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Steelers News: Vance McDonald gets crash course on Heath Miller

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When people think of Pittsburgh Steelers tight ends, they think of one name — Heath Miller.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

There are some players who are just irreplaceable. Sure, you have to fill their spot on the roster, but you’ll never truly replace that player on the field or in fans’ minds.

I’m hard pressed to think of a member of the Steelers who would fit this description more than fan favorite Heath Miller. Everyone loved Heath. Team-first player, never brought undue attention to himself, quality guy off of the field and who didn’t love screaming “HEEEEEEEEATH” at the top of their lungs whether they were sitting on the 50-yard line at Heinz Field, or in the basement of their house?

Yeah, being the guy to follow Heath Miller isn’t easy—just ask Jesse James who still hears the “HEATH” chant whenever he makes a catch at home. The Steelers’ newest tight end, Vance McDonald, is learning about Miller, but he’s using him as a standard that he’s hoping to achieve while wearing the black-and-gold.

Lofty expectations, but if you were to mold your game after a tight end who was great at both blocking and catching, Miller would be a great one to pick.

Time to catch up with the news going on outside the walls of BTSC...

Ben Roethlisberger made no secret that Heath Miller was his security blanket in the pass game.

On Wednesday, the Steelers quarterback credited their years of practicing and playing together for that, calling Miller “probably the best teammate I've ever played with and one of the best men I've ever known in my life.”

“Those kind of things all combined to be a great football player and a comfort to me,” Roethlisberger said. “And I think the tight end position is just naturally kind of that spot, too.”

Never was Miller more valuable to Big Ben than in AFC North games against the Cincinnati Bengals, who visit Heinz Field on Sunday.

Miller had 78 catches for 721 yards and four touchdowns in 20 regular-season games against the Bengals, including two 10-catch games in 2015 before retiring.

Which adds greater importance to Vance McDonald making his first catch of the season this past Sunday at Kansas City, a 26-yarder on a first-and-10 at the Steelers 1.

Talk about perfect timing.

Not only did McDonald's catch spark a 12-play, 93-yard scoring drive, but Big Ben called it a “big coming-out play,” one that should help build a rapport between Roethlisberger and McDonald.

“I hope so,” Roethlisberger said. “I think he's got a lot of confidence. He's learning this offense every day, getting more and more reps, more practice time, more communication with me. I see steps every day, every week.”

McDonald had 54 receptions for 717 yards and seven touchdowns the past two seasons with the San Francisco 49ers before being acquired in a late-August trade.

Prior to Sunday in KC, he had yet to make his mark on the Steelers’ offense. Instead, his biggest play came on special teams at Chicago, when he chased down Bears cornerback Marcus Cooper for a touchdown-saving tackle and strip at the 1-yard line.

Roethlisberger overthrew McDonald in the first quarter against the Chiefs, but they later connected in the second.

“It's a big situation in the game and a lot of stress on the offense,” McDonald said. “You're thinking, ‘We've got to get at least one first down.' It's nice, you get the first one and we're just going to build on it.”

Don't look now, angry Pittsburgh talk-show caller, but one of your favorite punching bags is no more.

It took six draft picks over the past three years, two late-preseason free-agent signings plus unearthing a practice-squad hidden gem. But the Steelers secondary has become, by definition, elite.

Don't believe it? Look at the numbers.

The Steelers are No. 1 in the NFL in passing yards per game allowed, No. 2 in yards per attempt allowed, No. 5 in opponent passer rating, tied for second in touchdown passes allowed and tied for first in 40-plus-yard passes allowed.

“We know it's only Week 6, and it won't matter until the end of the season, but we pride ourselves in that and I feel like we are doing a good job,” safety Sean Davis said. “We have to continue working hard and continue to stay at that No. 1 (yardage) spot.”

Having the league's No. 1 pass defense used to be a regular occurrence for the Steelers. They held that ranking three times from 2008-12.

Recently, though, it’s been a different story, even given the Steelers' success as a team. During their run of three consecutive playoff seasons, the Steelers ranked 27th, 30th and 16th against the pass.

It's only six weeks into the season, but within the past three years, the Steelers have gone from one of the league's worst pass defenses to average—and now to the best.

