Lessons, Failures & Successes of 2013 & 2014 Drafts Fuel Steelers Signings of Bostic and Burnett

In this great future you can’t forget your past….”
– Bob Marley, “No Woman, No Cry”

You don’t often see Bob Marley lyrics leading a column on the Steelers, but hey the Reggie legend did give his last concert in Pittsburgh back when Terry Bradshaw and Joe Greene held a 2-1 mark in their quest for “One for the Thumb” in September 1980, so I guess that gives us some connection.

And while you can bet the mortgage Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin didn’t have the Marley’s words ringing in their ears the last week, the decisions to sign Jon Bostic and Morgan Burnett show they’ve taken Marley’s wisdom to heart.

“How’s that?” you ask? Well, simply look back to the lessons of the 2013 and 2014 Draft.

Ryan Shazier, Jarvis Jones,

Jarvis Jones & Ryan Shazier during a Steelers practice in January 2016. Photo Credit: Gene J. Puskar, AP via San Diego Union Tribune

Lessons of 2013 and 2014 Draft & the Arrival of Bostic and Burnett

In 2013, the Steelers were caught in a serious salary cap crunch. LaMarr Woodley had just finished his 2nd season on IR, Chris Carter wasn’t proving to be “the steal of the 2010 NFL Draft,” (as one journalist had claimed he’d be) and Jason Worilds had only shown flashes.

In hindsight, Steelers management erred in determining that James Harrison was nearing the end. Yet injuries had forced James Harrison to miss large chunks of both the 2011 and 2012 seasons and he’d played much of 2010 with an injured arm. And Harrison was set to make somewhere in the neighborhood of 8 to 9 million dollars.

Sure salary caponomics rather than X’s and O’s dictated that decision, but no amount of number crunching could save the Steelers from harsh reality that they had to come out of the 2013 NFL Draft with a pass rushing outside linebacker.

Today, it is easy to slam the Jarvis Jones pick. Jarvis Jones is legitimately Kevin Colbert’s only first round bust. Clearly SOMEONE else on the board could have delivered more value to the Steelers. Fair enough. But Mike Maycock was rating Jones as the 19th best player in the draft and some mocks actually had Jarvis Jones going off the board at 15, two spots before the Steelers took him.

But that’s not the point.

  • In 2013 the Steelers hands were largely tied, and no one likes having choices made for them

It leaves you with a detestable feeling. Think about the “voluntary” hoops you need to jump through during a pre-employment process that aren’t so “voluntary” if you actually want the job.

In football terms, being forced to let need dictate your first round draft choice is dangerous not necessarily because of who you pick but because of who you must pass over.

At the end of the 2013 season, it was clear that the Steelers secondary was in need of repair. Early on, the only question seemed to be whether the Steelers would go corner first and safety second in the draft or visa versa. Even after the Steelers signed Mike Mitchell, fans “knew” the Steelers would target cornerback early and perhaps often.

As it turns out, the Steelers had less at cornerback than they thought, erring in thinking they could get another year out of Ike Taylor while Cortez Allen’s career imploded in splendid fashion for reasons that have never been explained.

  • So when it came time to pick, the Steelers surprised everyone by drafting Ryany Shazier in first round.

The Ryan Shazier pick came despite the fact that with Lawrence Timmons, Vince Williams, Sean Spence and Terence Garvin the Steelers entered the 2014 draft with quality depth at inside linebacker. But Ryan Shazier offered the Steelers generational talent and prior to his injury was flashing Troy Polamalu type playmaking ability.

By signing Jon Bostic and signing Morgan Burnett, the Steelers are trying to give themselves the freedom to make the same kind of pick in the 2018 NFL Draft.

Word to the Wise

Jon Bostic and Morgan Burnett arrive in Pittsburgh with some risk in that both men have fought injuries, and the Ladarius Green experience teaches us just how quickly injuries can derail a promising free agent signing.

  • But the presence of both men will free Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin from having to reach to get an inside linebacker or a safety.

It’s also important to remember that drafting for need sometimes ends well, as the picks of Heath Miller and Santonio Holmes from the 2005 and 2006 drafts show us. But its sure is a lot better go enter a draft with the freedom of picking the player you want to pick, instead of taking someone you need to take.

Has Steelers free agency left you scrambling? Click here for our Steelers 2018 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2018 free agency focus articles.

