Other than quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, the longest-tenured player on the Pittsburgh Steelers last season was tight end Heath Miller. The team’s top draft pick in 2005 (one year after Roethlisberger and the same season Pittsburgh won its first Super Bowl in more than a quarter century), Miller became one of the most beloved players in modern team history. Whenever he caught a pass, slow, deep chants of “Heeeeeeeeeeee-ath” filled not only Heinz Field, but plenty of visiting stadiums around the country as well.
But after 592 catches, 6,569, yards, 45 touchdowns and two Super Bowl rings, Miller retired in February. The Steelers seemed to have a quick replacement lined up when they signed freakishly athletic, potential-oozing Chargers free agent Ladarius Green. Unfortunately, Green’s ankle has not healed properly from offseason surgery and — far more troubling — persistent headaches for the fifth-year pro with a history of concussions suggests his career is in serious jeopardy.
On paper, it would appear that Pittsburgh’s offense will suffer considerably without a quality replacement for Miller, who averaged 64 catches per season during the last four years. But there is reason to believe that the other playmakers on the Steelers roster — even minus wide receiver Martavis Bryant, who is suspended throughout the entire 2016 season — will more than replace the lost production.
In short, the Steelers offense has a good chance to thrive this season, even without a standout tight end. The reason? A little-known, undrafted, second-year wide receiver who has yet to play a single snap in an NFL regular season game: Eli Rogers.
Roethlisberger has never had a consistent full-time slot receiver who can sit and shrink in zone coverage, or blow past an inside defender on a slant route, take a short pass and break it for a touchdown. Former star receiver Hines Ward and current standout Antonio Brown have run routes out of the slot, but they simply moved inside the formation. Their presence inside, rather than outside, certainly drew attention from defenders and opposing coaches.
The true slot receivers Pittsburgh have paired beside Ward, Brown, Plaxico Burress, Cedrick Wilson, Santonio Holmes, Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders or Bryant haven’t developed into reliable options. The last to excel at the position was Antwaan Randle El, during Roethlisberger’s rookie season in 2004. For the most part, they haven’t needed to. In nearly every game (168 out of a possible 176, to be exact) during the previous 11 seasons, Miller was gobbling up short, safe, high-percentage throws from Roethlisberger or whoever was under center for Pittsburgh.
But rather than trying to fill the void created by Green’s injury with another tight end, Pittsburgh seems to be ready to develop a true, full-time slot man. And although former third-round pick Sammie Coates was penciled in for that role all offseason, Rogers has moved past him. A largely unheralded player at the University of Louisville, Rogers missed all of 2015 with a foot injury, but has been dynamic in the preseason. He’s earned rave reviews from Roethlisberger, head coach Mike Tomlin and especially offensive coordinator and play caller Todd Haley, who said last month, “We haven’t had a slot guy like him since I’ve been here. It hasn’t been close.”
Even if swapping Miller’s pass-catching abilities for Rogers’ was a fair trade — and that’s a huge “if” — Rogers could never fill Miller’s shoes in another critical phase of the game. Miller was one of the best blocking tight ends in football and was an integral part of the Steelers rushing attack for more than a decade.
But Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell is such a shifty, smooth runner with unparalleled lateral quickness that he thrives from spread formations. Rogers in the slot, rather than Miller bunched in towards the offensive line, gives Bell more freedom to improvise and run to daylight, which is arguably his greatest strength.
Every offense needs capable, versatile tight ends, especially in goal-line or short-yardage situations. On a fourth-and-1, Rogers most likely will be on the sidelines. Miller’s presence will be greatly missed in those moments. But if Rogers can become a dangerous slot receiver, Roethlisberger and the Steelers offense will be able to do much more. They don’t have to overextend Brown by putting him in the slot as often, and they can isolate him with more 1-on-1 matchups from outside the numbers, which will also benefit Bell or DeAngelo Williams when they release from the backfield.
In short, while the retirement of Heath Miller may force Haley and Roethlisberger to rip a few pages out of the weekly game plan — some traditional run-blocking schemes, a slew of short throws over the middle — it may also inspire a stack of new ones.