Miller honored as best of strong rookie class

Heath Miller is the leader of a group of rookies who are receiving significant playing time for a Steelers team that's playing important games. That hasn't happened in Pittsburgh in a long time, perhaps since the celebrated draft class of 1974 roamed the earth.

PITTSBURGH – Heath Miller didn't catch a pass Sunday against the Chicago Bears, but he quite possibly played the best game of his burgeoning pro career.

"I think I played pretty well on the line of scrimmage," he said.

That's what the Pittsburgh Steelers like to hear from their tight end.

Miller's performance against the Bears game was proof that he's done more than his 33 catches, 318 receiving yards and six touchdowns this season would indicate. And because of that combination of playmaking and blocking skills, Miller yesterday was named winner of the Joe Greene Performance Award, which honors the Steelers' Rookie of the Year as voted on by the Pittsburgh chapter of the Pro Football Writers Association of America.

Miller, of course, was the frontrunner from the start, since he was the team's No. 1 draft pick.

"There was a little bit of pressure, especially with the success that Ben (Roethlisberger) had last year," Miller said. "That kind of set a pretty high standard around here."

Miller started the opener and on Sunday made his 12th start. He said this season "has been a lot of fun for me." He also said the highlight was the most recent game.

"I really had a lot of fun on Sunday, especially because it was really my first time playing in the snow," he said. "It was fun to be out there rolling in the mud and playing as well as we did."

Sunday was a big day for all three of the Steelers' top rookies: Miller, second-round pick Bryant McFadden and third-round pick Trai Essex all performed at a high level as the Steelers ended their three-game losing streak.

The three rookies had started the previous week's game against the Cincinnati Bengals. The previous time three rookies started for the Steelers was Jan. 6, 2002 when Casey Hampton (NT), Kendrell Bell (RILB) and Keydrick Vincent (LG) started in a meaningless game against the Cleveland Browns.

The previous season, Marvel Smith (RT), Ainsley Battles (SS) and Dan Kreider (FB) started the final two games of a non-playoff season.

Last Sunday's game was far from meaningless, and the three rookies were heavy contributors in the 21-9 win.

Miller was cited by coach Bill Cowher for his blocking, specifically the pancake of defensive end Adewale Ogunleye on Jerome Bettis's one-yard touchdown run. But Miller may have thrown a more important block on the infamous "do-over" screen pass to Verron Haynes.

Bears coach Lovie Smith accepted a penalty to put the Steelers in a third-and-13 situation instead of declining the penalty and bringing up fourth-and-one, and Haynes took the short pass 16 yards. Miller threw the key block on middle linebacker Brian Urlacher to spring Haynes for the final six yards. Miller also threw a key downfield block on Willie Parker's 45-yard screen pass and later in the half hustled to recover a fumble by teammate Cedrick Wilson.

McFadden, the Steelers' nickel cornerback, logged 33 snaps against the Bears the week after opening the game in the Steelers' dime defense against the Bengals.

McFadden enjoyed a quiet game Sunday, which might be the best thing anyone can say about a cornerback. But when McFadden does make a play, everyone knows it. His only interception this season forced the Jacksonville game into overtime, and his only sack forced Brett Favre to fumble into a Steelers touchdown at Green Bay.

Essex had his first quiet game of the season Sunday. Thanks to an injury to Marvel Smith, Essex was thrown to the wolves four games ago at the difficult left tackle position. The Steelers lost three of those games before winning Sunday. It's no coincidence the win came in Essex's best performance yet.

The Steelers had higher expectations this season for Miller, of course, but they were equally enthused about the futures of both McFadden and Essex. Scouts felt that both players needed another year to develop physically.

"They're getting experience now and they both have such a great upside," said one scout.

With Miller, that makes three.

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