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How Ladarius Green Highlights Steelers Tight End History of Boom-Bust “Splash Personnel Moves”

As expected, the Steelers release of Ladarius Green has sparked a lot of finger pointing and recriminations in Steelers Nation. A headline accompanying Ed Bouchette’s article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette described Ladarius Green’s acquisition as “’Worst signing ever.’”

  • That’s a pretty harsh claim, but one which will hold some truth if Bouchette’s reporting is accurate.

But if you cast aside some of the sound and fury surrounding what clearly is one of Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin’s major personnel failures, you’ll find that it unfortunately fits the Steelers boom-bust history with splash personnel moves at tight end.

Heath Miller, Steelers tight end history

Heath Miller catches a pass in the Steelers 2012 loss to the Cowboys @ “Jerry’s World.” Photo Credit: USATSI via CBS Sports

Steelers Boom-Bust History of “Splash Personnel Moves” @ Tight End

Larry Brown and Randy Grossman held down the tight end duties as the Super Steelers were cutting their teeth. Two Super Bowls into their run, Noll realized that Larry Brown was an even better tackle and made the move. Noll would later say that Larry Brown’s play at right tackle merits Hall of Fame consideration.

Drafting tight end Bennie Cunningham in the 1st round of the 1976 NFL Draft was one of the things that allowed Noll to make that move. While Cunningham split the starting duties with Grossman, by any measure Bennie Cunningham was an extremely solid player, giving Terry Bradshaw a reliable alternative to Lynn Swann and John Stallworth.

  • Count picking Bennie Cunningham in the first round as the Steelers first successful “Splash Personnel Move” at tight end.

As the Steelers championships of the 70’s faded into the mediocrity of the 1980’s, the tight end disappeared from Chuck Noll’s offense. As Noll once explained, “When people ask ‘Why don’t you throw to the tight end?’ ‘Why don’t you use the shotgun’ they’re really asking ‘Why don’t you win?’”

Well, People asked “Why don’t you throw to the tight end? a lot in the mid-1980’s, and in 1989 the Steelers decided to rectify that via Plan B Free Agency when they signed Mike Mularkey from the Minnesota Vikings.

  • Mularkey had an explosive season as the Steelers starting tight end, bringing down 22 passes and scoring a touchdown.

No, that’s not a typo. 22 receptions is a partly by 2017 standards, but remember:

  • The NFL was less pass happy then, and even by the era’s standards, the Steelers were “a running team”
  • Mularkey’s predecessor Preston Gothard combined passing total for 1987 and 1988 was 22 passes
  • Louis Lipps was the 1989 Steelers leading receiver with 50 catches.

So count the Plan B Free Agency signging of Mike Mularkey as second successful “Splash Personnel Move” move at tight end.

Since the 1989 signing of Mularkey worked out so well (OK, its really because Joe Walton was now the offensive coordinator), the Steelers decided to make another in 1990 by taking Eric Green in the 1st round of the 1990 NFL Draft.

Eric Green, Steelers tight end history

Eric Green in the Steelers 1994 season opening-loss to the Cowboys. Photo Credit: Mike Powell, Getty Images via BTSC

Eric Green of course held out for all of training camp, missed the first month of the season, then exploded as “Green’s second, third, fifth, sixth and seventh career catches were for TDs for touchdowns.

Although the 1990 Steelers would struggle and ultimately self-destruct under Joe Walton’s offense, one positive from that otherwise deeply disappointing season was that Pittsburgh looked to have found a transformational player. And to be honest, it would be grossly unfair to label Eric Green as a bust.

And Eric Green’s performance on the field never came close to approaching that level thanks to injuries, drug suspensions and flat out want-to. And then there was Green’s infamous “Super Bowl Rap Video” prior to the 1994 AFC Championship game.

  • Count Eric Green as one failed Steelers “Splash Personnel” move at tight end.
Mark Bruener, Jerome Bettis, Steelers tight end history

Mark Bruener prepares to block for Jerome Bettis @ Three Rivers Stadium. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

The Steelers replaced Eric Green by taking Mark Bruener with their first round pick in the 1995 NFL Draft. Although Mark Bruener never caught more than 26 passes in a season, it says here that Burner was an excellent pick by the Steelers. Had Steel Curtain Rising existed in the 1990’s it would have argued (possibley incorrectly) that Mark Bruener catch rate and Percentage passes for touchdowns would have indicated he should have been targeted more often.

