Spotlight: Heath Miller

posted by Anthony Borbely on Jun 22nd


Anthony Borbely's thoughts

Heath Miller had a career year in 2009 and his targets, receptions, and receiving yards all went up substantially from his previous career highs. Before delving into this deeper, I want to compare Miller's 2009 season with the numbers he posted in his first four years. The stats listed for 2004-2008 are Miller's average numbers from those four seasons.

Years Targets Receptions Yards TDs
2004-2008 58 42 483 5
2009 98 76 789 6

When analyzing the numbers, it is easy to see the significant increases in Miller's numbers across the board. His targets per game increased from 3.8 to 6.5 and obviously the rest of his stats (other than TDs) went up sharply as well.

Next on the list is to take a look at the passing attempts by Pittsburgh QBs over the same time period. The 2004-2008 numbers are averages over those four seasons.

Years PassAttempts
2004-2008 460
2009 534

After seeing Miller's higher target numbers, the above table should not come as a surprise. The Steelers' offense morphed from an attack dominated by the running game into one that threw the ball all over the field. The rushing attempts dropped off in 2009 as well, falling from an average of 460 carries in 2004-2008 to only 377 carries last year. Miller was the prime beneficiary of the change in offensive philosophy.

Prior to last year, Miller had played four years and there was no reason to expect the significant increase in his targets. Or was there? Below are Miller's split stats from the 2008 season. Note that Miller missed two games and most of a third in the middle of the season.

Games Targets Receptions Yards TDs
1-7 26 21 240 2
8-10 0 0 0 0
11-16 39 27 274 2

As you can see, Miller's increase in targets did not begin in 2009; rather it began in the latter part of the 2008 season. He averaged 3.7 targets in his first seven games and 6.5 in his last six games. Those numbers are virtually identical to the numbers when comparing Miller's 2009 season to his first four. The Steelers attempted an average of 28 passes in the first seven games and 34 in the last six, so Miller's targets once again increased when the attempted passes did and did so at a substantially higher rate.

The Steelers were not as effective running the ball at the beginning of last year as they had been for the past few seasons. Willie Parker was the starter and was struggling mightily and the Steelers had little choice but to open up the offense. That led to Rashard Mendenhall being named the starter and even though the running game showed dramatic improvement, the Steelers' offense was still dominated by the passing game.

The defense was also not as good last year and the Steelers were playing from behind much more than they did in previous seasons. They allowed 324 points last year, which was over 100 points more than they allowed in 2008. They allowed more first downs and were much worse on third downs. In many instances, they had no choice but to throw more. The increase in Miller's targets was at a much higher rate than the increase in attempted passes. He was clearly becoming a bigger part of the offense.

Positives

  • Miller has great hands and is annually one of the league leaders in catch percentage among TEs
  • Although not the most athletically gifted TE, Miller is very good at escaping coverage when Ben Roethlisberger scrambles
  • Miller is durable and has only missed two games in his five-year career

Negatives

  • The Steelers have stated that they want to run the ball more and that could limit Miller's targets
  • The loss of Santonio Holmes will allow defenses to play closer to the line and Miller will have less room to operate
  • Miller has to share the short zone targets with Hines Ward

Final thoughts

Heath Miller is obviously a bigger part of the Steelers passing attack and even though it appeared to change last year, the numbers showed that this began in the 2008 season. The Steelers have said they want to run the ball more and that sounds great in theory, but the loss of Santonio Holmes will allow defenses to play closer to the line and running the ball could be more difficult. With the suspension of Ben Roethlisberger, Byron Leftwich is likely to start the first four (or possibly six) games. Leftwich is not as mobile as Roethlisberger and Miller may be called on to pass-protect more. Although I see his targets increasing slightly when Roethlisberger returns, I see a decrease early in the year with the net result being target numbers similar to the 2009 season.


Quotations from the message board thread

To view the entire Player Spotlight thread (there's a ton of fantastic commentary in there), click here.

TheDirtyWord said:

Miller posted a career year last year, but I don't know how much it had to do with his development as much as it did the development of the Steelers passing attack.

While Roethlisberger has always been an efficient QB, he'd up until 2009 never been prolific. But as the Steeler rushing attack struggled to transition it's identity to Rashard Mendenhall and it's defense struggled to keep opponent point totals down (324 PA - most since 2003), the Steelers relied on the passing attack much more heavily than in previous seasons (their 536 pass attempts also represented their most since 2003).

That said, the Steelers aren't necessarily forced to throw. Big Ben has developed in to a top tier QB production wise and can execute pretty much any type of game plan required of him. And while their pass attempts were their highest since 2003, they've averaged 502 over the last 4 seasons.

How this relates to Miller is as follows:

Santonio Holmes and his 138 targets are history. While Mike Wallace will now be counted on to fill that void, he won't be able to completely (when you consider he had 72 targets of his own) and while Emmanuel Sanders impressed in pre-draft camps, he's still a 3rd round selection so whatever he contributes is completely up in the air. Antwan Randle-El was brought back, but he's also been sketchy in recent years.

While Miller's reception % led all TE's (with at least 50 targets) in 2009 - 77.6% while increasing his targets from 65 to 98. He was 3rd in this category in 2008 and was 1st in 2007. So Miller's reliability did not wane as the Steelers relied on him for more production. Also, once the Steelers get in the red zone, there is noone they look to more than Heath Miller.

I can see Miller's targets increasing into the 110-115 range and even if his reception percentage dips, I wouldn't think it would drop off to such a pronounced degree. Right now, he represents extraordinary value as he's going in Round 12-14 for the most part.

vfourmax said:

I think with Ben out that Miller will probably suffer the least in reductions in his numbers except for maybe TD production in that first four games and perhaps his targets may even increase as he plays a big role in short over the middle possession types of catches which lesser QB's will use as a dump option. Also with Holmes being gone I think that they will make Miller even a bigger part of the passing game plan so even if the Steelers pass less and run more again I think he stays at least steady in previous years production.

Miller is not a tight end that has a lot of big break out games but is a steady every week option that you can depend on for usually mid level decent numbers. If you do not target one of the elite Tight ends in your draft Miller is a good safe pick that is usually still available in the later rounds of the draft.

baconisgood said:

Heath put up a 40% increase over his 2nd best season in total yards (and a 35% increase in yards/game) and had the largest # of targets inside of the 10 yard line that any Steeler has had since Roeth became QB and he still finished as TE #9. The expansion of the passing game and the development of more and more reception first TEs means that the numbers he put up- while they would have been good for a top 5 TE many years looking backwards they are unlikely to be top 5 going forward. Barely cracking the top 10 in a career year indicates a probable hard ceiling for me for a TE.

His high # of scoring opportunities will give him a nice floor but it is hard to see a guy like Miller who is already leading his team getting a substantial increase (a Hines Ward injury could do it- but that would probably hurt their offense so much that it could even out those extra opps pretty quickly) inside of the redzone and Miller just isn't good enough athletically to punch it in from deep (17/27 TDs have come on targets from inside the 10, 25/27 from inside the 20) nor is he likely to increase the rate at which he converts targets into TDs (for his career his has 25 TDs on on 66 redzone targets at a pretty even distribution).

Miller's upside to me looks like statistical variation on last year. Maybe one year he gets a few extra targets and hits 850 yards or catches a couple more RZ targets and gets 8-9 TDs but last year I think is a pretty good representation of what his role in the offense looks like going forward but with this year being a slight downgrade to all offensive weapons due to the 4-6 game loss of Roeth.


Heath Miller projections

RECRECYDRECTDRSHYDRSHTD
Anthony Borbely74765700
Message board consensus66714600