When Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Heath Miller tore his ACL, MCL and PCL in the final game of the 2012 season, it was obvious that the Steelers would need to find a way to minimize the impact of his absence in the following season. Considering both the nature and the timing of the injury, the odds seemed quite high that Miller would miss at least a few games once September rolled around.
Miller started training camp on the physically unable to perform list and won't likely be coming off any time soon. There's also a chance that Miller starts the season on the reserve PUP list, keeping him sidelined for the first six games.
General manager Kevin Colbert said earlier this month that Miller won't be ready for Week 1, though his rehabilitation is going well and as planned, so at least the Steelers will have him back at some point this season.
Until that time, however, the Steelers must figure out how to make up for the loss of the seemingly irreplaceable Miller.
Miller's role in Pittsburgh's offense as a do-it-all tight end with the best on-field chemistry with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will be a large one to fill. The responsibility won't solely fall to free-agent signing (and former Steeler) Matt Spaeth and second-year player David Paulson—it will take more than the two tight ends to make up for the reliable yardage that Miller would have produced at full health.
First, there's the fact that Spaeth is a blocking tight end who performs occasional receiving duties, while Miller split his time between blocking and receiving last year in almost equal amounts. In 2012, Miller played a total of 1,014 offensive snaps and, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), 478 were as a receiver while 535 were as a run- or pass-blocker. In contrast, Spaeth played 430 offensive snaps for the Chicago Bears last year, with 99 as a receiver and 331 as a blocker. Unsurprisingly, he caught just six passes for 28 yards and a touchdown in 2012.
Further, Spaeth was carted off the practice field with an injury on Wednesday, according to Mark Kaboly of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
Depending on the injury's severity, the Steelers may have to look elsewhere, such as to fullback Will Johnson or tight end David Johnson, who is also on the PUP list at present, to take up Spaeth's blocking snaps and to catch a pass or six. Spaeth is still being evaluated, according to the Tribune-Review's Ray Fittipaldo, though it doesn't presently appear like one that will sideline him for the long term. His preseason availability, though, does come into question. (UPDATE: Spaeth suffered a foot injury that will keep him off the field for eight to 10 weeks according to ESPN and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette).
Paulson is more of a receiving tight end, but his relative inexperience resulted in him getting little playing time last season. He had 316 total snaps last year, but the breakdown was a bit more similar to Miller's than Spaeth's, with 104 as a receiver and 222 in pass and run blocking. His receiving numbers were akin to Spaeth's, however, with seven catches for 51 yards.
While Spaeth and Paulson can certainly handle Miller's blocking duties this season, neither is well suited to transform into as reliable of a receiving target. Paulson should have increased chances as a receiver, but the Steelers need to find someone else to handle the passes that would otherwise to go Miller.
A good place to start is with Antonio Brown.
Brown, who had 787 yards and five touchdowns on 66 receptions last year, has one important thing in common with Miller—he does most of his work over the middle of the field. Based on Pro Football Focus' charting (subscription required), 25 of Brown's catches, 388 of his yards and two of his touchdowns came between the numbers at a distance of zero to 19 yards down the field in 2012.
Miller, who caught 71 passes in 2012, for 816 yards and eight touchdowns, had 49 of those catches in the same area of the field and earned 628 of his yards and four of his touchdowns from them.
It seems to be a natural fit that Brown's targets, particularly over the middle, would increase to compensate for Miller's absence, however long it ends up being.
There are drawbacks to sending Brown over the middle as often as Miller, though, and the key can be found in the two's yards-after-the-catch numbers from last year. Though both Miller and Brown were productive from zero to 19 yards deep midfield, Miller had 250 yards after the catch to Brown's 115.
Though Brown is fast, which makes him an asset in that portion of the field, he lacks Miller's size (Brown is billed as 5'10" and 186 pounds while Miller is 6'5" and 256 pounds), which makes it somewhat easier for defenders to stop him if they can get a hand on him.
Further, leading a receiver to the middle of the field is often dangerous. Safeties and coverage linebackers in particular roam free to not just stop a big gain but to lay on some of the more brutal hits in the passing game. Though Brown has the skill set and the history of doing heavy and productive midfield work, the Steelers also have to be careful with their biggest investment in the receiving corps. They cannot afford to be without Brown because of an injury, especially while Miller is also out.
So while Brown should see more midfield targets, and targets in general during Miller's absence, he can't be the only one catching those between-the-numbers passes.
Luckily, the Steelers have a crop of running backs capable of catching passes, particularly rookie Le'Veon Bell.
Bell was asked by NFL.com's Michael Fabiano about his role in the passing offense—both as a pass-blocker (an area in which he had little expertise coming into the NFL but also one where he's improving rapidly) and as a receiver.
Bell said, "I’m a bigger guy, so I can be in the game on third downs whether it’s me protecting the quarterback or whether it’s me getting open for the quarterback on checkdowns," before comparing himself to fellow backs Arian Foster and Steven Jackson.
If Bell is to be believed, then he should be a useful component of the passing game, particularly while Miller continues to recover.
Last year, the Steelers' two primary backs, Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman, combined for 48 passing targets, 37 receptions and 350 receiving yards. Targets to running backs were even lower in 2011 when Bruce Arians was offensive coordinator. Though current coordinator Todd Haley showed an increased willingness to get passes to Pittsburgh's running backs in 2012, he'll have to call for more of them this year.
The Steelers cannot simply ignore the shallow part of midfield because their best player at that level and distance isn't ready to play, after all. And they cannot constantly open up Brown to the kind of hits that take place on that part of the field. Bell could thus prove to be the perfect pairing with Brown over the middle this year, along with the occasional assistance of Spaeth and Paulson (and Redman and Dwyer, too).
Last year, Miller was the biggest beneficiary of Haley's ball-control system, so the Steelers cannot simply adjust by having Spaeth and Paulson on the field and assuming drives will be just as productive without him. Though he won't likely miss the whole year, which is doubtlessly good for the team, Miller's absence needs to make as minimal an impact as possible.
By getting creative with who catches the over-the-middle passes generally thrown to Miller, the Steelers will find themselves much, much closer to that happening.