But even if Mark Bruener couldn’t have been a more of a receiving threat, he provided the Steelers with consistency at tight end for almost a decade.

  • Count Mark Bruener as a third successful Steelers “Splash Personnel” move at tight end.
Tommy Maddox

Tommy Maddox

The emergence of Tommy Maddox at quarterback in 2002 tempted Bill Cowher to open up the passing game and the Steelers went out and signed Jay Riemersma to give Tommy Gun another target. When the Steelers won their 2003 opener over the Ravens, Bill Cowher cited Jay Riemersma’s presence over the middle as one of the reasons for their success.

  • Unfortunately, the rest of Jay Riemersma’s Pittsburgh Steelers career would consist of 22 games and 15 catches.
  • Count Jay Riemersma’s as a second failed Steelers “Splash Personnel” move at tight end.

The Steelers responded to the Jay Riemersma failure by drafting Heath Miller in the 1st round of the 2005 NFL Draft. Heath Miller’s resume needs to review here. Over the course of 11 seasons, Heath Miller established himself as the best tight end in Steelers history, and Heath Miller’s legendary dependability made gave Ben Roethlisberger as close to an automatic catch as is practically possible.

  • Count Heath Miller as a fourth successful Steelers “Splash Personnel” move at tight end
Heath Miller, Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers tight end history

Heath Miller and Ben Roethlisberger

When Heath Miller retired, the Steelers acted boldly, as Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin traveled to Florida to convince Ladarius Green to sign with them on the first day of free agency in 2016. We know how that move turned out. Even if Ladarius Green did give the Steelers “field flipping” capability that helped secure wins against the Colts, Giants and Bengals, his signing was a mistake.

  • Count Ladarius Green as a third failed Steelers “Splash Personnel Move” move at tight end

Although both men were successful, it’s hard to label the acquisitions of Larry Brown or Randy Grossman as a “Splash Personnel Move” as one arrived to the Steelers as a 5th round pick and the other an undrafted rookie free agent.

But since their arrival, the Steelers have invested 4 first round draft picks and 3 major free agent signings in trying to acquire a marquee tight end and their record is 4-3. Take this for what it is, but the odds indicate that whether move the Steelers make at tight end in the 2018 off season, it will be a success.

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The Colbert Record: Steelers 4th Round Draft History Under Kevin Colbert

In its current incarnation, the 4th round represents balance point of the NFL Draft. Rounds 1-3 represent the cream of the crop. Rounds 5-7 represent the bottom feeders.

  • Round four falls squarely in between.

A fourth rounder maturing into a starter should surprise no one; yet a fourth rounder who only develops into a part-time role player cannot be written off as a bust. This year’s edition of The Colbert Record looks at Kevin Colbert’s history with 4th round picks.

steelers, draft, grades, evaluations, bust, Kevin Colbert

True NFL Draft grades only come with years of hindsight

Steelers 2000 Fourth Round Pick – Danny Farmer

Wide receiver had been a weakness of the Steelers in 1998 and 1999. Based on the early returns, Troy Edwards had given the Steelers a foot hold on rectifying the problem, and the earlier pick of Plaxio Burress looked to improve the Steelers further. No one paid much attention to Hines Ward, so the pick of Danny Farmer seemed enticing.

  • At least until the Steelers opened camp at St. Vincent’s in Labrobe

Danny Famer couldn’t cut it, so Bill Cowher and Kevin Colbert cut him. Bob Smizik of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette decried the move, pointing the Farmer’s absence after the Steelers 16-0, 2000 opening day loss to the Ravens. Smizik doubled down in December (when the 2000 Steelers had turned around their season), extolling Farmer, by then a Cincinnati Bengal for a great game against Jacksonville.

Farmer, however was out of football by 2003, and never had more than 19 catches in a season. He didn’t do much for the Bengals, which is better than what the Steelers got from him. Grade: Bust

Steelers 2001 Fourth Round Pick – Mathias Nkwenti

Unlike wide recievers, there are few stats measure offensive lineman. But one stat that does stand out is this: Mathias Nkwenti appeared in two games for the Steelers one in 2001 and another in 2003. Then he was out of football. Grade: Bust

Steelers 2002 Fourth Round Pick – Larry Foote

If you were looking to define a prototype for a “quality 4th round pick” you’d need to look to Kevin Colbert’s 2002 4th round pick of Larry Foote.

