Will the Steelers Survive Heath Miller's Recovery?

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Will the Steelers Survive Heath Miller's Recovery?
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As if eliminating the Pittsburgh Steelers from the playoffs in 2012 didn't damage their division rivals enough, the Cincinnati Bengals also may have ensured a hated foe gets off to a slow start in 2013.  During their Week 16 tilt in Pittsburgh, the Bengals dealt the Steelers a double blow, ending their postseason dreams and injuring their star tight end, Heath Miller, in one fell swoop.

Miller, who had been enjoying one of his best seasons as a pro, tore his ACL, MCL and PCL, and missed the rest of the season.  The injury also cost the Steelers 2012 MVP his second Pro Bowl appearance.

More importantly, getting back on the field will require that Miller undergo surgery and months of rehab.  And if that process drags on, the tight end may miss some of the Steelers’ games at the beginning of the 2013 regular season.

Losing one of its only two Pro Bowl selections from this year for even a few games at the beginning of next season will obviously hurt the Steelers’ chances of making it back to the playoffs.  But how much will the offense miss Miller?  And do the Steelers have anyone who can make up for the lost production?

Unfortunately, it looks like the answers are “a lot” and “probably not.”

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Given that he was voted team MVP, it is not a huge surprise that Miller was enormously important to Pittsburgh’s offense this past season.  By nearly every measure, he was one of the team’s most irreplaceable players on that side of the ball.

For starters, Miller was the most effective weapon in Pittsburgh’s offensive arsenal.  Despite only getting the third-most targets per route run of the team’s regular receivers, the tight end finished the season with the most receptions, second-most receiving yards and most receiving touchdowns of any Steelers player.

As a result of this efficient production, Miller had the highest Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) of any skill-position player on Pittsburgh’s roster in 2012, meaning he had more value per play than any of the team’s quarterbacks, running backs, receivers or other tight ends.

Miller also had a huge impact on the Steelers’ chances of winning games.  The team’s expected final score rose by 0.39 points per play when the big tight end was on the field, and its probability of winning a game increased by eight percent if he appeared in it.

Number 83 also brought some much-needed stability to an offense whose players missed 70 games due to various injuries last season.  Miller was almost literally an every-down player, appearing in 93 percent of the team’s offensive snaps—a figure that even even includes the plays he missed in Weeks 16 and 17 due to the knee injury.

Somewhat harder to quantify but no less important are the ways in which Miller made life easier for the rest of the Steelers’ receiving corps.  By serving as a dangerous receiving threat on routes across the middle and up the seam, the tight end kept opposing defensive backs and linebackers from dropping back to take deeper routes away from wideouts Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders.

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If Miller misses games in 2013 while recovering from his knee injury, finding a player who can match his production and impact on the Steelers’ game-to-game performance clearly will not be easy.  His projected replacement, David Paulson, did not set the world on fire in 2012 or show any signs that he could emerge as a receiving threat on par with Miller.

In the limited played time that he saw in 2012, Paulson was a non-factor in the Steelers’ passing game.  Despite finishing 82nd out of 107 tight ends in Pro Football Focus's run blocking rankings, the backup tight end spent more than half of his total snaps trying to clear a path for Pittsburgh’s running backs.

On the 98 snaps in which he ran a pass route, he served as little more than a decoy.  The team’s quarterbacks targeted Paulson on only about eight percent of those routes, and he finished the year with only seven receptions.  Even in Week 17 against the Cleveland Browns, when Miller’s absence allowed Paulson to accumulate 24.6 percent of his total snaps running pass routes, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw the rookie’s way only once.  And the tight end didn’t even catch that ball.

Could Paulson emerge as more of a weapon in Pittsburgh’s passing attack with more usage in the passing game?  Possibly.  But should the Steelers feel optimistic that the second-year player can come anywhere close to approximating Miller’s production?  No.

Advanced metrics indicate that Paulson was not a hidden gem who just needed more playing time to blossom into a key contributor.  The rookie finished the season with the eighth-lowest Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement (DYAR) among NFL tight ends.  DYAR is a Football Outsiders statistic that quantifies a player’s total output relative to a league-average peer after adjusting for the strength of his team’s opponents.  Paulson’s -43 DYAR means he was a fair bit worse than a replacement-level player last year.

Similarly, Pro Football Focus ranked Paulson as the 11th worst tight end overall in the NFL last year and the eighth worst at catching passes.

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The only other Steeler to log any appreciable time at tight end last season was Leonard Pope, who appeared in 82 of Pittsburgh’s offensive plays.  Like Paulson, the massive Pope was mainly used as run blocker.  Nearly 60 percent of the snaps for which he took the field in 2012 were running plays.

The backup tight end ran just 14 pass patterns last year and was targeted on only three of those.  Though he did make good use of those limited opportunities, catching three passes and scoring two touchdowns, he appears to be more of a sixth offensive lineman and occasional red-zone target than a consistent receiving threat like Miller.

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With no tight ends ready or able to step in for Miller, the Steelers probably will have to look to a slot receiver to make up for his lost production, serve as the team’s primary threat over the middle and up the seam and be a similarly effective contributor in offensive coordinator Todd Haley's short-pass-heavy game plan.  Unfortunately, Pittsburgh may not have a receiver who can do that in 2013.

Had Miller been injured in 2012, the team probably could have used Sanders to fill at least some of the tight end’s role.  The Steelers’ third receiver lined up in the slot for about two-thirds of his snaps last year and was a pretty effective weapon from that position.  He finished 32nd among all NFL receivers with 141 DYAR, the highest total for any Pittsburgh wideout.  In addition, he led the team’s receivers in win probability added per game (WPA/G) and expected points added per play (EPA/P), meaning he increased the team’s chances of winning more than any of his peers.

Though it would have hurt the running game to have a slot receiver playing in place of a tight end, using Sanders would have mitigated the impact of Miller’s absence on the passing game had the latter missed time in 2012.  If Miller’s targets had gone to Sanders, the receiver would have ended up with about the same number of catches and yards at the end of the year.

The problem with this solution, of course, is that Miller may miss games in 2013, not 2012.  The Steelers also may start this coming season without Wallace, who appears likely to leave the team in free agency.  If he does depart, Sanders probably would become the team’s second receiver.  Unless the Steelers luck into a starting wideout in the draft or somehow parlay their still nonexistent cap space into a legitimate second receiver, they will have to choose between splitting Sanders out or re-signing Plaxico Burress and hoping that the 35-year-old receiver miraculously returns to his 2007 form.

Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

If Sanders does move from the slot to replace Wallace, the only player currently on the roster who ran more than 50 routes at that position last year was Jerricho Cotchery.  The 30-year-old receiver was either slightly above or slightly below average last year, depending on how his performance was measured, and probably wouldn’t be a disastrous option for the Steelers in the slot position if Miller were healthy.  However, expecting him to play anything close to the same role as Miller is entirely too optimistic.

So given the lack of viable options for replacing Miller, what can the Steelers do at this point?  Unfortunately, not a lot.  They just have to hope that the tight end makes a speedy recovery.  Perhaps a visit to Ray Lewis’s doctors would help?

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