How Heath Miller's Knee Injury Affects the Pittsburgh Steelers' 2013 Plans

Andrea HangstFeatured Columnist IVDecember 26, 2012

With Heath Miller's 2013 season in question, so goes the Steelers'.
With Heath Miller's 2013 season in question, so goes the Steelers'.Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Heath Miller injured his knee in the fourth quarter of Week 16's loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, and the diagnosis—torn anterior cruciate, medial collateral ligaments and a damaged PCL—is one of the worst a football player can hear.

His season is over—and so is the Steelers', who were knocked out of playoff contention in the loss—but Miller's injury will reverberate well into 2013.

Without question, Miller was quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's best and most reliable passing target this season. He was second in overall receiving yards, with 816 (only Mike Wallace has more, with 836), he caught 71 of the 101 passes thrown his way, he tied Wallace for the most receiving touchdowns scored with eight and he leads the team in both yards after the catch (531) and first downs (44), while never fumbling once.

The change in offensive coordinator from Bruce Arians to Todd Haley made Miller more important to his team than ever. Instead of Roethlisberger being constantly encouraged to look for the deep ball, the passing game was shortened and spread out laterally in an attempt to produce more completions, control the pace of the game and increase passing efficiency and efficacy, all while keeping Roethlisberger protected. 

That worked, especially through the first 10 weeks of the season, because of Miller. And, in the latter part of the season, when the offense appeared to sputter out, Miller was often the only bright spot.

While the nature of the injury is serious, the timing of its occurrence is even more concerning for the Steelers in the months ahead. Miller isn't Adrian Peterson—no one is, really—so it's presumptuous to assume that he can recover from two torn ligaments and be healthy enough to play come Week 1 of the upcoming season. The Steelers will need to have a contingency plan in place, and that could serve to alter their plans regarding both free agency and the draft.

For yet another year, the Steelers are going to be in terrible salary-cap shape, which will necessitate another round of roster cuts and contract restructuring to get in under the projected $121 million ceiling.

Though other, non-Miller tight ends on the roster aren't particularly expensive (Leonard Pope, who is an unrestricted free agent after this year, cost just $700,000 in his only Steelers season, while seventh-round draft pick David Paulson is owed only $480,000 next season), every penny they have needs to be spent well.

With Miller being this severely hurt, it means they'll have to spend money on another tight end—whether it be Pope or another free agent—or they'll need to use a high draft pick on one who can contribute right away. Both options are expensive for the Steelers, especially in a year when the team has a lot of key decisions to make and so many needs to meet all around the roster. 

A position of need may have to wait until next year, when it comes to the draft, while a player the Steelers hoped to retain for another season may have to be released in order to free up enough cash for an additional tight end.

This could result in the Steelers putting off getting the perfect safety to take over for Troy Polamalu, not giving a restricted free agent like Isaac Redman, Jonathan Dwyer or Emmanuel Sanders an offer, or choosing to retain restricted free-agent cornerback Josh Victorian over the unrestricted Keenan Lewis. This isn't a small matter when it comes to the team's immediate future.

Not having Miller in Week 1 (or longer) is a terrible disadvantage for the Steelers as it is, but the aftershocks of the injury on their roster and pocketbook makes this a potentially devastating development for the Steelers' 2013 season, though it hasn't even yet begun.