AFC North: Tony Gonzalez

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger often calls teammate Heath Miller the best tight end in football. But according to ESPN.com's positional Power Rankings, Miller is not even in the top 12 at his position.

Miller came in at No. 13 in this week's ranking of the NFL's best tight ends. ESPN.com senior writer John Clayton and I were the only two voters who had Miller on their ballots. Clayton voted Miller ninth and I ranked Miller seventh.

This confirms what most of us in the AFC North blog already suspected: Miller remains one of the league's most underrated players. Injuries hurt his numbers in 2010 (42 receptions for 512 yards). But Miller was recently an AFC representative in the Pro Bowl two seasons ago with 76 receptions for 789 yards and six touchdowns.

Miller is not flashy and will never catch 100 passes per season playing in Pittsburgh's offense. But in my opinion, Miller is one of the NFL's most complete tight ends and worthy of being on this list.

Miller makes the most of his limited opportunities. He's sure-handed and great at running downhill after the catch. He's also a phenomenal run- and pass-blocker, and essentially serves as Pittsburgh's third offensive tackle.

The Steelers know how important Miller is to their offense. His contributions cannot be measured strictly by numbers because Miller adds much more with his toughness, blocking ability and being a safety valve over the middle for Roethlisberger.

Miller may not be tops at his position. But I would not select 12 tight ends for my team before taking Miller.

ESPN.com's Tight End Power Rankings

1. Jason Witten, Dallas Cowboys

2. Antonio Gates, San Diego Chargers

3. Dallas Clark, Indianapolis Colts

4. Vernon Davis, San Francisco 49ers

5. Chris Cooley, Washington Redskins

6. Tony Gonzalez, Atlanta Falcons

7. Kellen Winslow Jr., Tampa Bay Buccaneers

8. Marcedes Lewis, Jacksonville Jaguars

9. Brandon Pettigrew, Detroit Lions

10. Jermichael Finley, Green Bay Packers

Walker's Tight End Power Rankings

1. Jason Witten, Dallas

2. Antonio Gates, San Diego

3. Dallas Clark, Indianapolis

4. Kellen Winslow Jr., Tampa Bay

5. Vernon Davis, San Francisco

6. Tony Gonzalez, Atlanta

7. Heath Miller, Pittsburgh

8. Chris Cooley, Washington

9. Zach Miller, Oakland Raiders

10. Dustin Keller, New York Jets

Final Word: AFC North

September, 10, 2010
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NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 1:

[+] EnlargeTroy Polamalu
Jason Bridge/US PresswireTroy Polamalu will be matched up against tight end Tony Gonzalez.
There is a great matchup in Pittsburgh on Sunday between a future Hall of Famer and potential Hall of Famer. Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez, one of the greatest tight ends ever, will be monitored closely by Pittsburgh Steelers star safety Troy Polamalu. This will be a stellar battle of athleticism versus size, as Gonzalez likes to shield opponents with his big frame to ward off defenders to make receptions. The Steelers will be aggressive with their blitz packages this week. So you can expect Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan to look to Gonzalez as a safety valve.

If you're into trends, Pittsburgh has had its way against the Falcons. The Steelers are 11-2-1 all time against Atlanta, including a 5-0-1 mark in Pittsburgh. The Steelers also have an NFL-best seven-game winning streak in openers. So why is Pittsburgh a home underdog? Backup Dennis Dixon is starting at quarterback in place of the suspended Ben Roethlisberger.

Keep an eye on the Cleveland Browns' pass rush, which didn't produce much in the preseason. Cleveland's defense, ranked No. 31 last season, struggled in a lot of areas but was eighth in the NFL with 40 sacks. It was baffling how the starters couldn't get to the quarterback during preseason. Sunday's game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will prove if Cleveland defensive coordinator Rob Ryan was holding back this preseason with vanilla schemes or if the lack of pass rush is a legitimate concern.

Cincinnati Bengals' receivers will look to exploit a mismatch against the New England Patriots' secondary. A season-ending shoulder injury to veteran Leigh Bodden leaves New England with starting cornerbacks Darius Butler and rookie Devin McCourty, who have two combined years of experience. The Bengals, meanwhile, have two experienced veterans in receivers Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens, who should have success Sunday. Cincinnati caught a break because Bodden, who once played for the Browns, usually defended Ochocinco well.

If there were a championship in the NFL for trash talking, the New York Jets and Baltimore Ravens would be the two top contenders. As you've seen this week, no teams in the league do it better, and what makes it fun is that New York and Baltimore are two bullies who are good at backing it up. The Ravens know Jets coach Rex Ryan well and were aware of the mind games he would try to pull to get under Baltimore's skin. But the time for talking is almost over. We will have plenty more on this "Monday Night Football" game this weekend in the AFC North blog.

Q&A with Steelers CB Bryant McFadden

September, 9, 2010
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PITTSBURGH -- After a one-year hiatus, cornerback Bryant McFadden is happy to be back in a Steelers uniform.

McFadden will try to bring stability back to Pittsburgh's secondary, which struggled holding leads last year. The Steelers face a stiff test right away against quarterback Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday.

The AFC North blog caught up with McFadden to get his thoughts on the Falcons and other topics.

[+] EnlargeBryant McFadden
AP Photo/Ross D. FranklinBryant McFadden (20) last played for the Steelers during Super Bowl XLIII. He spent last year with the Arizona Cardinals, who the Steelers beat in that Super Bowl.
Bryant, are you aware that your last meaningful game in a Steelers uniform was Super Bowl XLIII?

BM: Yeah, I thought about it a little bit. I can remember how happy we were, being able to reach that pinnacle with the type of season we went through and the adversity. We finally were able to get to that mark that a lot of people never get the chance to experience in their career. We were able to do that. Now being back, we're just trying to bring that back to the forefront again. But none of that matters. The only thing that matters right now is the Atlanta Falcons game.

