When discussing their second-round pick (#55 overall) in the 2021 NFL Draft, team personnel of the Pittsburgh Steelers have noted that Pat Freiermuth’s positional versatility is one of the main reasons they were interested in him. The Steelers also had a glaring need at tight end when looking at the depth they had at the position pre-draft. On top of this, it has been apparent that a versatile tight end can impact a team’s offense both on the ground and through the air, as many recent Super Bowls have featured teams with elite tight ends who create mismatches and come up big in clutch situations.
Since the Steelers’ mentality (stemming all the way from the higher-ups) going into the draft and the 2021 season is/was to revamp their run game and add more weapons to the offense, the Freiermuth pick makes sense when considering all of those factors. Tight ends offer great positional value to a roster when they are above average contributors as both a blocker and receiver. They can bolster the run game, while also adding a threat as a pass catcher that opposing defenses must take into account.
Going even beyond that, the Steelers will be operating with a new-look offense schematically, and Freiermuth should offer them the ability to get creative with how they want to employ their tight ends. While this report is focusing on Pat Freiermuth, we can’t forget about Eric Ebron and how his skill set can be used in tandem with the rookie. *It does have to be noted that we must be cautiously optimistic in order to temper expectations for Freiermuth’s contributions early in his career, because tight end is a very difficult position to transition from college to the NFL.*
Pat Freiermuth Film Study
First, let’s go over the obvious. Pat Freiermuth can and will be utilized as a traditional, in-line tight end. While he definitely needs to improve his consistency (and aggressiveness at times) as a blocker, Freiermuth’s play style is a combination of both old school and modern tight end. He has the build and “want to” to be a viable blocker in the rushing attack, and he also utilizes his build with some deceptive short area athleticism to provide receiving ability for the passing attack as well. He has the best of both worlds in his potential as both a blocker and pass catcher. This versatility is something the Steelers will use to their advantage with their new-look offense, so let’s get into the film.
This clip is from Penn State vs. Ohio State back in 2019. Freiermuth slightly hesitates off the line before gaining forward momentum while maintaining inside leverage. He uses his frame to keep positioning, and when the pass is thrown, he locates it and swivels his upper body/head urgently to the inside. Despite being sandwiched by two defenders, Freiermuth holds on to the catch with both arms hugging the ball.
Moving on, employing Freiermuth as an H-back is one of the more tantalizing possibilities for his skill set. As I noted in my original scouting report on Freiermuth back in January, I believe Freiermuth can excel as an H-back in the NFL. New Steelers’ offensive coordinator Matt Canada is expected to utilize motion heavily, so getting Freiermuth moving laterally behind the line pre-snap, to give him room to work with in the passing game, could be one of the most common ways the Steelers will feed him manufactured touches. Also, he will likely be asked to move across the line to pick up edge defenders on blocks, which is something Matt Canada’s offense has required of tight ends in the past.
In this clip from Penn State’s 2020 matchup with Ohio State, the run threat pulls the second level defenders in, which allows Freiermuth to leak out to the opposite side of the field that the run fake is flowing. The nearest linebacker has his eyes in the backfield, so Freiermuth has free space to catch the pass and turn upfield for extra yards. Matt Canada’s offense will focus on finding a variety of ways to put the defenders in conflict, and he will likely do so by stretching the field horizontally, with possible threats flowing in opposite directions. That’s what’s seen in this clip from Freiermuth’s time at Penn State. While these freebies will be much harder to come by in the NFL, having a balanced attack makes it easier for an offense to create manufactured touches.
This clip from Penn State’s 2019 game against Memphis in the Cotton Bowl shows Freiermuth’s after the catch ability. He moves across the formation behind the line post-snap, then he looks to make something happen with the football immediately after securing the easy catch. He displays physicality and strength by lowering his pad level and trucking the defender in his way. As was just noted, these types of short, manufactured targets are right up Freiermuth’s alley. Get him the ball in space and allow him to generate yards any way possible.
