Veteran Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Heath Miller has served loyally for the past 10 seasons. He rarely even misses time, as when he tore his ACL late in the 2012 season and his rehab only lasted through the first two games of the following season. He has been a workhorse, and an integral piece of the puzzle for the entire length of his career.
But he will also be turning 33 during the season, even if he is coming off a year in which he logged more snaps than any other tight end in the league. One could make the argument that the unrelentingly heavy load began to take a toll on his performance by the end of the season, though, as the running game lost steam in the home stretch.
As he enters his 11th season now, there have been no indications given, when it has for others, but I can’t help but wonder if we might see the coaching staff begin to take some of the burden off of Miller by distributing some of the workload away from him and on to some of the depth that they are building at the position.
It is rare, for example, to see Matt Spaeth on the field when Miller is not, and that usually means that Miller is injured. But perhaps Spaeth could take some of his snaps this year, particularly when it comes to run blocking assignments, in which the backup is a bit more proficient at this stage in their respective careers.
The fact that Spaeth doesn’t see a great many snaps to begin with, likely between 200 to 300, means that he can take on a greater workload, and also means that he has less mileage on his body, so even though he is only about a year younger than Miller, he’s had less wear and tear while playing close to 1000 snaps a year.
This is not without precedent, of course, to begin to spell veteran players as they age, perhaps even with a mind toward phasing him out. This is what the Steelers did on defense a few years ago with inside linebacker James Farrior.
Like Miller, Farrior was a workhorse who didn’t come off the field and always kept his head down and nose clean. But he was aging, and the Steelers decided to spell him with Larry Foote, who took over the starting job the year after.
That might not be a perfect parallel between the two situations, but there could still be something of worth to take away from the situation. The Steelers also kept Brett Keisel out of the starting lineup last year to keep him fresher for the long haul, though we know how that ended up.
I am of the opinion that we did see some fatigue from Miller down the stretch, and that perhaps lightening his load some by distributing some of his playing time to Spaeth, Will Johnson, and Jesse James could serve the team and the player well. Maybe it will even help assure that he sees out the length of his contract, which runs through the 2016 season.