When news broke that 2001’s rookie stand out Kendrell Bell was injured and wouldn’t be able to suit up for the opener, most Steelers fans figured that John Fiala would be the “Next man up.” Fiala wasn’t a superstar, but he’d paid his dues on special teams and as a backup since 1998, and sort of fit the Jerry Olsavsky mold.

  • Bill Cowher instead looked to the rookie Larry Foote to start.

Foote got the first three starts of the season, and while Bell kept him on the bench in 2003, Foote assumed the starting role in 2004 and started from that moment until the Steelers hoisted Lombardi Number Six over their heads after Super Bowl XLIII.

Foote of course departed in 2009, but was back in 2009 as a backup, only to reassume the starting role after James Farrior’s retirement. 105 regular season starts and 11 playoff starts including two Super Bowls is pretty impressive for a fourth round pick. Grade: Over Performer

Steelers 2003 Fourth Round Pick – Ike Taylor

If Larry Foote fulfilled all that can be expected of a 4th round pick, then 2003’s fourth round pick is an example of a 4th rounder who completely exceeds expectations. And to think, Mark Madden declared the pick of Ike Taylor as the worst pick in franchise history.

  • Something tells me that Mike Holmgrem and Matt Hasslebeck would beg to differ.

Ike Taylor won’t get recognition alongside the Jack Butler, Mel Blount and Rod Woodson as one of the franchise’s true great cornerbacks because he couldn’t hold on to interceptions. But from 2005 until 2012ish, Ike Taylor was able to shadow the opponents best receiver and often times take him out of the game. Grade: Grand Slam

Steelers 2004 Fourth Round Pick – Nathaniel Adibi

If Steelers lore is correct, a faction of the Steelers draft room wanted to use this pick on Michael Turner. Bill Cowher wanted Nathaniel Adibi. Unfortunately Cowher got his way. Nathaniel Adibi never played a down in a regular season NFL game, Michael Turner rushed for 7,338 yards in a 9 yard career. Grade: Bust

Steelers 2005 Fourth Round Pick – Fred Gibson

Just as he did in 2000, Kevin Colbert drafted wide receiver in the fourth round of the 2005 NFL Draft. Like Danny Farmer, Fred Gibson never played a down for the Steelers. Unlike Danny Farmer, Gibson never played anywhere in the NFL. Grade: Bust

Steelers 2006 Fourth Round Picks – Willie Colon and Orien Harris

Many times during Mike Tomlin’s early tenure, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Ed Bouchette refered to a lack of alignment between the front office and the coaches on the offensive line, and looked to the Steelers seemingly bipolar treatment of Max Starks.

Bouchette might have had a point, but Steelers coaches were already angling to replace Max Starks with Willie Colon by the end of his rookie year. Colon did beat out Starks on the right side, and held down the fort there from 2007 to 2009. Injuries of course ruined his 2010 and 2011 season and derailed it in 2012 when he’d settled in at offensive guard. Grade: Quality Value Pick

Orien Harris, defensive tackle out of Miami was the Steelers second fourth round pick in 2004. He never played a down for the Steelers, but did appear in 18 games for the Bengals and Browns in the next three season. Grade: Bust

Steelers 2007 Fourth Round Picks — Daniel Sepulveda and Ryan McBean

The Mike Tomlin era began with two fourth round picks and it started with a bang, of sorts.
Mike Tomlin looked to make a statement with his first draft by trading up to get a punter to emphasize the importance of special teams. Daniel Sepulveda was the pick.

Sepulveda had two decent seasons punting, until injuries cost him the 2008 season. He injured himself again in 2010. To the surprise of many, the Steelers brought him back in 2011, but his last game was the Steelers All Saints day upset of the Patriots. It is not Sepulveda the Steelers picked him first, but if you pick a punter in the fourth round, he’d better be All World. Sepulveda wasn’t that even when healthy: Grade: Disappointment

The Steelers second 4th round pick was of Ryan McBean, a defensive tackle out of Oklahoma State. McBean played one game as a rookie in Pittsburgh during 2007 for the Steelers, and then 46 the three years afterwards including 21 starts. Unfortunately, McBean played his last four seasons for Denver and Baltimore. His stats indicate OK value for a 4th round pick, unfortunately, the Steelers didn’t benefit from any of that value. Grade: Bust

Steelers 2008 Fourth Round Pick – Tony Hills

As mentioned when profiling 2008’s 3rd round pick Bruce Davis, Jim Wexell wrote that Mike Tomlin would match Tony Hills and Bruce Davis together during training camp and extol both men on, saying, “I’m going to make a player out of one of you.”

