TE Heath Miller finding '12 form, figures big into game plan vs. 49ers

PITTSBURGH -- Heath Miller entered the year as a reliable option but no better than third on the list of Pittsburgh Steelers' Ferrari playmakers, behind Antonio Brown, Le'Veon Bell and possibly Martavis Bryant. Some considered tight end a mild need for the Steelers in the 2015 NFL draft, where they selected Jesse James in the fifth round.

Here's the thing: Miller is "back to where he was" before tearing his anterior cruciate ligament in late 2012, offensive coordinator Todd Haley said.

Suspensions have parked two of those Ferraris, leaving Ben Roethlisberger the keys to a sensible, mileage-friendly sedan that promises a smooth ride.

Miller, 32, opened the year with an eight-catch, 84-yard performance that benefited from the New England Patriots' two-deep safety approach to containing Brown. But regardless of coverage, Miller was a spark and was deft at finding open creases for Roethlisberger.

Haley assessed Miller's game after Thursday's practice, and turns out it's one of the best he has been around.

"He's back to where he was when I first got here," Haley said. "Not quite as dynamic [as his early years] but, man, what a football player. What a guy to have on your team. Maybe best football player I've ever been around, [as far as] all around what he brings to you in such a quiet, unassuming way but commands leadership. Great football player and great guy to have around. I think he's back to where he was."

That's quite the endorsement. If Miller returns to his pre-ACL form, his 11th season could be one of his best. Miller was having a career year with eight touchdowns and 71 catches before tearing the ligament in late December. His 2013 campaign was slow, and last season was productive with 66 catches and 761 yards, but only three scores.

Miller will always fight for touches in this offense, especially when Bryant returns. Markus Wheaton is a prime target out of the slot.

But with the Steelers struggling in scoring range last week, scoring one touchdown on the first six drives despite a 57-yards-per-drive average, Roethlisberger could look to Miller once he crosses the goal line for a quick throw over the middle.

"I don't know that I've seen two players, a quarterback and receiver, on the same page as much as Ben and Heath," Haley said.

Miller said he doesn't take for granted his longevity and plans to produce as a result.

Miller's value comes from pass-catching and stout blocking. He's a traditional tight end in every sense. Not every tight end does both well. Many are hybrids who consider themselves receivers first.

Make no mistake, Miller likes it when he gets to freestyle. He gets to do so when Roethlisberger extends a play. Their bond is strongest when plays go off script.

"He still likes playground football, and that works for me," Miller said. "I just have to get open and he'll find me."

Roethlisberger is not surprised that Miller's game is aging well.

"Because he's aging well," Roethlisberger said. "He's a guy that works and takes pride in his craft. He makes sure he's in great shape and ready to go."