How much responsibility rests on your defense with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger suspended four games?

BM: We know as a group, when you play Pittsburgh Steelers defense there is always a level of expectation that you're expected to reach. With the tradition of the Steel Curtain and the numerous great defenses we've had the last few years, it's always a thought process to be able to carry that tradition. We know there might be games where it may be 6-9, or 10-9, things of that nature. We will have to step up and play the type of football we're accustomed to doing. It's nothing new to us.

What's your take on the Atlanta Falcons' offense from what you've seen on film?

BM: They're a good group of guys. They do a lot of different things as far as motioning and changing up formations. They make you switch your defense and they work together very, very well. Matt Ryan, with how he's throwing the ball, [receiver] Roddy White, it's going to be a big challenge. We're playing against one of the premiere tight ends [Tony Gonzalez] to ever suit up. Every week in the NFL is going to be a high competition level anyway. So with that being said, we just got to go out and execute and play our kind of football.

You were once a young player trying to learn Pittsburgh's defense. What's your advice for second-year cornerback Keenan Lewis, who's struggled and was frustrated this preseason?

BM: Just stay focused. Those guys you're covering, they get paid also. This is a league right now that is set for offenses to catch passes, so we're already behind the eight ball covering them with the rules and how things work. So just stay focused. Cornerbacks are in tough situations. You have to be mentally tough and definitely have to have a short memory.

Seven-step drop

January, 18, 2010
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With every AFC North team looking ahead to next season, here are seven notes and observations within the division:

  • One of the most baffling stories in the division this year was the inconsistency of the Baltimore Ravens. After Sept. 27, the team never won more than two games in a row. That trend held true to form in the playoffs. The Ravens looked dominant in a 33-14 wild-card win over the New England Patriots, then ineffective during last weekend's loss to the Indianapolis Colts, 20-3. That kind of roller-coaster production was the story of Baltimore's season, and it's hard to put a finger on the issue. When I asked some players about it Saturday night, they were just as confused.

"I don't know," Ravens linebacker Jarret Johnson said. "We got to play consistent across the board. We got games where the offense plays really good and games where the defense [plays well]. We had a couple of complete games. But we got to find a way when the offense struggles, we got to make a play and help them out. They got to do the same for us, and there are times this year when we haven't done that."


    Dennis Wierzbicki/US PresswireBaltimore needs to surround quarterback Joe Flacco with more weapons next season.
  • In my opinion, Baltimore's offseason should be about making sure quarterback Joe Flacco has enough weapons to take the next step in his third year. If you look around the NFL, teams made sure to assist their young starting quarterbacks. The Atlanta Falcons acquired future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez last offseason for quarterback Matt Ryan. The New York Jets made an in-season trade with the Cleveland Browns to acquire No. 1 receiver Braylon Edwards for rookie Mark Sanchez. The Ravens haven't done anything close to that for Flacco since he entered the league two years ago. This year could be tough with all the free agency rules during an uncapped year. But April's draft isn't a bad place to start.
  • Officials got the call right on Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis' second-quarter hit on Colts receiver Austin Collie. By rule, there was helmet-to-helmet contact and the officials had to throw the flag. However, I didn't view the play as dirty. Collie was on his way to a touchdown, and Lewis did his best to separate the player from the football. A big hit was the only way to do that, but the helmet contact rightfully earned the penalty.
  • The Cincinnati Bengals need help with pass protection, which is why it's crucial for last year's No. 6 overall pick Andre Smith to have a good offseason. Smith has the potential to be Cincinnati's best pass protector at right tackle. But this was a red-shirt season. Smith missed all of training camp in a contract dispute and much of the regular season with a broken bone in his foot. The Bengals are not guaranteeing Smith a starting role in 2010. But it would be in their best interest that he develops and wins the job.
  • The New York Jets currently have some kind of power over kickers. During their run through the playoffs, kickers are 0 of 5 on field-goal attempts. Bengals kicker Shayne Graham missed two kicks and Nate Kaeding of the San Diego Chargers missed three. Both kickers were reliable during the regular season.
  • Steelers president Art Rooney II told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette the team needs to improve on developing young players. Recently, Pittsburgh's top draft picks waited a year or two before cracking the starting lineup. Recent examples are tailback Rashard Mendenhall and linebackers LaMarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons, who waited three years to become a full-time starter. This comment could be spurred, in part, by the instant success of rookie receiver Mike Wallace. Ownership probably sees Wallace, a third-round pick, and wonders why more rookies and young players on the roster haven't made immediate contributions.
  • Mike Holmgren's influence in Cleveland is already being felt with the acquisition of new general manager Tom Heckert. Last year, Heckert, who worked with the Philadelphia Eagles, was a candidate for the same job in Cleveland but withdrew his name after meeting several times with Browns owner Randy Lerner. Heckert didn't feel the situation was better than the one he had in Philadelphia. This year Holmgren comes aboard and closes the deal quickly with Heckert. It's that type of respect and credibility Holmgren brings which the Browns need to convince top players and executives to come to Cleveland.
As the Pittsburgh Steelers continue to morph into a pass-first offense, one of the biggest beneficiaries this season has been starting tight end Heath Miller.

Miller
The five-year veteran has already set new career-highs for receptions (71) and yards (733) in a season. Pittsburgh (8-7) will finish its regular season Sunday against the Miami Dolphins (7-8).

Miller has also been one of the most dependable targets in the league, catching 71 of 91 passes (78 percent) thrown in his direction.

Here are the NFL's most-targeted tight ends heading into Week 17, courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information:

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