  • Unfortunately, Tomlin was wrong about both men.

Davis was gone in a year. Tony Hills however, stuck around. However, he did not dress in 2008 nor did he suit up in 2009. Hills got a little bit of a reprise under 2010’s special teams coach Sean Kugler, and he actually saw action in four games. The Steelers experimented with him at guard during the 2011 preseason, but cut him.

Since then Tony Hills has stuck on with Denver, Indianapolis, Dallas, Miami and most recently in 2015 New Orleans, seeing spot duty (and one start) in 18 games. But when you draft a tackle in the 4th round, you really need more than four games in 3 seasons. Grade: Bust

Steelers 2009 Fourth Round Pick – Traded

The Steelers traded their 4th round pick along with their second to get Denver’s two 3rd round picks in the 2009 NFL Draft.

Steelers 2010 Fourth Round Pick – Thaddeus Gibson

The Steelers used their 2010 4th round pick on linebacker Thaddeus Gibson. The early reports on Gibson out of Latrobe were positive. However, when the Steelers needed to make a roster move in October, Gibson’s spot was sacrificed. San Francasico snapped him up, where he saw spot duty in two teams. He’d get spot duty in two more games the next season with the Bears, and then a roster spot sans the spot duty with the Titans. Gibson was out of football after that. Grade: Bust

Steelers 2011 Fourth Round Pick — Cortez Allen

Kevin Colbert certainly has had bigger 4th round disappointments than Cortez Allen (see 2012’s) and the same can be said for Art Rooney, Dick Haley and Tom Donahoe before him. But none have had a stranger trip than Cortez Allen.

The Steelers took Allen in the 4th round of the 2011 NFL Draft and as a rookie, Allen played a role in shutting down (or at least containing) the Patriots Rob Gronkowski in the 2011 Steelers upset of the Patriots. Word was that in 2012, Allen pushed Keenan Lewis hard for the starting slot. Lewis won, but when injures opened the door for Allen to start late in 2012, Allen responded with two interceptions and one forced fumble vs. the Bengals and then two forced fumbles in the season finale vs. the Browns.

  • The Pittsburgh Steelers, it appeared, had found their cornerback.

Allen got injured in the Steelers season 2013 opener vs. the Titans (who didn’t get injured that day), and struggled when he returned to health. However, his pick six in the snow at Lambeau sealed the Steelers win over Green Bay.

  • That was the Cortez Allen the Steelers had been waiting for.

The Steelers went out on a limb, and resigned Cortez Allen to a 25 million dollar contract before the 2014 season. IT was a good deal for Allen. He pocketed just under 6.3 million for just 12 games. The Steelers of course have cut Allen and moved on. Grade: Disappointment

Steelers 2012 4th round pick – Alameda Ta’amu

By 2012 Casey Hampton was on his last legs and, while Steve McLendon was looking good, the Steelers still were not ready to anoit him as Hampton’s successor. So Kevin Colbert traded up to get the last pure nose tackle in the draft Alameda Ta’amu.

  • One of the ironies about the pick, was that David DeCastro’s highlight reel showed him manhandling Ta’amu earlier in the year.

That was worrisome, but not nearly as worrisome as Ta’Amu’s drunken rampage through the South Side that could have easily killed someone. To the chagrin of many, the Steelers kept him around, but eventually let him go. Ta’Amu landed in Pittsburgh West aka the Arizona Cardinals, where he played in 21 games. Grade: Bust

Steelers 2013 4th round picks – Shamarko Thomas and Landry Jones

The Pittsburgh Steelers don’t trade future draft picks. It simply runs against the franchise’s philosophy. In 2013 the made an exception, however, and traded up to grab Shamarko Thomas, a safety out of Syracuse.

  • The word was that Shamarko would have gone 1st had he been 2 inches taller.

The Steelers put their money where their mouth was by working Shamarko into the slot early in the season. Shamarko got hurt, Will Allen returned, and after the Steelers 2013 debacle vs. New England, Shamarko’s snaps with the secondary can be counted in single digits (or almost.)

