Veteran Mike Miller continues to thrive as Winnipeg Blue Bombers special-teams ace


Published December 10, 2021 at 2:39 pm

Mike Miller has brought a lot of attention to one of pro football’s most unheralded jobs.

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers fullback was the CFL’s special-teams tackles leader this season with 25. That’s the same total he had in 2019 over 18 games, four less than he played in 2021.

The six-foot, 218-pound native of Riverview, N.B., has long been the CFL’s top special-teams ace. This season the 32-year-old broke former B.C. Lion Jason Arakgi’s league record of 190 special-teams tackles and has amassed 210 in 172 career regular-season games.

On Sunday, Miller will attempt to earn his third Grey Cup ring when Winnipeg faces the Hamilton Tiger-Cats at Tim Hortons Field.

Miller can’t fully explain his special-teams prowess. But he admits it takes a different mindset to race downfield at full speed while evading opposition blockers but still being under control to stop on a dime and react to speedy kick returners.

“You’ve got to have a no-quit attitude,” he said. “I remember Osh (Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea) said this in an interview, it’s kind of like being in street fight a little bit.

“Many times you’re in a one-on-one battle or two-on-one battle and you have to beat the guy in front of you and get down there and try to either block someone or make the tackle. You have to really put your body on the line, not that that isn’t the case for everybody in football . . . but you know on kickoffs you’re going to be running down as fast as you can and potentially have to run into someone.”

Miller cracked the Edmonton Elks’ roster as undrafted free agent out of Acadia in 2011. He spent six seasons in Alberta, earning his first Grey Cup title in 2015.

The following year, Miller led the CFL with 27 special-teams tackles — which remains a career high — in 16 regular-season games. But he was released March 1, 2017 having recorded 116 special-teams tackles in 104 games with Edmonton.

Miller wasn’t unemployed long, signing with Winnipeg two days later. In his first season with the Bombers, Miller recorded a team-high 22 special-teams tackles and also scored his first pro TD on an 18-yard return of a blocked punt.

Miller was the West Division’s top special-teams player and a division all-star in 2019 after recording 25 special-teams tackles. He capped the year off with a special-teams tackle in Winnipeg’s 33-12 Grey Cup win against Hamilton.

As Miller prepares for his third CFL championship game, he has a definite appreciation of what he’s accomplished and where he’s at. Winnipeg is not only attempting to become the first team to successfully defend its Grey Cup title since the Montreal Alouettes (2009-10) but give Manitoba its first repeat champion since 1961-62.

“It (winning the Grey Cup) is such a hard thing to do,” Miller said. “(Winning two straight titles) would be pretty incredible if we could do that.”

But Miller cautions against looking too far ahead. He said right now, his focus remains on Hamilton returner Brandon (Speedy) Banks and Papi White, who had a 92-yard punt return TD in the Ticats’ 27-19 East Division win against Toronto last weekend.

“It’s in his (Banks’) name,” Miller said. “He’s got probably some of the most, if not the most, high-end speed in the CFL and you definitely have to contain him and make sure he doesn’t get outside our containment.

“And there’s also White, who did a really good job in the East final. They have a few good guys so we’ll have to be prepared for whoever we’re going to see.”

Completing his 10th CFL season, Miller has learned many tricks of the special-teams trade. But it also doesn’t hurt having a head coach like O’Shea, who played special teams during a Hall of Fame career as a linebacker and later served as Toronto’s special-teams coordinator (2010-13) before coming to Winnipeg in 2014.

“He’s a wealth of knowledge,” Miller said. “He’s been out there and seen a lot of scenarios.

“He knows the rule book inside and out so he gives you all of the little nuances and stuff like that.”

The vast majority of special-teams players toil in relative anonymity but what they do is often crucial for their teams.

“Field position is so huge,’ Miller said. “A big, explosive play could be detrimental (to opposition) and give you a huge momentum swing as well.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 10, 2021.

Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press

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