PITTSBURGH – It’s no secret Heath Miller was an all-time favorite among Steelers fans, who appreciated his no-frills, lunch-pail approach to the game.
And it’s no secret the Steelers have been searching for a replacement for their all-time leader in receptions by a tight end since Miller retired after the 2015 season.
Last year, they signed Ladarius Green as a free agent in a move that didn’t work out. Green was released in the offseason after an injury-plagued season.
This year, they traded a fourth-round draft pick to San Francisco for a fifth-round pick and Vance McDonald in another attempt to provide quarterback Ben Roethlisberger with more of a vertical threat at the position.
But the six weeks McDonald has spent with the Steelers have nothing on the 11 years Roethlisberger and Miller had together.
“You develop that relationship with Heath over years and years of practices, plus the type of player and person he was,” said Roethlisberger. “Teammate, I’ve said many times, he was probably the best teammate I’ve ever played with and one of the best men I’ve ever known in my life. Those kind of things kind of combine to become a great football player and a comfort for me. I think that the more you play with someone, the more repetition you get, the more times in practice, the more communication. Those all help. I think the tight end position is naturally kind of that spot, too.”
He might wish he had Miller Sunday when the Steelers (4-2) host the Cincinnati Bengals (2-3) at Heinz Field.
Two years ago, Miller caught 10 passes in both regular season games against Cincinnati, accounting for a third of his receptions in his final season.
In 2016, Green played in just six games. But one of those came against the Bengals, when he caught five passes for 72 yards.
Because of the Cover-2 defense the Bengals employ they don’t allow a lot of big plays to wide receivers. Cincinnati’s pass defense is ranked second in the league behind the Steelers, but tight ends can cause it fits.
Pittsburgh’s top tight ends, Jesse James and McDonald, combined for just one reception last week against Kansas City, though that one catch was a big one. McDonald caught a 26-yard pass – his first reception with the Steelers – from Roethlisberger throwing from his own end zone.
But it continued a trend. James had 10 catches in Pittsburgh’s first two games, but he and McDonald have combined for just nine receptions in the four games since.
“When Vance made a big play down the middle, that obviously helped us a bunch because now you have to worry about different guys to defend,” said Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley. “But it just all works together as a group. We need each specific group making plays when they get opportunities.”
The big play was something missing from Pittsburgh’s tight ends. While James has 18 receptions to rank third on the team, he’s averaging just 8.4 yards per catch. That’s a tick below the 8.7 yards per catch he averaged in 2016.
McDonald, however, is more of a vertical threat, as his 16.3 yards-per-catch average would suggest.
McDonald has struggled with some drops since joining the Steelers, but Roethlisberger hopes the duo hooking up last week will lead to bigger things.
“I think he’s got a lot of confidence,” Roethlisberger said. “He’s learning this offense every day, getting more and more reps, more practice time, more communication with me. I’ve seen steps every day and week.”
Whether that adds up to an increase in production, especially this week, remains to be seen.
“My relationship with Ben is something that has grown ever since I got here,” said McDonald. “It’s something that will always continue to build. It’s always going to progress.”
Steelers safety Mike Mitchell was fined $48,620 for a hit to Kansas City quarterback Alex Smith in last week’s game. Mitchell was assessed a 15-yard penalty for the play. The Steelers feel Mitchell was pushed into Smith. Mitchell said he plans to appeal. … After sitting out practice Wednesday, both Maurkice Pouncey (chest) and Ramon Foster (back) were full participants in practice Thursday. … Marcus Gilbert (hamstring), Stephon Tuitt (back) and Vince Williams (hip) all missed their second consecutive day of practice. … Tyler Matakevich, who would replace Williams in the starting lineup at inside linebacker, made it through his second consecutive day of practice despite a shoulder injury.