The Steelers haven’t give up on Shamarko yet, but at this point he’s doesn’t look to get off of special teams outside of an emergency. Grade: Bust

The Steelers surprised many when they drafted Landry Jones in the 4th round of 2014. Many speculated he was arriving as Ben Rothlisberger’s replacement. Instead, he replaced Charlie Batch. Landry Jones struggled in both the 2013 and 2014 preseasons, making fans long for the days when Brian St. Pierre held the clipboard.

  • The Steelers challenged Jones in 2015 at St. Vincent’s and Jones responded.

Landry Jones quite frankly still must prove he’s a competent number 2 NFL quarterback, but his off the bench performances vs. the Cardinals and the Raiders prove he’s a competent number 3 NFL quarterback. Grade: Serviceable Pick Up

Steelers 2014 4th Round Draft Pick – Martavis Bryant

When the Steelers turn comes to pick in the fourth round, it would be wise for Dan Rooney to veto any decision to pick a wide receiver…. As he did in 2000 and 2005, Kevin Colbert looked to build wide receiver depth in the 4th round of the 2014 NFL Draft. Unlike Danny Farmer and Fred Gibson, his pick, Martavis Bryant, has played in the NFL.

  • And unlike Farmer and Gibson, Bryant has shown he has transformational talent.

But Bryant is of course dogged by off the field substance abuse issues, and will miss his third season due to a suspension.

Please Mr. Colbert, do not draft any more wide receivers in the 4th round. Grade: Disappointment

Steelers 2015 4th Round Draft Pick – Doran Grant

When the Steelers cut Doran Grant to make room for some waiver wire pickups, Steelers Nation reacted as if Mel Taylor Woodson had been sent packing. The reaction was exaggerated as the Steelers resigned Grant to the practice squad, and then the active roster.

  • But Grant only had one snap in 3 games.

Normally one would caution that it is far, far too early to come to any conclusion on a 4th round pick after a rookie year, and it IS too early to give up on Doran Grant. But given Kevin Colbert’s track record here, one would like to see more encouraging results. Grade:  Farm Team

Kevin Colbert’s Record in the 4th Round

In his seven drafts with Bill Cowher, Kevin Colbert had some bad misses with his fourth round picks, but he also found Larry Foote, Ike Taylor, and Willie Colon in the fourth round, and those men have 5 Super Bowl rings between them for games in which they started.

  • Unfortunately, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have been a disaster in the 4th round.

They’ve traded up three times and only have an oft-injured average punter, a nose tackle most famous for an off the field incident, and safety who was supposed to replace Troy Polamalu but can only seem to play on special teams. Cotez Allen flashed ability, but faded even more quickly. Martavis Bryant tantalizes, but his toking might cost him an NFL career.

Landry Jones has grown into a respectable player, but his late development in 2015 isn’t enough to compensate for all the other outright busts. Grade: D

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Heath Miller’s Steelers Career – A Case Study in Dependability and Humility

Heath Miller’s surprising retirement prompted an out pouring of support from Steelers Nation. And so it should. Heath Miller was fundamental to the Steelers success during his 11 years in Pittsburgh, and he played a critical role in the Steelers championships in Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII.

  • Heath Miller’s career also reinforces and important lesson for Steelers Nation.

My first reaction when the Steelers drafted Miller in 2005 was “huh?” That’s not terribly surprising. I’m the polar opposite of a “draft nic” so the fact that Miller lacked a combine or pro day pedigree didn’t factor into my “huh?” Instead, my thoughts were much more pedestrian.

  • The 2004 Steelers had finished 15-1 and lost the AFC Championship essentially because Ben Roethlisberger had begun playing like a rookie.

It is quite common to say, “X Team is a quarterback/running back/edge rusher/shut down corner away from the Super Bowl.” No one ever says “We’re a tight end away from the Super Bowl,” (unless you have Rob Gronkowski on your team, and he’s injured.)

But I was OK with the pick. Pittsburgh’s depth chart at tight end featured Jerame Tuman, Jay Riemersma, Matt Cushing, and Walter Rasby, and 1st round draft pick figured to be upgrade.

  • The 2005 Steelers AFC Divisional Playoff upset of the Colts highlighted just how wise Kevin Colbert and Bill Cowher were to pick Heath Miller.

