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Zach Miller is just doing his job
Is Zach Miller a better receiver or a better blocker?
Darrell Bevell cocked his head and cracked a smile before the Seahawks’ offensive coordinator offered, “Is that a trick question?”
Well, yes, and no, because Miller is doing both at an exceptional level as the Seahawks prepare for Sunday’s NFC divisional playoff game against the Falcons in Atlanta. Or, as Bevell put it when asked about the diversity of the sixth-year tight end, “I think he’s very adept at both.”
That he is. Miller caught 66 and 60 passes in 2009 and 2010 while playing with the Oakland Raiders. He has 63 receptions combined the past two seasons since signing with the Seahawks as a free agent in 2011. But with the 6-foot-5, 255-pound Miller as a building-block performer, Marshawn Lynch has rushed for more yards than any back in the NFL (2,531) since Week 9 of last season; the offense averaged 161.2 rushing yards this season to rank third in the league, including an average of 211.8 during the five-game winning streak to close the regular season; and the Seahawks hung 224 on the Redskins in last week’s wild-card playoff victory against a defense that had been allowing an average of 95.8.
“Blocking is so big for a tight end, the way we use a tight end here, to be huge in the run game and pass protection and picking up blitzes,” Miller said. “So it’s just as much a part of the game as going out there and catching the ball.”
If there has been any surprise with Miller’s game, it’s just how good a blocker he is.
“He blocks great,” tight ends coach Pat McPherson said. “I didn’t think he was as good of a blocker coming in, because they didn’t ask him to do it as much there as we have. As a pass protector, he’s just a tough guy. As a run blocker, the numbers we’ve put up speak to that.”
It’s all about being a complete tight end, which Miller definitely has become.
“You hear that a lot of guys are a receiving tight end, or they’re a blocking tight end,” Miller said. “But in this system, you’ve got to be able to do a little bit of all of it.”
Or, in Miller’s case, a lot of one (blocking) and just enough of the other (receiving), especially when it’s most needed.
That was never more apparent than against the Redskins. Miller is not Tony Gonzalez, the Falcons’ slam-dunk future Hall of Famer who is the most prodigious tight end in NFL history. Against the Redskins, Miller’s receptions were more about quality than quantity.
With the Seahawks in a 14-0 hole as the first quarter was winding down, Miller reached down to help pull them out. Literally, as he caught a 12-yard pass from Russell Wilson that was a millimeter or two from hitting the turf at FedExField. The catch got the Seahawks rolling toward a field goal.
“The way the game started, we needed to convert a third down,” Miller said of coming up with the Seahawks’ first third-down conversion. “It just happened to be third-and-long, and ended up being a big play.”
In the fourth quarter, with the Redskins still up 14-13, Miller peeled off the line and – as Wilson’s fifth and final option – took a third-and-10 pass and turned it into a 22-yard gain to the Washington 32-yard line. Three plays later, Marshawn Lynch scored what proved to be the game-winning touchdown.
“Both catches were big, because of what ended up happening on the drives – we get points on the one drive, then the other one ended up being the one that was the go-ahead score,” Miller said. “Both huge plays on third-and-long, which is a tough conversion down.”
Miller then caught a pass from Wilson for the two-point conversion that put the Seahawks up by seven points with seven minutes to play.
“Love the trust from Russell to expect me to be there and then throw it out to me when he needed me,” said Miller, who was the first option on the PAT pass.
“That’s just Zach being Zach,” is the way Wilson described Miller’s invaluable contributions in the Seahawks’ first road playoff victory since 1983.
And that has been Miller since he came to the Seahawks as almost a package deal with Tom Cable, his former line coach and head coach with the Raiders. When Cable was hired as the Seahawks’ offensive line coach/assistant head coach in January of 2011, and put in charge of installing the zone-blocking scheme, he knew which tight he needed to assist him. So Miller was signed, in August following the 136-day lockout.
“Zach Miller is a really fine, fine football player,” Cable said at the time. “And a better person than he is a player. So for our team – for this program and what I’ve seen coming here and kind of the mentality, if you will – it’s extraordinary. Zach’s going to fit in very well that way.”
Bevell and McPherson knew of Miller, but they’ve discovered just what his diverse talents can mean to an offense.
“Coach Cable obviously knew the most about Zach,” Bevell said. “But what I’ve learned is just how reliable he is. He’s reliable as a blocker; we can put him in there in any situation. He’s reliable as a receiver, he’s going to do his assignment, he’s going to be on it and he’s going to do it right every time.
“That’s a coach’s dream, to have players that you can count on and are reliable in every situation.”
McPherson has been equally impressed in discovering what allows Zach to just be Zach.
“Everyone I talked to said that he’s just a class guy, real pro, prepares like crazy,” said McPherson, who is in his third season with the Seahawks and 15th in the NFL. “He is all of that, he does all of that. He prepares as well as anybody I’ve ever had – the note-taking, studying habits, everything.
“He tries to be perfect.”
Perfection can be elusive, if not unattainable, even for someone with hands as sure as Miller’s. But he has been the perfect fit at tight end for the Seahawks.
“Zach is such a good team guy that the only problem would be if he’d felt it – if he was frustrated by it,” coach Pete Carroll said of turning a 60-catch tight end into a block-first, catch-when-needed cog in what the Seahawks are doing.
“He’d like to do everything and catch 10 balls a game, but in the system the way it is, he’s there for really opportunities and to make things happen when he gets his chances. And he’s done a great job.”
His job – the often-thankless tasks Miller is being asked to do for the obvious good of the offense and the team.
“At times, I feel bad that he doesn’t get to catch as many balls as he did in Oakland,” McPherson said. “But that’s OK. That’s the kind of guy he is. He’s an unselfish player. He’s a great guy to coach. Never says boo. Never complains.
“Zach just does his job.”