“Second Read” rewinds the tape after each NFL weekend to determine why the games played out the way that they did … and what it all may mean for the rest of the season.
There are flashier tight ends around the league, players like Rob Gronkowski or Vernon Davis who change defensive game plans and steal headlines.
The Steelers probably wouldn't trade Heath Miller for any of them.
Miller is more from the "traditional tight end" cut than the Gronkowskis of the world, but he is invaluable in Pittsburgh's offense -- and has been for several years. How much the Steelers rely on him was on display Sunday in their come-from-behind 24-17 win over Cincinnati.
"Heath gives us consistent effort on a week-in and week-out basis, and sometimes when we win, it gets highlighted as it should," Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin said. "But his performance is in line with what he's done all year."
The key highlights from that performance Sunday:
• With Pittsburgh down 14-6 late in the first half, Miller worked himself open in the end zone against very tight coverage, then made a tough catch over the middle for a touchdown.
• Miller then hauled in the ensuing two-point conversion on a corner fade route often reserved for a team's most athletic receiver.
• Finally, Miller had the key block on Chris Rainey's decisive 11-yard touchdown run, pulling to fill a gap up the middle and taking out a linebacker to spring Rainey into the secondary.
None of that was out of the ordinary -- Miller finished with six catches for 53 yards, and he had several solid blocks, including a punishing one on a wide receiver screen. Miller may be one of the most underappreciated players in the league, but he showed again Sunday why he's still a sensational tight end.
Here's what else jumped out from the Week 7 action, upon a second spin through the game film:
1. Seahawks, 49ers gashed the middle on the ground ... but only one took full advantage: It was sort of stunning to see on Thursday night, but both the Seahawks' Marshawn Lynch and 49ers' Frank Gore found gaping openings up the gut in a game supposedly pitting two of the NFL's better rush defenses.
Gore's success, in particular, left Seattle's linebackers with a lot on their plate -- the starting trio of Bobby Wagner, K.J. Wright and Leroy Hill combined for 27 tackles. Their focus on helping with the run left some space between the hash marks, and at least half of Alex Smith's 14 completions came over the middle, including a decisive TD to a crossing Delanie Walker. Russell Wilson, meanwhile, hit on just one pass in the middle of the field and relegated himself to short passes into the flat all night.
2. Trent Richardson definitely looked hurt: Pat Shurmur insisted he pulled Richardson from the lineup Sunday because he was ineffective, not because he had reinjured himself. That assessment might be half true.
On Cleveland's first play Sunday, Richardson caught a pass from Brandon Weeden and quickly turned upfield for a 9-yard gain. He took a shot at the end of that play, however, and never looked the same after it. From that point on, Richardson's approach was a lot choppier and more hesitant than we've seen at any point this season. If Richardson was not feeling the pain of his rib injury, then he took a big step back in terms of his approach.
3. Minnesota's amazing defensive approach: Other people have pointed this out after circling back on the Vikings-Cardinals game, but it's worth repeating over and over again: The Vikings did not blitz the Cardinals once on Sunday. Not once!
That's how confident Minnesota was in its defensive line's ability to get home against a horrid Arizona front. The results? Seven sacks and 15 QB hurries. And, with Minnesota able to keep seven in coverage, John Skelton barely even looked downfield. He threw two passes deeper than 20 yards -- one a clear throwaway kind of in Larry Fitzgerald's direction; the other, an interception on a free play created by an offsides.
4. About that Redskins' "full house" formation: The Redskins have implemented some different offensive looks to take full advantage of Robert Griffin III's skill package, and one that they used frequently Sunday employed three guys in the backfield wrapped around RGIII (seen here) -- sort of like you'd see in Air Force's flexbone, for example. There's not much film out there to help NFL defenses prepare for that, and Washington even takes it one step further at times lining up a tight end almost directly in front of Griffin, with a running back to his side and another behind him (seen here).
Washington ran a play out of that set eight times in the first three quarters, with only an unforced Alfred Morris fumble resulting in a negative outcome. Every other occurrence saw the Redskins gain four yards or more, with gains of 13, 22 and 23. They also had a 35-yard Griffin-to-Leonard Hankerson TD pass wiped out by a penalty.
