDonald is a much better blocker and receiving threat than James, so the trade hoped to fuel the fire for competition at a position that needed an infusion of talent. Since acquiring McDonald, not much has changed. The position as a whole continues to be targeted infrequently and makes the offense that much less dynamic.
Jesse James in 31 games with the Steelers:
96 targets (3.1 targets per game)
65 receptions (2.1 receptions per game)
545 yards (17.6 yards per game)
6 touchdowns (roughly 1 touchdown every 5 games)
Heath Miller in 168 games with the Steelers:
825 targets (4.9 targets per game)
592 receptions (3.5 receptions per game)
6569 yards (39.1 yards per game)
45 touchdowns (1 touchdown every 3 games)
Nobody is saying James is the next Heath Miller, but these are not statistics to be enthused about. If Vance McDonald isn’t the long term answer at the position, the Steelers need to address it moving forward.
Remember how great of a blocker Miller was? He was physical, reliable and consistent. James doesn’t provide any of these attributes relevant to the blocking needed out of a tight end. It is an aspect of his game that has not come along like we all anticipated. Actually, James has been a disappointment as a blocker, given his size and strength coming out of Penn State.
I am not here to downplay Jesse James. He has done very well for a fifth round pick that was selected to be a number two tight end for the Steelers for a long time. Both the receiving and blocking from the position has been lackluster since Miller retired, and it is not all pointing at James. Ladarius Green was an epic fail due to his injuries, but he was a horrendous blocker as well. It is up to McDonald to take the lead at the position, or an overhaul will need to commence.
I am here to say that the offensive struggles in the red zone, on short yardage downs and in key situations, the offense could really benefit from a player like Heath. Someone who’s role is tough to peg, is he blocking, running a route or both? Another weapon that defenses have to take notice of. Right now, we don’t have that from the tight end position. This is why I was enamored with Evan Engram during the pre-draft process of the 2017 NFL Draft. Engram can line up essentially anywhere and play many roles, which are always unpredictable for defenses.
All in all, we were all spoiled with Heath Miller. We knew what we were getting every season, every game and every play. This offense misses Miller and as Roethlisberger said via his interview at Steelers.com, he does too. We miss you, Heath.