The respect Steelers tight end Heath Miller has among the Steelers is pretty much unparalleled.
With 71 catches (five short of his career high) and career highs of 816 yards and eight touchdowns, Miller crumpled slowly and seemingly in recognition of what just happened.
The dreaded pop came from his right knee on a running play against the Cincinnati Bengals. The Steelers' playoff fate on the line in that game, they would finish it without their most consistent receiver of the 2012 season.
There was no contract dispute with Miller before the season started. Miller supporters, as quiet as Miller himself is, boasted status like "best all-around tight end in the game," particularly after a 2012 season that saw him flat-out annihilate Eagles cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha and Jets defensive back Ellis Lankster on receiver screens in wins earlier in the season.
He did the dirty work, as he usually does, without the high-level praise bestowed on former teammates like wide receiver Mike Wallace - often considered roughly the opposite of "all around" talented.
Such general and somewhat intangible accolades are usually cliché - the guy who doesn't catch 100 passes for 1,500 yards must somehow be doing something equally important but less praise-worthy - but with Miller, that's just how it goes. His workmanlike manner has enamored Steeler Nation, as well as his teammates.
Defensive end Brett Keisel, a teammate of Miller's since the tight end was drafted in 2006, rushed onto the field to help Miller off it - he may as well have tried to carry him off on his shoulders, if one were to consider the importance Miller had in 2012. The team MVP thrived in offensive coordinator Todd Haley's offense, earning his second career Pro Bowl trip in the process.
In a bitterly similar metaphor to the Steelers' 2012 season, Miller's injury was as bad as it could have been; the tearing of all three ligaments put the start to the 2013 season in question. He's been seen so far running on side fields during the Steelers' Organized Team Activities, but he's still a near certainty to start training camp on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list.
The same kinds of designations were used to describe former Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall, who tore his ACL, eerily, against Cleveland in Week 16 of the 2011 season. Mendenhall would start the preseason on the PUP list, but was not placed on the regular season PUP, meaning he was active from the start.
Placement on the regular season PUP means a player is not eligible to play until Week 6.
Mendenhall never looked the same in 2012 as he did in 2011. He wasn't particularly explosive, and had, for all intents and purposes, his worst season as a pro. He wasn't retained by the Steelers in free agency and is now in Arizona.
In the event Miller is closer in rehabilitation to where Mendenhall was, just six months after the injury occurred, the Steelers signed Matt Spaeth, who, alongside Miller, won a Super Bowl with the Steelers at the end of the 2008 season. If Miller is unable to go, Spaeth will be the team's strong side tight end.
This will essentially force Haley to change the standard for the position. Spaeth is a solid blocker with a freakishly long frame (an advantage Miller doesn't have), but is not considered to be as much of a receiving threat and is as likely to duplicate Miller's 106 targets from 2012 as Antonio Brown's odds of being the team's starting fullback.
How much of the Steelers' offense will be altered due to Miller's injury, and likely inability to start in Week 1? Even with Spaeth, a competent contributor in an offense like Haley's, the lack of Miller will give the Steelers a distinct flavor at the position.
It's a flavor that will be enjoyed, if not savored, by alley defenders across the league.
More from Behind the Steel Curtain:
- 2013 Steelers position preview: Wide Receivers
- 2013 Steelers position preview: Cornerbacks
- 2013 Steelers position preview: Linebackers
- 2013 Steelers position preview: Tight Ends
- 2013 Steelers position preview: Running backs
- 2013 Steelers position preview: Quarterbacks
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