There was a sense of desperation when the Steelers trotted nearly-healthy Heath Miller onto the field against the Chicago Bears in Week 3 last season. During that game, and coming off an upsetting 16-9 loss to Tennessee, Pittsburgh had lost two starters (Maurkice Pouncey and Larry Foote) and a key role player (running back/kick returner LaRod Stephens-Howling) to season-ending injuries. After a weakly-competed loss to Cincinnati, the Steelers sat at 0-2 for the first time in a decade, and it seemed like they were putting Miller out on the field for inspiration, more than anything else.
Maybe there was more to it than that, but fans were no doubt excited, at least until Chicago crushed the Steelers 40-24, sending them to 0-3 and, with it, scaling back the height of fan expectations for the team.
Miller didn't save the proverbial day. Not that he should have been given such expectations, but that's the price players pay in Steeler Nation sometimes. Miller didn't even look like himself in the game. He wasn't limping, but he wasn't fast. He wasn't strong at the point of attack. He didn't seem to be either of those things until much later in the year, but the Steelers were decimated by injuries at the tight end position (they had lost back-up Matt Spaeth, the guy they brought in to help ease Miller back into the position, during training camp, and then lost David Johnson by the end of their Week 6 win over the Jets. The Steelers simply didn't have a capable starting tight end, and their offense sagged because of it.
Miller was still a step above David Paulson but so much of their wide passing game depended on a strong move-blocking presence which they just didn't have until Miller began returning to the form he had shown in 2012.
So which Miller will the Steelers have Sunday when they take on the Cleveland Browns in Week 1?
"Heath is night and day from where he was last year at this time," Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley told Ray Fittipaldo of the Post Gazette. "He wasn’t even ready to go that first game, and it took awhile to get back to where he was close feeling 100 percent. He’s 100 percent ready to go. I’m excited to about him being out there for us."
Don't feel uncomfortable pointing out this is what we heard last year. Of course he's 100 percent now. He was 100 percent last year too. As soon as you read of a coach saying "He's only about 75 percent, but we're going to play him anyway," save the clip, it's historic.
Miller looked solid enough in the preseason, but there were a few times he just didn't look able to gain that extra and pivotal step on the would-be tackler. Miller's role on quick screens is to pull out from the tight end spot and block the Most Dangerous Man (the guy in the best position to make the tackle, whomever that might be given the situation). Markus Wheaton ran an end-around patiently against the Giants, picking up 10 yards, but he never reached full speed because he was waiting for Miller to get ahead of him. He never did. Instead, Wheaton basically sat on his back and leaned forward. He got 10 yards, but it's still somewhat concerning.
Maybe that will change, or maybe he just didn't want to go all-out on the play. We'll find out tomorrow, but we heard Miller was fine last year before Week 3. While the team won't admit on the record he wasn't, statements made by Haley now are all but confirming that. And I'm still not sure if it's accurate.