Learning With The Steelers

Steelers Fever Exclusive Editorial

Sunday, March 25, 2007
By John Smathers
Steelers Fever Columnist


I love to learn, and there will be 16 installments of Learning with the Steelers this fall, coming to a television near you. Actually, a whole year of discovery looms just ahead.

We've already found out a few things about Mike Tomlin, but we're going to find out a whole lot more, that's for sure.

We already know about his defense-oriented background. We know he likes the 4-3 and we know he was smart enough to retain Dick LeBeau, unless you want to give the Rooneys all the credit. On the other side of the ball, we know he likes the idea of using two running backs. Beyond that, what do we know about how the offense will look under Tomlin in 2007?

Bruce Arians holds the keys, so what have we learned about him recently. Well, he likes four-receiver sets. Sounds exciting, unless you're an old-school believer in "Steelers football," but Arians assures us the Steelers will run even with four wideouts on the field.

I don't think that bodes well for Dan Kreider, by the way. I have a feeling Kreider's brand of fullback is on its way out around the league and soon with the Steelers, too.

But who might the four receivers be beyond Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes? Cedrick Wilson and Nate Washington? I'd rather see a more traditional approach if that's the case. And how does Willie Reid fit into it all? Might Tomlin go after a high-round wide receiver, if the four-receiver thing is a high priority?

There's another thing: we will discover what kind of draft coach Mike Tomlin is. Will he take a running back to complement Willie Parker, or does he have one already in Najeh Davenport? Something tells me Tomlin isn't going to let any healthy players stand around on the sideline in sweatpants for pretty much the whole season.

As far as Parker goes, I hope new running backs coach Kirby Wilson knows something that will help Parker hold onto the ball. Parker lost four fumbles last year. That's four more than he lost in 2005 on 255 carries. Only San Francisco's Frank Gore lost more in 2006. But hey, I guess we'll find out.

And then there's the biggest question mark on offense: Ben Roethlisberger. I stated on this web site before that I think he could be on the cusp of a great comeback season. We'll see how he responds to Tomlin, Arians and a pared down playbook.

But here's a question I don't hear a lot: Is this going to be Heath Miller's breakout year?

I nicknamed him 'Money Miller' his rookie season, because he's money when the Steelers throw to him, the operative word being when. I heard a lot about his elite potential when he was drafted in 2005 and some of the talking heads forecasted that he would have that breakout year last year. Well, Roethlisberger completed 112 more passes in 2006 than in 2005 and yet Miller caught five fewer passes. I guess when you're throwing interceptions and playing from behind a lot, you have to look deeper down field more often. But isn't Miller a field-stretcher, too? I guess he's not that kind of field-stretcher.

Don't get me wrong. Compared to how much the Steelers used to throw to tight ends under Bill Cowher, the last two years have been a bonanza for tight ends Miller and Jeremy Tuman. The Steelers tight end corps averaged less than 20 receptions per year from 1996 through 2004. No tight end caught more than 20 passes in any one season. Tight ends blocked, and the Steelers ran well.

Last year, Miller caught five touchdown passes, which ranked high among tight ends, so the Steelers like him in the red zone. That's the same number of touchdowns Eric Green caught in 1993 when he led the Steelers with 63 receptions.

But compared to the rest of the league, 43 catches in 2005 and 41 catches in 2006, while definitely an upgrade, does not constitute a bonanza. Other tight ends are putting up the elite numbers that we heard Miller could produce. The truly elite group includes Todd Heap, Kellen Winslow, Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates ... in other words, the 70-plus catches club. Of course, these guys are the primary receivers on their teams. The passing offense is built around them.

That's not what I am suggesting for the Steelers here, but I don't think 35 catches for Miller is nearly enough. Fifty-plus catches would be nice and I think that might do more for the running game than any four-receiver set.

I don't know when or how much the Steelers will throw to Miller in 2007, the year of the new coach, new offensive coordinator and the supposedly incredible shrinking playbook. It's tough to tell from looking at Arian's history because the Cleveland Browns didn't have a tight end worth throwing to during his stint as the Browns' OC (2001-03). Mark Campbell led the Arians Era with 25 catches in 2002. Then Arians left and the Browns drafted Winslow.

But hey, isn't that why the Steelers drafted Miller a year later, so that they, too, could make a quantum leap in tight end offense? Well, that's what we thought could happen anyway. It's time to see if Miller can make that leap. Hopefully, Arians didn't tear those pages out of the playbook, because Miller could be a big key to Roethlisberger's rebound.

We'll find out about that and much more when we watch Learning with the Steelers on Sunday afternoons this fall.