For years—since 2005 to be exact—Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Heath Miller has been quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's go-to receiver. He's been reliable, catching 441 of a career 572 pass targets. He's been productive, always averaging double-digit yards per reception and last year was tied with Mike Wallace for the team's most receiving touchdowns with eight.
However, when Miller went down at the end of the 2012 season with tears to his ACL, MCL and PCL, the question became, who would replace him while he recovers? Though Miller didn't miss much of the 2013 season, returning in Week 3, he hasn't been the same player.
While he's still catching a good deal of the passes thrown his way (33 of 46), his 10.3 yards per reception are the lowest of his career. He has only one touchdown this season and, most uncharacteristically, has dropped four passes.
Miller's struggles haven't hurt the Steelers as much as one would think, though. This is because they have found another receiver who has proven himself just as useful—Jerricho Cotchery.
Cotchery, a 10-year NFL veteran in his third year with the Steelers, is somewhat of an unlikely candidate as the receiver to fill Miller's shoes. In his first two seasons in Pittsburgh, Cotchery had only two touchdowns and 33 catches. He simply provided depth behind a receiving corps that featured Wallace, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders, and he only took the field as a substitute or injury replacement.
2013 is Cotchery's best year since 2009.
This year, however, with Wallace gone and Miller not his usual self, Cotchery's role has expanded, and he's proven just as invaluable to his team as Miller has in seasons past.
Both Miller and Cotchery have been targeted by Roethlisberger 49 times so far this season. Cotchery has caught 34 passes, and Miller has hauled in 33. But that's where the similarities between the two players' seasons end. Cotchery has turned his catches into 503 yards and seven touchdowns, and is averaging 14.8 yards per reception. Miller has only 341 yards on his receptions and just one score.
No Steelers player has more touchdowns thus far than Cotchery, and only one, Brown, has more first downs. Despite being 31 years old and never really known for his speed, Cotchery has created mismatches in coverage that Roethlisberger has been able to successfully exploit.
Cotchery is physical and has great hands, which makes him an ideal target over the middle of the field, something that used to be Miller's sole domain. Indeed, the majority of Cotchery's targets—22—this year have come in the middle of the field, between zero and nine yards beyond the line of scrimmage.
#Steelers stat of the day: Jerricho Cotchery combined TD receptions 2009-2012: 7 (131 rec) Cotchery TD receptions this season: 7 (34 rec)— Will Graves (@WillGravesAP) November 20, 2013
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), they have resulted in 16 receptions for 171 yards and 82 yards after the catch, along with two touchdowns. Cotchery also has seven targets and five receptions for 84 yards, 24 yards after the catch and one score from midfield between 10 and 19 yards beyond the line of scrimmage.
Miller, too, is seeing his fair share of midfield targets, with 18 from zero to nine yards beyond the line of scrimmage, resulting in 15 catches for 130 yards and 66 yards after the catch, though none have been for a touchdown. Miller doesn't see deep targets in the middle of the field, however, with just seven targets and two receptions; rather, he gets more passes behind the line of scrimmage, with six targets and five receptions for 28 yards and one score.
It's not that Miller isn't valuable, it's just that he's a veteran player still dealing with the aftereffects of a very serious knee injury, one that he's less than a year removed from. The Steelers needed someone to step up, and it has been Cotchery who has taken up that mantle. Further, Cotchery's usefulness as a receiver has allowed Miller to do more blocking, which helps considering how much turnover the Steelers have seen (yet again) on their offensive line.
Cotchery also benefits from the defensive attention being paid to both Brown and Miller. Teams seem to have not figured out how important or dangerous Cotchery is, and he's taken advantage of single coverage. Their inability to defend him is leading the receiver to his best season since 2009, when he played for the New York Jets.
It's impressive that a slot receiver north of 30 years old has been such an impact player this year. Steelers safety Ryan Clark (via ESPN's Scott Brown) described Cotchery's role adeptly after the team's Week 11 defeat of the Detroit Lions, in which Cotchery caught three passes, one for a score:
Sometimes they have Ferraris out there and sometimes you've got some Bentleys. Jerricho is a conversion van. He's always going to be there. He's going to tote the family well. He's going to be safe. He makes every catch he's supposed to and makes all the plays he should make. He's an awesome player. He's underrated in this league but he's eating people up in the slot.
Indeed, the "conversion van" is one of the Steelers' most important offensive weapons this year. When they needed someone to take on Miller's mantle as the reliable option, Cotchery has stepped up. For a team that has struggled to score points and move down the field, Cotchery's contributions have been significant.