Since Freiermuth is a capable receiver with room to grow, the threat he also creates as a blocker will force defenses to respect him in both the pass and the run game. As noted, as a blocker Freiermuth will likely be asked to move horizontally often, as this is something Matt Canada has shown in his offense. Freiermuth’s short area athleticism allows him to be effective when working across the line as a blocker. While he can further improve his aggressiveness and ability to sustain blocks, he has built a solid foundation that obviously caught the attention of the Steelers’ brass. This specific clip is from Penn State’s 2020 game vs. Nebraska. Freiermuth comes across the line and kicks the safety out to the sideline in order to give his QB a hole to run through untouched.
Next, another way that Freiermuth can be moved around the formation is by lining him up in the slot. While Freiermuth is not a burner, he can serve as an underneath security blanket. He has very good short area athleticism and is a fairly polished/crafty route runner for a guy of his size. This is where his abilities as a modern style tight end really shine. He isn’t a Kyle Pitts type of receiver, but Steelers Depot’s own Jonathan Heitritter made the comparison to Hunter Henry, which makes a lot of sense. Freiermuth exploits mismatches using his body control and hands.
An interesting thought I have is that Freiermuth could potentially serve in a 2020 JuJu-type roll at times. While he obviously won’t be utilized as a full-time slot receiver, I think his skill set would be put to good use as a chain-mover running underneath to intermediate routes out of the slot. Smith-Schuster’s aDOT (average depth of target) was low in 2020 (it was in the 5.0 range), and hopefully it rockets back upwards. But if the Steelers are looking for someone to step into that type of roll, Freiermuth could be an option. He looks for contact when he has the ball in his hands, and he’s a tough player to bring down. With Smith-Schuster only on a one-year deal, Freiermuth could prove to be a useful slot weapon in the future.
This clip is from Penn State’s 2020 game vs. Indiana. Freiermuth is lined up close to the left tackle field side. Giving Freiermuth space to work with by lining him up inside is what allows him to be most effective when serving as a receiver. He’s able to use his intelligence and/or frame to find holes in the defense or out-position his defender. Instead of keeping him squeezed to the sideline as an outside receiver, working him inside gives him more options, route running-wise. In this clip specifically, Freiermuth sits down then stabs the ball midair with one hand in order to corral it. He then turns upfield to gain whatever yardage he can with two defenders closing. Freiermuth is effective when working as a chain mover close to the sticks.
In this clip from Penn State’s 2019 game against Minnesota, Freiermuth is lined up inside as the middle receiver in the three-receiver set field side. His nuanced/polished route running for a TE his size is depicted here. He sells a cut to the outside with a jab of his right foot, before sliding inside by dragging his left foot and breaking with his right. Then, he’s able to secure the pass between two defenders and hold on through contact for a hard-nosed catch.
This clip is also from the 2019 Minnesota game. Based on recent buzz surrounding rookie minicamp (and what the Steelers showed in 2020), they may continue to utilize empty sets (they ran some in 2020 and might run even more in the future with Najee Harris’ ability as a receiver. Freiermuth could be a part of said empty sets. He’s smart enough to find holes in the defense, and he has reliable hands to move the sticks. On top of this, he’s shown the ability to get open on the fly, which is what this clip illustrates. He’s at the top of the screen.
Freiermuth also offers the added bonus of having a big-bodied blocker in the slot for running plays or misdirection plays. When lined up in the slot, he will have some favorable one-on-ones that should allow him to open holes for his teammates.
While we also could see Freiermuth line up outside, I think he fits better in the slot. If lined up outside, he could struggle creating consistent separation in his routes (explosion in the stem/break of his routes isn’t there at times), and he isn’t a speed guy that’s going to take the top off of a defense. Also, he had a hard time working against press (jams) coverage at times on film. Now, that’s not to say he can’t improve in those areas and become an effective X or Z receiver, but that will likely take time. Early on, I think he’s best suited for duties in-line, as an H-back, and in the slot.
