By Leonard Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 3, 2006
DETROIT, Feb. 2 -- Tight end Heath Miller may not be at liberty to disclose what's in the Pittsburgh Steelers' game plan for Sunday's game against the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XL. But Miller, a rookie from the University of Virginia, spoke right up Thursday about something that isn't in the plan -- a Heath Miller option pass.
"We do have a lot of gadget plays, but that's not one of them," said Miller, who did complete one option pass for a touchdown during his redshirt freshman season in college. "Yeah, one for one, something like 30 yards to Patrick Estes. Maybe I ought to tell them about it."
Like the Steelers' starting wide receivers, Hines Ward and Antwaan Randle El, Miller was recruited out of high school to play quarterback in college. But his path from the tiny southwestern Virginia town of Swords Creek, 45 minutes from Bristol, to the Super Bowl included a major position change after he arrived at Virginia as a freshman.
Though he threw for 45 touchdowns in his last two years of high school, Miller switched to tight end at the suggestion of Coach Al Groh and never looked back. "I saw the competition," he said. "I never would have played."
Miller was a 6-foot-5, 225-pound quarterback at Honaker High School, with 500 students and only 100 in his senior class. Still, the football team had at least 50 players, and always drew capacity crowds for its Friday night games. He played in the same region that produced running backs Thomas Jones of the Bears and Julius Jones of the Cowboys, two brothers who starred at Powell Valley High in Big Stone Gap, Va.
Miller's father is a home builder and his mother works as a counselor at a local junior college. The coal mines once were the area's major employers and Miller said he was thrilled when the Steelers selected him with the 30th overall pick in the 2005 draft, if only because he liked the idea of playing in a blue-collar town for a team that had gone to the playoffs in nine of the previous 13 years under Coach Bill Cowher.
At Virginia, Miller started 39 straight games at tight end and left the program with every tight end receiving record, catching 144 passes for 1,703 yards and 20 touchdowns. He won the Mackey Award as the nation's best tight end after the 2004 season and was thought to be a top 15 draft pick. But because he had undergone surgery to repair a sports hernia, he was unable to work out and that dropped him to the bottom of the first round, which turned out to be lucky for him.
"They're stable in the ownership department," he said of the Steelers. "They're stable in the coaching area, and that's one of the things I was really happy about being here. I kept an open mind coming in. I knew we had a good running game. I knew there were a lot of opportunities for tight ends to make plays and I feel like it's worked out well for me."
It worked out even better for the Steelers, who lost wide receiver Plaxico Burress to free agency after the 2004 season, but gained a tight end who caught 39 passes (six for touchdowns) and was the second-leading receiver on the team. The Steelers also loved the way Miller kept improving as a blocker. He was used in the team's two tight end sets at the start of the season. But in practice, he caught everything quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw his way and before long he had become the starter and a prime target for a team that is not known for throwing much to its tight ends.
"I think it all starts with his blocking," said offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhut. "That's one thing Heath has done since he first got here is to become a better blocker, especially earlier than we thought he would. That really made it easier for us to put him in there. And it gave him more opportunities to catch the ball."
Miller has caught seven passes in postseason, averaging 15.3 yards a catch, including a seven-yard touchdown that gave his team a 14-0 lead in its upset victory over the Indianapolis Colts in the second round. He has played a vital role in the bruising running attack, and his presence as a receiving threat also has helped the play-action game.
When Roethlisberger fakes a handoff to running backs Jerome Bettis or Willie Parker, linebackers and strong safeties have a tendency to momentarily move toward the line of scrimmage. That allows Miller to slip into the secondary, often with single coverage and occasionally with none, as he works his way across the middle or into zone seams.
"He changes the field, no question," Bettis said. "Now in the middle of the field, he's a legitimate threat to go deep. On third and six, third and seven, now you have to defend the whole field and that's something we never had as a team. I think that creates a priority for us as an offense. Now we have to look for him, as well."
Said wide receiver Hines Ward: "I think Heath has helped us in the loss of [Burress]. Teams just can't play Cover 2 [zone] against him. They have to be responsible for him. He's killing strong safeties and defensive backs. People have to adjust to him. We're on the same side of the field, so it's kind of like pick your poison, which one of us is going to beat you. If you double me, Heath is one on one, and vice versa. He's been a huge asset, and he's just going to get better."
Miller and Roethlisberger are both 23 and have become good friends. The other day, as Miller was being interviewed, the quarterback walked over to Miller's table with a camera, made a face and snapped several pictures.
The Steelers constantly talk about Roethlisberger's maturity and team leadership in only his second season, just as they rave about Miller's ability to handle so much in his first season.
"He hasn't surprised me with his ability," said offensive line coach Russ Grimm, the former Washington Redskins lineman. "But he has kind of surprised me with his maturity level. For a rookie, the way he handles things and the way he works, very rarely do you see that in such a young guy. As soon as he got to camp, we felt like he could be something special. Now he is."