BENGALS WLB VONTAZE BURFICT AND MLB REY MAUALUGA VS. STEELERS TE HEATH MILLER
Only The Gronk has more touchdown catches than Miller's eight when it comes to tight ends and one of them came against the Bengals back on Oct. 21 when he slyly beat usually reliable cornerback Leon Hall on a fade route for a nine-yard touchdown catch. Which shows how good Miller is because the Bengals love that matchup.
"It was a fade and he out-jumped Leon," says defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. "They didn't like that matchup, but I would have taken it at any time. They shifted on the goal line. I think they thought we'd be in different personnel. They shifted Heath out, Leon guessed on a slant and they threw the fade."
If you've got a pulse, you can be Ben Roethlisberger's go-to guy, as long as you're downfield. And Miller makes himself very available, as evidenced by last Sunday's freelance 30-yard touchdown connection with 34 seconds left in the half. He's tied for 13th in the AFC with 17 third-down catches, three for touchdowns.
(Take a bow, Bengals tight end Jermaine Gresham. He's tied for 10th with 18 third-down catches as well as three TDs, but he's averaging 13.5 per third down compared to Miller's 9.9.)
Still, Miller is dangerous, tough and good. It's why Steeler Nation chants "Heath" every time he touches the ball.
"He's a terrific player. I have a lot respect for him," Zimmer says. "He does a lot of things that people don't see. We have to pay attention to him within the framework of the game plan and what we're trying to get accomplished. There are certain plays that we have to make sure we're doubling him and so forth."
Zimmer likes the matchup with his linebackers on Miller more than he did back in October because their improved play is a reason the defense has played so well in the second half of the season. Burfict, the rookie who came up with the club's season-high 16 tackles in his debut against Pittsburgh, and Maualuga are playing better in coverage. And another rookie backer, Emmanuel Lamur, has played well in nickel and he wasn't active yet when the Bengals played the Steelers.
All three have to be alert across the middle.
"It's more like I envisioned it right from the start, how we've been playing," Zimmer says. "We're not perfect by any stretch. We can still get a lot better. We looked really undisciplined the other night (in Philadelphia) on the three offsides we had after we talked about it all week along, about hard counts. We can improve on a lot of things. The worst thing for us is to be an undisciplined team, especially against a guy like this."
Zimmer is referring to Roethlisberger, but the kids have beaten some stars in the past month or so. The Bengals got the best of Eli Manning and Philip Rivers and while the Cowboys beat them, Burfict kept a pretty good handle on Pro Bowl tight end Jason Witten with four catches for 62 yards. With 16 tackles on a Sunday night and with 10 more tackles and a pass defensed in the end zone last Thursday night, Burfict doesn't shy away from the kind of under-the-lights game this week.
"I think he just likes to play football. He's getting more confident. He had to change positions," Zimmer says of Burfict's move from the middle to the outside. "He had to do all of those things. I think he just likes playing football. The good thing about him is when he makes a mistake, he can say 'Hey, that was me. I messed up.' A lot of times guys don't know when they messed up. So that's impressive for a young guy. I think he's getting more comfortable. He's had some tough assignments in the last six weeks. He was on Witten in that game.
"He's an instinctive guy and that helps in pass coverage a lot. He's got good vision. He sees things."
Burfict knows he'll have to have all eyes on Miller. While catching six balls for 53 yards back in October, Miller heard Burfict complimenting him on a route he ran.
"Yeah, I had you man," is what Burfict remembers Miller saying to him.
"He's a great tight end. I have to read my keys and understand he doesn't have the best speed, but he runs great routes," Burfict says. "For me, it's getting on him and getting my hands on him. No receiver or tight end runs as fast with hands on them."
Burfict is making a pitch for somebody's Rookie of the Year. He is certainly the Bengals Rookie of the Year, although any other year right guard Kevin Zeitler, center Trevor Robinson, or wide receiver Mohamed Sanu could have made a claim. But now that Burfict has passed Maualuga in tackles for the team lead, 139-135, at a position he never played before for a defense ranked ninth against the run and sixth overall, it's a no-brainer.
But Burfict doesn't want to hear about stats.
"Not at all. It's more about the (won-loss) record. Me leading in tackles, me making plays, that's great and all. But if we don't we get the win, the tackles are thrown out the window. Stats are nothing for me," Burfict says.
He may not like stats, but he's created a new one. It's not exactly SABR stuff. But maybe CAST fits for a linebacker duo: Combined assists and solo tackles.
"They should combine me and Rey's stats and instead of saying Burfict is leading because we are a team and a linebacking corps," he says.
When he plays, you forget Burfict turned just 22 a day after his first NFL start in Washington on Sept. 24. Getting used to Zimmer may have been his biggest adjustment.
"When I first came in here I was kind of scared of the guy, I was like, man, he looks so mean and I told my mom, 'I'm scared of our defensive coordinator. I'm scared to mess up at practice,' " Burfict says. "She's like, 'It's going to get better.' So, as days go by I just realize he's a great defensive coordinator; he just wants you to do what he's coaching.
"You do what he's coaching he'll kind of lean up off you. Like, OK, that is doing what I'm coaching; I don't have to yell at him as much now. But for me, I think players play better when they are scared of the defensive coordinator because they don't want to mess up as much. That kind of goes with me, I don't want to mess up my job. I read my keys and stuff because I know later on I will have to hear Zimmer's mouth. "
But Burfict can tell that maybe he's playing a lot better than he was when he first met Zimmer.
"It's still there," Burfict says of the fear factor. "He's actually pretty nice to me now."
Just imagine how nice Zimmer will be if Burfict covers Miller well on Sunday.