12 Personnel (1 running back, 2 tight ends)
The Steelers might also implement more 12 personnel looks in 2021. We know they want to establish the run game, and while Eric Ebron may not be the best blocking tight end for this personnel group (he is serviceable and maybe another year in the system will help him as a blocker), both he and Pat Freiermuth offer the contribution of receiving ability as well. So, the Steelers should be able to ground and pound a bit with Najee Harris to suck the defense in, allowing them to break tendency and get either Ebron or Freiermuth (or any other receiver) involved in the passing game. The receiving element is crucial to the success of this package. The tight ends need to be receiving threats or else it’s basically like using more tackles, which makes the offense easy to predict.
With Ebron and Freiermuth, the defense needs to play them both honestly. Matt Canada can use this to his advantage in order to keep the defense on their toes with a good mixture of runs, play action, and straight drop-backs. If the defense employs a base defense to stop the run, they can exploit mismatches through the air, and vice versa. *However, it does have to be noted that Freiermuth is a rookie, so fans should not expect him to dominate statistically (or be an every down player) in 2021. Let’s hope for steady, promising improvement and flashes of production potential.*
This clip is from Penn State’s 2020 game vs. Nebraska. Penn State has two tight ends in the game with Freiermuth in-line boundary side. Freiermuth is able to engage with the defensive lineman before working up to the next defender that he seals to the outside, thus allowing the running back to scamper up the hole untouched. So, if Freiermuth is able to work in tandem with Eric Ebron as blockers in two tight end sets to help the ground game, this will in turn open up the passing game and help create mismatches that the Steelers will be able to exploit. What matter is that sense of variety and unpredictability. In order for a personnel grouping to be successful it has to be multi-faceted and dynamic. Pat Freiermuth helps the Steelers’ unpredictability in 12 personnel because of his versatility.
Lastly, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Freiermuth’s red zone prowess. In his collegiate career, Freiermuth never dropped a red zone pass. The big-bodied tight end utilizes his 6’5” 251-pound frame masterfully to outmuscle or box-out defenders. He also has strong mitts to secure contested catches. He’s continuously unafraid of potential threats and shows a willingness to hold onto throws by any means necessary (putting his body on the line at times). That old school tight end mentality is evident when Freiermuth is in the red zone. Ben Roethlisberger will be surrounded by weapons who can create in close quarters (as long as they hold onto the football) for the 2021 season.
In this clip from Penn State’s 2019 matchup with Michigan, Freiermuth uses his size advantage to keep the defender right where he wants him after stacking him vertically. Lined up inside as the middle receiver field side, Freiermuth takes a hop/skip off the line then runs right through the defender’s attempt at hand engagement. Having stacked the defender, Freiermuth shows good ball-tracking skills to locate the pass and secure it in the end zone with soft hands for a score. If a team can’t find a defender big enough and athletic enough to guard Freiermuth around the formation, those types of mismatches can be exploited, especially when down near the goal line.
Another thought I have is that we could see Freiermuth given some short-yardage and goal line designed touches (shovel passes specifically) that the Steelers have shown on occasion. Freiermuth has the short area athleticism, physicality, and strength to be a factor if given said touches in specific situations. Now, this obviously won’t be a common occurrence/staple in the offense, but it wouldn’t shock me to see them give him some of these types of manufactured touches. As long as they block well and break tendency, instead of beating a dead horse with the same look over and over again, they could find some success utilizing Freiermuth in that fashion.
The Pittsburgh Steelers’ coaching staff had a vision in mind when they selected Penn State’s Pat Freiermuth. This article only gives a taste of what we could see in the future with the new OC Matt Canada running the show. While we can get a glimpse of how his offense will look based on his coaching career, there is no way to know exactly how it will fully operate and what new wrinkles he will implement. Hopefully the offense will be more dynamic and unpredictable than it has been as of late. With the new pieces the Steelers have added to the offense, and with Big Ben’s elbow receiving another year of rest/recovery, I’m expecting more juice from the Steelers’ O in 2021. Time will tell if that comes to fruition. A lot of the responsibility for that task will be placed on the offensive line and how cohesively they mesh together.