The Pittsburgh Steelers went from being the best offense in the red zone in 2018 to the worst in 2019. Of course, there were many difference between those two seasons. Most notably the absence of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, and the departure of wide receiver Antonio Brown. It’s little surprise that they regressed to the mean this past season, though, ranking 11th in the league by scoring a touchdown on 63.5 percent of their trips inside of the 20.
If there is one area that he can contribute as a rookie, that would be it for Pat Freiermuth, the Steelers’ 6’5” second-round tight end out of Penn State. Their previous second-round pick, wide receiver Chase Claypool, was able to make an early impact in the red zone. It’s not outside of the realm of expectation, and it is something that he did well in school, particularly in terms of reliability.
“Yeah, that’s true. Never dropped a pass in the red zone”, he said when asked about the aforementioned pre-draft statistic that was floating around, answering reporters’ questions after practice on Friday. “That’s where plays are there for the taking, and you get very limited opportunities down there, so I got my number called and I wanted to make the most of it. The red zone is the time to lock in and score some points and get touchdowns”.
The tight end position is, frankly, one that really wavers from season to season in Pittsburgh in terms of how much they utilize it. With the combination of Freiermuth and Eric Ebron, they can really expand their 12 personnel package this year if they wanted to.
While he is, of course, a rookie, the expectation is that he will be able to get on the field right away — particularly as a receiver — and pitch in. He has shown an ability to use his body well in the red zone and to have reliable hands. That should afford him some opportunities in the short area of the field.
Ebron caught 56 passes for 558 yards and five touchdowns last season in his first year with the Steelers. Depending upon how much he gets on the field, I think the pair of tight ends could combine for something like an 80-1,000-10 season this year.
But it’s a matter of sharing targets, and it won’t be easy. The Steelers have three wide receivers who each command 100-plus targets per season. Then you add running back Najee Harris to the equation, who could easily see something like 70-80 targets on his own as a rookie. One thing stands out to me as I ponder the implications. That is that he’d better maximize the opportunities he does get to ensure that he continues to get more.