The Indianapolis Colts played 2005 as the “Team of Destiny” laying waste to everyone in their path, until Bill Polian ordered Tony Dungy to rest his starters late in the season. Then Tony Dungy’s son tragically took his own life. Anyone with even an ounce of human compassion was rooting for Dungy. On top of that, the Colts had spanked the Steelers on Monday Night Football during the regular season. No one gave the Steelers a chance.

Bill Cowher and the Steelers however, brought a decidedly different game plan when the returned to Indianapolis for the playoffs.

Instead of trying to pound the Colts into submission with Willie Parker and Jerome Bettis, the Steelers would hook their hopes to Ben Roethlisberger’s arm. Roethlisberger’s missed his first pass to Antwaan Randle El.

  • Roethlisberger completed his next pass to Heath Miller who took it 36 yards.
  • The next time he dropped back, he looked again to Miller for another 18 yards.

That took them to the Colt’s 28. 5 plays later the Steelers were up 7 points in a drive where they threw 7 times out of 10, and Heath Miller accounted for 54 of the team’s 84 yards.

In my memory, probably like those of most Steelers fans, Pittsburgh went up 14-0 on its first two drives. But it didn’t happen that way. The Steelers defense forced a quick punt, but on the next drive, the Roethlisberger threw an interception. But Dick LeBeau’s defense forced another 3 and out. Then the Steelers offense struck again. A 45 yard pass to Hines Ward put the Steelers in the Red Zone at the Colt’s 8. Bettis ran for one.

  • Then Roethlisberger dropped back, and found Heath Miller in the end zone for another touchdown.

That’s three targets to Heath Miller and three completions to Heath Miller and a touchdown to put the Steelers up by 14 in a game no one gave them a chance for winning. As it turned out, the 2004 had been “A tight end away from the Super Bowl” because throwing the ball to Heath Miller was one of the best bets Ben Roethlisberger has ever had.

Heath Miller an Incredibly Reliable Pass Catcher

Just how much will Ben Roethlisberger, Mike Tomlin, Todd Haley and the rest of the Steelers offense miss Heath Miller? To answer that question, let’s look at just who Heath Miller has had to “compete” with to get Ben Roethlisberger to throw to him:

  • Hines Ward, a Super Bowl MVP and just 1 of 13 players to break the 1,000 reception barrier
  • Santonio Holmes, another Super Bowl MVP
  • Antonio Brown, who is easily the best wide receiver in the game today
  • Mike Wallace, one player who truly “could go all the way” on any given play
  • Martavis Bryant and Le’Veon Bell, two freakishly talent players

An those are just the “major receiving threats” during Heath Miller’s time in Pittsburgh. Jerricho Cotchery, Emmanuel Sanders, Markus Wheaton, Antwaan Randle El, Nate Washington and even Willie Parker were more than capable of doing damage when the ball was thrown their way. So just how did Miller stack up?

The numbers paint a pretty impressive picture:

heath miller, career, reviving stats, targets to catches

In 11 years, Heath Miller proved to be an incredibly reliable receiving target.

Thanks to saber metrics, we now not only know how many times a player has caught the ball, but we can also track how many times the quarterback tried to get it to him. To be fair, the ratio of catches to targets can be a little miss leading – if Ben Roethlisberger overthrows or underthrows Martavis Bryant 35 yards down the field, that counts as a target. But it’s a fairly reliable metric, and with each receiver having over 100 targets, the sample is fairly representative.

  • Heath Miller weighs in a number 2.

It might be tempting to suggest because, as a tight end Miller’s ran shorter routes and was less likely to be overthrown, but his yards-per-catch number is only one less than Hines Ward and not much further behind Sanders and Randle El

In a word, Heath Miller gave Ben Roethlisberger an incredibly reliable target.

Heath Miller’s Steelers Career – A Study in Dependability & Humility

Those statistics create a pretty accurate picture of Heath Miller’s contribution to the Steelers offense, but mere numbers always fail to do Heath Miller justice. What made Heath Miller special was the effort, dedication, and concentration that it took to create the catches that those numbers represent.

Neal Coolong of The Steelers Wire offered this video to explain why Miller is so beloved in Pittsburgh.

Miller made an incredibly difficult catch, knowing he was going to be KOed. He took a vicious hit that drew a penalty, and simply handed the ball to the official, without any jaw boning. Oh yeah, the catch also secured first down. If Lynn Swann set the standard in Super Bowl X for acrobatic “Lynn Swann” catches then perhaps tough, short-to-medium yardage receptions that convert third downs should be known as “Heath Miller catches.”

