For years, and well really before most Steelers fan can remember, they have never used the Tight End as featured part of their offensive system. During the 80′s and 90′s it was the ground and pound, 3 yards and a cloud of dust offense. In the 2K era, once Heath Miller was drafted in 2005 in particular, they started to incorpate him a bit more that year and in the following 2006 season. Then in 2007 Miller’s receptions started to increase, with 47, 48, and then in 2009 when he had his most to date with 76. That trend started back down and in 2011 he finished the year with 51 catches for 631 yds. and 2 TD’s.
The real question is, when will Mike Tomlin start using this weapon he has to it’s potential? For that matter will they use 2011 rookie free agent Weslye Saunders in a more prominent role? One can argue whether or not the Steelers have the personnel at the Tight End position to pull off an offense like the Patriots run with Rob Gronkowski or Aaron Hernandez. Wouldn’t you like to see them try though at least? Generally speaking Miller is money and almost a guaranteed first down with every catch.
The Tight End is the sexy new thing in the NFL. It has been for years, and with good reason. It’s not just a passing fad, these guys are legitmate, game breaking, threats to which most defenses in the league today have no answer for. If you cover them with a linebacker, even a fast one, it’s an automatic mismatch in favor of the offense. If you cover them with a Safety then you leave yourself exposed down the field to Wide Receivers.
The Patriots use their Tight Ends better than anyone else in the league right now. It’s a key factor why Tom Brady can get rid of the ball so quickly and avoid the bone crunching sacks that Ben Roethlisberger takes every week. Big Ben is certainly capable of running that type of offense, he showed it in week 8 against the Patriots. Ben hooked up with Miller repeatedly on the opening drives and the Steelers marched right down the field.
Another benefit is that your short passing game becomes like a second running game. You eat the clock, keeping your offense on the field and wearing out the defense. You force the opposition to bring up more players in support, close to the line of scrimmage, which will eventually open things up deep. Just imagine seeing Miller, Saunders, or David Johnson getting catch after catch while Ben stands in the pocket and gets rid of the ball quickly. His jersey stays clean, he’s not beat up by week 6 of the season, it would be glorius. Imagine seeing Mike Wallace or Antonio Brown getting one on one coverage more often because the Safeties are playing closer to the line to stop the short pass. Guys like Isaac Redman are suddenly able to get to the 2nd level of the defense when everyone is keying on the Tight Ends.
The redzone efficiency improves greatly because you are not just looking to pound it in or send out 3 receivers into a pattern all bunched up with defenders in a 20 yd. shortended field. You now have them guessing if you are going to run, pass, and if you do pass who do they key on? In 2011 covering Heath Miller in the redzone was an after thought because Bruce Arians didn’t look to him near enough. Let’s make sure we realize that it’s not like Miller has been forgotten all together. Ben looks to him a few times a game and he normally comes through. Using the players at that position more in key situations give the defense something else to think about though and that’s always good for the offense.
Yes the team already has big play threats at Wide Receiver, but when you’re moving the ball down the field consistently everybody can get involed. That’s where using a Tight End more than 3-4 catches a game can make a big difference. Suddenly the 6 play drive that results in a punt is turned into a 12 play drive because you worked your way down the field utilizing all of the weapons available.
Having said all of that, we know the Steelers never follow the trends of the NFL. They do what they do because it works. That’s fine, but there’s nothing wrong with being a little more creative and keep the defense off balance. You don’t need to go deep to wallace every time the opportunity is there. The percentage of completing a 10 yd pass to Brown, Sanders, Miller or Redman is much greater than a deep ball to Wallace, even as good as he is. A first down is a first down, and nobody says you still can’t go deep too.
Here is a look at Heath Miller’s stats since he joined the Steelers in 2005.