The role of an NFL tight end continues to evolve, as increasingly complex offenses demand a more versatile athlete with equally adept blocking skills and pass-catching abilities.
There are few Kellen Winslows — gifted tight ends with remarkable hands and run-blocking skills. There are fewer John Mackeys — strong, fast tight ends who bore through defenders without flinching.
Heath Miller, the Steelers' steady yet hardly flashy tight end, is neither Winslow nor Mackey. But he is reliable and efficient. Miller, said quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, "is my comfort blanket."
The Steelers were comfortable and confident with Miller when they inked him to a five-year deal worth $35.3 million in 2009, making him among the highest-paid players at the position.
Even though the Steelers are 2-1 heading into their Sunday matchup with the Houston Texans (2-1) at Reliant Stadium, their running game is stuck in neutral. Most fingers are pointing at a dysfunctional offensive line, but Miller is feeling the heat, too.
"Our (tight ends) group takes a lot of pride in being able to do both blocking and catching," said Miller, who caught five of the six passes thrown to him in a 23-20 win at Indianapolis last week. "We need to do both for us to be productive offensively.
"We understand we've got to get better running the ball. Fortunately for us, it's early in the season."
Miller admits he must do more to impact an uneven offense — one that faltered at Baltimore but stampeded the Seattle Seahawks.
Miller was most effective in the middle of the field in Indianapolis. But his most productive game of the season was overshadowed by a ground game that was embarrassingly inefficient in averaging 2.4 yards per carry.
The Texans, led by outside linebacker Mario Williams, are expected to jam the line of scrimmage and dare the Steelers to beat them deep with receivers Antonio Brown and Mike Wallace, who had an 81-yard touchdown reception against the Colts.
"(Wallace) is such a playmaker, so it gives them opportunities to make plays, and that's what they've been doing," said Houston coach Gary Kubiak. "Yet, I think we all know they can line up any given day and just run it right at you."
If the Steelers insist on pounding the ball down the Texans throat, Heath Miller and fellow tight end David Johnson must step up. The Steelers have used both sparingly as H-backs, but that could change because the offensive line isn't getting the surge required to create seams for Mendenhall and Isaac Redman to run through.
"When you have a tight end who can play fullback ... it just gives you so much of an advantage against a defensive signal caller," said Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians.
Arians insisted Miller is among the "true tight ends" in the league and added there "are few Heath Millers."
However, Miller's role is somewhat ambiguous. Roethlisberger practically ignored him the first two games before rekindling their connection at Indianapolis.
"Heath has been the go-to guy over the years," Roethlisberger said. "He's a guy you can always count on.
"We always want to keep (Miller) involved because the tight ends are huge for this offense. Houston has a good defense, so the tight ends and the offensive line have to do a good job."
"There are a lot of guys capable of making plays," Miller said. "However it shakes out, we'll be able to move the ball."