Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Heath Miller, with his right knee wrapped, walks across the practice field during an OTA session Wednesday at the team headquarters in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo)
PITTSBURGH — Heath Miller knows his football career isn't over, just paused. When the injured Pittsburgh Steelers Pro Bowl tight end will be able to hit the "play" button again is anybody's guess.
While allowing there's "a chance" his surgically repaired right knee could be ready before the season opener against the Tennessee Titans on Sept. 8, Miller thinks it's too early to project just when he'll slip on his No. 83 jersey and return to his job as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's favorite target.
"I'm just trying to get better every day, and I'm doing what I've been asked to do," Miller said Wednesday. "And I'm listening to my body, so I'll just progress that way."
Five months removed from a gruesome hit that prematurely ended the best season of his career, Miller's body is telling him to be encouraged. He's already running and walked around the practice field in a T-shirt and black shorts with his right knee wrapped in tape and ice during the second day of organized team activities.
It's a far different view than the last time Miller was on a field. He made a leaping catch in the first quarter against the Cincinnati Bengals on Dec. 23 and took a low shot from Bengals safety Reggie Nelson. Miller hobbled to the sideline only to return later — and have the damage become more extensive. He ended up tearing the ACL in the knee and injuring the medial collateral ligament and posterior collateral ligament, too.
The road back hasn't been easy. Miller is on an aggressive lifting program to get his right leg back into shape. Just as important is Miller's peace of mind. The pain he can deal with; the uncertainty of what his next step will hold is something else entirely. Miller figures getting a handle on the former will help him with the latter.
"That's the big thing now, the main thing, because after surgery you lose a lot of strength," Miller said. "And then there's some atrophy. So I want to get it back to where it's as strong as my other leg."
Though Miller insists he's had "no pressure" from the team in terms of his rehabilitation, the Steelers seem to believe he'll be ready sooner rather than later. Pittsburgh brought back Matt Spaeth in the offseason but declined to pick a tight end in the draft even though Notre Dame's Tyler Eifert was available when the Steelers went on the clock with the 17th pick in the first round.
Pittsburgh went with outside linebacker Jarvis Jones instead, with Eifert going to AFC North rival Cincinnati at No. 21. Miller thinks the decision not to select Eifert and his own health are two separate things.
"I think it might be a little too much forward thinking," Miller said. "At least it is for me."
Either way, there appears to be no plans for the Steelers to think about finding Miller's successor. In addition to Spaeth, the Steelers also have second-year Logan Paulson and David Johnson, who is recovering from his own knee issues. They are on the roster to provide depth.
Miller is on it to produce.
The 31-year-old was in the midst of the finest season of his career when Nelson's helmet collided with Miller's knee. Miller finished with 71 receptions for 816 yards and eight touchdowns and was named to his second Pro Bowl just before prior to getting injured.
Despite the lengthy rehabilitation, he has tried to stay upbeat. Play the game long enough, and the odds of staying healthy dwindle. Miller still has missed just five games in eight seasons at one of the most demanding positions in the sport.
"You're not going to be healthy for your whole career," Miller said. "Guys who are able to do that are few and far between. So realistically, major injuries are bound to happen sooner or later. You just have to deal with them and move on."
Regardless of his status, Miller is confident the Steelers can put a disappointing 8-8 season behind them.
"I believe we still have enough guys to be good," he said. "Every year, in this league, you're going to lose somebody. So, it is what it is. It's expected, and I don't think anything drastic will happen on our end."