The Giants stiffened against the formation in the fourth, stuffing two runs and sacking Griffin off a play-action fake. Still, expect Washington to keep turning to the unique look in the future.
5. Saints' interior D-line turned the tide: After they gave up 21 points to Tampa Bay in the first half, it looked like the Saints were on their way to another awful defensive outing. But the script changed during the Buccaneers' first drive of the second half. Tampa Bay made it all the way to the Saints' 27 ... and then the New Orleans' defensive line took over the game. It started inside, with Sedrick Ellis, Akiem Hicks and others stepping up -- setting the tone for the goal-line stand that later defined this Saints victory.
6. A faster Raiders offense was a more effective Raiders offense: Oakland trailed 20-6 on Sunday when it opted to go to a no-huddle attack, giving QB Carson Palmer a little more control over the proceedings.
The bigger change, though, was that Palmer's play sped up -- whereas he spent the first half avoiding pressure after deep drops, Palmer displayed a lot of three- and five-step, quick-release passes over the final two quarters, taking advantage of what was available. He clearly found a better rhythm late, which allowed him to even connect on a couple of throws while under heavy pressure.
7. A huge step back from Brandon Lloyd ... and a great day from Antonio Cromartie: Despite finding the end zone just once this season, Brandon Lloyd had been pretty steady as a Tom Brady target through six games. That changed Sunday, as Antonio Cromartie almost completely took him out of the Patriots' passing attack.
Lloyd caught just one pass for six yards, while facing man-coverage from Cromartie for the majority of the game. Worse yet, Brady took several shots deep for Lloyd, and Lloyd failed to create any separation. Cromartie provided a very tough matchup for Lloyd, but without any vertical threat, Brady was forced to stay with a short passing attack throughout Sunday.
8. Great game for Bryan Bulaga, terrible one for Marshall Newhouse: Week 7 was a tale of two tackles for the Packers. Newhouse was abused throughout much of Green Bay's 30-20 win by St. Louis DE Robert Quinn; Quinn finished with a sack and several QB pressures.
Bulaga, on the other hand, absolutely stuffed Chris Long, a development that had to leave the Packers thrilled. Bulaga took advantage of Long's aggressiveness several times, simply guiding him upfield and out of the picture. But even more impressively, Bulaga stood the Rams' talented pass rusher up on multiple occasions, giving Rodgers room to slide away from Quinn's pressure.
9. Is Baltimore's pass defense a bigger concern than its run defense?: Especially with Ray Lewis out for the year (and struggling pre-injury) and Haloti Ngata hobbling, there's a lot of focus on Baltimore's inability to control the ground game. But even if the Ravens solve that problem, teams might just take to the air. Both Cary Williams (now the No. 1 cornerback with Lardarius Webb out) and Jimmy Smith (now No. 2) appeared overmatched Sunday. Neither came close to slowing down Andre Johnson, and Kevin Walter gave them almost as much trouble.
10. Kenny Britt early opened up everything else late for Tennessee: Britt seemed headed for a huge day Sunday, with three grabs for 26 yards on Tennessee's opening touchdown drive. Buffalo held him to just one catch for four yards the rest of the way, but the damage was done. By leaning on Britt heavily during that opening drive, the Titans forced the Bills to cheat more of their coverage in Britt's direction -- a strategy that further strained a defense already unequipped to stop Chris Johnson. As a result, Matt Hasselbeck was able to complete passes to seven other players and orchestrate a late, game-winning drive.
11. Luke Kuechly thriving in the middle: The Panthers moved Kuechly to middle linebacker with Jon Beason hobbled in Week 5. Kuechly responded with 11 tackles and an interception. The rookie again manned the middle Sunday, as Beason sat again, and he delivered 15 tackles (8 solo, 7 assisted). Kuechly was everywhere Sunday, flying to the football horizontally, both against the run and Dallas' short passing attack. He's made it so the Panthers will have to consider keeping this setup even if Beason returns.
12. Where's Devin Hester's mojo?: There was a time when Hester was the most feared kick/punt returner in the league. Maybe we can chalk it up to his increasing age, but Hester seems very tentative in his punt return role right now. He had one return for five yards Monday vs. Detroit and fair caught another ball despite there being a bunch of open space in front of him. The Lions stayed away from him for much of the night, kicking to the sidelines, but they easily contained him when the ball stayed in play.