  • Even that, however, fails Heath Miller’s legacy.

Unlike the fullback, the tight end will not disappear from today’s game. However, “true tight ends,” ones that can both block like lineman and catch like backs or receivers are increasingly rare. Miller excelled at both.

  • It’s tempting to look at some of Miller’s lower-production games from 2015 and say, “Ah, see, he’s was losing a step.”

Heath Miller’s play was dropping off gradually, but Miller’s 3 catch game in the regular season vs. Denver and 2 catch effort in the playoffs vs. Cincinnati were more indicative of his primary role as a blocker in those games rather than as a receiver.

  • Blocking form the NFL’s invisible cadre, they generate no statistics to measure their accomplishments.

But as Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell reminded Steelers Nation, it was Heath Miller who held off Ray Lewis in the 2008 AFC Championship game just long enough to allow Roethlisberger to connect with Holmes and then Miller blocked for Holmes as he reversed field and took it 65 yards to the house.

  • A video tape review of similar “Big Plays” during the second Super Bowl era will doubtlessly reveal similar anonymous blocking assists by Miller.

You’ve got to figure that Heath Miller would have been a perfect fit for Chuck Noll’s Super Steelers, because anonymous is exactly how Miller would want it. And that’s what made Heath Miller a perfect fit for Pittsburgh in any era: Heath Miller’s Steelers career was a study in quiet competencies of reliability, dedication, and humility.

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Steelers Tight End Heath Miller Retires – Pittsburgh Will Never See Another Like Him

Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Heath Miller retires in a move that comes as a total shock both inside and outside of the South Side. The Steelers drafted Heath Miller in the 1st round of the 2005 NFL Draft and, although he became and instant starter, he remained one of the most consistent yet underrated players at his position.

  • It is a testament to Heath Miller’s greatness that even in the most hostile of environments, a catch by 83 resulted in chats of “Heath!”

It is ironic that he would garner such fan fair, because Miiller never sought the attention or the limelight for himself. Heath Miller is the classic defenition of a player who came to work, buckled his chin strap, and simply made plays.

  • As the Steelers 2016 off season began, there was speculation that Miller would become a cap casualty.

Some argued that Miller was losing a step, and no longer warranted his nearly 8 million dollar salary cap value. Such talk was little more than nonsense. It is true that Miller’s yard’s per catch were down in 2015, but that may have been due as much to Le’Veon Bell’s absence and the need for Miller to work closer to the line of scrimmage.

Heath Miller, a Model of Consistency

As Jim Wexell reports on Steel City Insider, Heath Miller started 167 of 168 regular season games and 15 of 15 post season contests. He has played the most games of any Steelers tight end. Heath Miller retires as the Steelers leading tight end in catches, receiving yards, and touchdowns.

  • But numbers cannot capture Heath Miller’s contribution to the Steelers in 2015 or any other year.

The 2015 Steelers regular season finale vs. Cleveland illustrates why. Miller’s stat line for the game was 3-18 for 1 touchdown. On the surface that looks pretty pedestrian. But the truth is that Miller out muscled defenders to get to the ball both on the touchdown, and on another key 11 yard pass.

Under both Bruce Arians and Todd Haley, Ben Roethlisberger has made no secret of his desire for a vertical, gun slinging style offense and that tendency has served both him and the Steelers well. But when whenever Hines Ward, Plaxico Burress, Santonio Holmes, Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton or Martavis Bryant couldn’t get open downfield, Heath Miller was there in the middle.

  • Miller might have been the least vocal member of the Steelers offense, but he was very much a leader.

As Dale Lolley reported, it was Miller who quietly took Antonio Brown aside and dressed him down for not giving Landry Jones the proper respect he deserved. And as Lolley recounts, it was Brown who shared the story about Miller.

Heath Miller’s Retirement Leaves Gaping Hole in Steelers Offense

Looking towards the 2016 season the Steelers offense figured to be unstoppable. Now that equation changes. The Steelers knew Heath Miller was nearing the end, but had not attempted to groom a replacement. Heath Miller’s retirement leaves a gaping hold in the Steelers offense that the team will now struggle to fill.

The Steeler will now have to find a new tight end via the 2016 NFL Draft or free agency.
Expect the Steelers to make some sort of move. But don’t expect the Steelers to find a replacement for Heath Miller. They don’t make players like Heath Miller any more.

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