By John Boyle Herald Columnist
RENTON — You’ve heard the one about Zach Miller, right?
The joke that he ought to have changed numbers to something in the 70s for the 2012 season. Or the comments after he catches a pass like, “I hope he reported eligible for that play.” Get it? Because instead of a tight end, Miller played a lot more like an offensive tackle last season?
Well, if the last couple of weeks are any indicator, it may be time to put those jokes — which I have been guilty of making — to bed. Miller, one of Seattle’s big-money free agent signings in 2011 along with receiver Sidney Rice (more on him in a moment), had what, on paper anyway, was a very disappointing 2011 season. After catching 56, 66 and 60 passes in his previous three seasons in Oakland, Miller had just 25 last year for 233 yards.
This season, Miller hardly has been lighting up opposing defenses, but with three catches in each of his past two games and 59 yards last week — the most he has gained with Seattle — Miller is starting to look more and more like the pass-catching threat the Seahawks were hoping for when they signed the Pro Bowl player last year.
“It’s good,” Miller said of his recent success in the receiving game. “I’ve always been pretty involved in the passing game, so to finally be more involved in this one has been nice.”
But here’s the thing. It’s not like Miller suddenly made any drastic improvements to his game. Despite Miller’s lack of production last season, Pete Carroll constantly praised the tight end’s play. The fact of the matter was that the Seahawks had a young offensive line that also sustained a number of injuries, and rather than risk getting Tarvaris Jackson killed, the Seahawks frequently asked Miller to stay home and block.
“He’s doing everything that he was doing last year, we’re just getting the ball to him more,” Carroll said. “He’s been very consistent. He’s been right on point, he’s just been waiting for the chances. It’s more that we’re using him more properly for his talent.”
And Miller was never one to complain last year, even as he went long stretches without ever running a route, never mind catching a pass. He does, however, believe that the player we saw last week is much more valuable finding soft spots in a defense than the one who spent most of last season helping tackles deal with opposing pass rushers.
“The only frustration was that I felt like I could help our offense,” Miller said. “I’m a team guy, so anything to help the team.”
This week, perhaps more than ever, the Seahawks will need everyone in the passing game, Miller included, to build off of the progress shown last week. Yes, Seattle’s defense is good — the best in the league, in fact, by some measures — but if there is ever a team that can find a way to move the ball and score, it is New England. If the Patriots continue to use the no-huddle offense that led to so much success last week, the sheer number of plays they might run could mean points even if the defense plays well.
And if that happens, if Tom Brady and his dynamic offense manage a couple of touchdowns, that means a Seahawks offense — the worst team in the NFL at scoring touchdowns in the red zone — will have to elevate its game. The good news for Seattle is that, other than one horrific throw, Russell Wilson looked significantly better last week. In addition to getting Miller involved, Wilson found Rice five times for 67 yards, the receiver’s most productive game since the middle of last season.
As long as the Seahawks continue to run as well and as frequently as they have, teams will focus more and more on stopping Marshawn Lynch, which increasingly will put the onus on the passing game; on players like Miller and Rice to take advantage of defenses that stack the box to stop the run.
While the offense should continue to improve as its rookie quarterback gets more comfortable from week to week, it also will have to become less conservative for the Seahawks to take a big step forward. Carroll makes no secret of the fact that he wants to have a run-first offense, and that’s all fine and good as long as the Seahawks are playing the close, low-scoring games they prefer.
However, at some point, quite possibly this Sunday, a team is going to come along that finds a way to move the ball on Seattle’s vaunted defense. When that inevitably happens, the Seahawks will need Miller making plays over the middle. They’ll need Rice making big catches down the sideline. They’ll need Wilson to fit throws into tight windows in the red zone. Most importantly, the coaching staff will need to have enough confidence in the passing game to let them make those plays.
“We’re making progress every week, but it’s not something that hasn’t been there,” Rice said. “We’ve been available throughout the whole season. Our running game is just doing so well, it’s hard to go away from something that’s doing so well for you team.
“But when we incorporate the run and the pass together, that’s when we’ll become a more dangerous threat. We’ve just got to continue to take those steps, whether that be baby steps or big steps throughout the upcoming games, we’ve got to get right, try to get the passing game on the same page as the running game, then we’ll become a real threat.”
Last week, Miller and Rice gave a glimpse into what that “real threat” might look like.
“Those two guys really came down the field and made some nice plays for us,” Carroll said.
On Sunday, Seattle just might need even more out of those two 2011 free agent signings. The Seahawks certainly don’t want to get into a shootout with the Patriots, but the recent increase in production from two of their biggest targets gives them hope that they’ll be able to throw the ball successfully when necessary.
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.