“(Being No. 1 in 2017) is what we expected to do and how we are capable of playing,” said safety Mike Mitchell, the only starter who has been with the team the past three seasons. “So no one in our locker room is shocked. No one in our organization is shocked.”

While passing defense is a more global consideration than just cornerbacks and safeties, it's among the defensive backs where the biggest change in personnel has taken place over the past 18 months.

Since the 2016 draft, the Steelers have added cornerback Artie Burns (first-round pick), Davis (second-round pick), nickel back Mike Hilton (practice-squad signee), cornerback Joe Haden (signed 11 days before the 2017 season opener) and safety J.J. Wilcox (traded for a week before the 2017 opener).

That doesn't factor in the second- and fourth-round picks from 2015 (both are out of football) or the third- and fifth-round picks used this spring (cornerbacks Cameron Sutton and Brian Allen have yet to play on defense).

The Steelers made an effort to turn over their secondary, and it flipped the results.

“We want to be the No. 1 pass defense in the league and the No. 1 defense in the league,” Burns said. “That's always our goal. We will do whatever we need to do to get it.”

Just in time for Halloween, the Cincinnati Zombies pop up in the home of the “Night of the Living Dead” this week.

They were dead and buried as the Bengals last month after they started 0-3. Coach Marvin Lewis even extinguished his offensive coordinator after they didn’t score a touchdown in their first two games. There were rumors that quarterback Andy Dalton might be next.

But like zombies in George Romero’s movie filmed in Pittsburgh the same year Cincinnati’s NFL team began playing in 1968, the Bengals became the undead — not counting offensive coordinator Ken Zampese, who remains departed.

They come to Heinz Field on a two-game win streak with the idea that a victory against the Steelers will put them right back in the thick of things in the AFC North Division at 3-3 and drop the Steelers to 4-3.

“It gives us an opportunity to get back to .500 on the season,’’ Lewis said. “We know it’s an important game for us.”

Their turnaround started, as many do, with a 31-7 victory in Cleveland far more impressive than the Steelers’ three-point squeaker to open the season there. The Bengals followed with a 20-16 win at home against Buffalo and then had last week off.

There also was the return of linebacker Vontaze Burfict, not from the dead but from a three-game NFL suspension for a typical Burfict move — an illegal hit on Kansas City’s fullback in the preseason. His past caught up to him again in the form of a five-game suspension, later reduced.

The Bengals are 2-0 since his return.

“I think it started when Burfict came back,’’ Steelers guard Ramon Foster said. “He is the lifeline of that team. They’re on a two-game win streak. That says a lot about who he is as a player, him and Pacman’s leadership, whether people like him or not, they do make that team go.”

The Steelers are really good. They’re 4-2. Only two NFL teams, the Chiefs and Eagles, have a better record. And the Chiefs are now roadkill.

The Steelers’ defense is really good. They rank No. 7 overall, No. 1 against the pass. This is thanks primarily to a younger core that could grow together in Pittsburgh for years to come.

The Steelers’ running game is really good. It might be the league’s best if accounting for the slow start everyone knew Le’Veon Bell would have. As it is, it’s good enough that he trampled Kansas City’s proud defense to the point that Andy Reid could only say afterward, “They ran when they wanted to run.”

The Steelers’ passing game hasn’t been anywhere near as good as it should be, but that’s the one shortcoming you’d have accepted upon entering this season, if only because it’s got by far the best chance of being corrected. Antonio Brown is the league’s best receiver, still and all. The franchise quarterback might be bouncing back. It’s a problem, but it’s the ideal problem.

Oh, and the Steelers are comprised of really, really good people, by and large.

Yeah, I’m going there.

I’ve got no idea what’s gotten into seemingly the better portion of this franchise’s fan base of late but—wow—it’s become maybe the most joyless bunch in all of professional sports, at least judging from my gauge of the Internet, radio and the like. And no, this isn’t the norm. It hasn’t always been like this. Not ever that I can recall. It’s as if some of the team’s own fans actually perk up when they lose, if only because it further feeds whatever anger they’d felt the previous week or month—or even a year if we rewind all the way back to Foxborough.