The Pittsburgh Steelers signed free agent tight end Eric Ebron to a two-year, $12 million deal last offseason (Ebron’s deal was reworked this March). The team did so with the likely vision that Ebron’s receiving prowess would pair nicely with Vance McDonald’s more well-rounded, yet overall less standout athletically playstyle. Ebron was required to block (as is every Steelers TE), but he took on more of a receiving role, which the Steelers haven’t been able to give their tight ends in recent years (besides McDonald’s 2018 season). He was a red zone threat that helped put the red zone offense back on track from the previous year’s ineffectiveness, serving as a big-bodied mismatch that required the defenses’ attention both when in-line and detached from the line. Not only did Ebron bring in some red zone scores himself in 2020, but his presence freed up others to operate with less restriction from the defense. That’s one of the main positives Ebron offered the offense in 2020.
Even more, Ebron was able to work underneath, across/over the middle of the field, and down the sidelines. He was able to beat man and zone coverage, and he showed the IQ necessary to recognize when his QB was in trouble in order to get open in scramble drills. Ebron received 91 targets in his 15 games played. He caught 56 of them for 558 yards and 5 touchdowns. A very solid season overall, especially when considering that tight ends do not usually put up monster receiving numbers for the Steelers.
Without further ado, let’s take a look at some of Ebron’s 2020 film when he was operating as a receiver detached from the line.
This first clip comes from the Steelers’ matchup with the Houston Texans. This clip is a perfect example of why the Steelers brought Eric Ebron in as a free agent. He possesses the ability to win in the red zone without being schemed open. He is a weapon that teams have to be wary of anytime the Steelers get into scoring position. He influences the way a defense has to defend, requiring attention at all times, and that’s good for not just him, but all of the Steelers’ skill position players. If a team puts a smaller defender on him, he can win with his size. If a team puts a bigger defender on him, he can win with his athleticism.
On this play, Ebron is split out wide field side and is being guarded in a soft press by 5’11” defensive back A.J. Moore Jr. After giving a little bit of a hesitation post-snap, Ebron darts towards the sideline with a speed release. He engages Moore Jr. with his hands in order to maintain positioning while tracking the football. With Moore Jr. unable to turn and look for the ball, Ebron tracks it into the bucket before hopping and securing it. He then does an excellent job of making his legs go “dead” in order to ensure he gets both feet inbounds for the catch to stand.
Here’s another clip from the Steelers’ vs. Texans. Ebron is boundary side in a reduced split. He fights through the contact that the DB initiates with a long arm into a swim move, so that he can start to stem his route outside after beginning inside. Having gained the separation he needs, he’s able to break to the outside and get his eyes back to Ben Roethlisberger. Then, he secures the pass and sets his feet inbounds before being tripped and landing out. Ebron does a good job of fighting through contact against DBs that are smaller in size.
Moving on, here’s a clip from the exhilarating Steelers-Titans game. Ebron is in the slot just off of the right tackle field side. Due to the 3rd and 14 scenario, he takes off up the middle of the field into open space on an over route. Then, he turns around to look for a throw. As the pass arrives, he climbs the ladder to high point the football, immediately bringing it into his chest before taking a hit. He holds onto the ball through the ground for an impressive third down conversion.
Now let’s look at some clips from the Steelers’ first matchup with the Ravens, Week 8. Ebron’s in the slot at the bottom of the screen. The Steelers used him on these quick drags/slants/digs in order to get him moving across the field to pull away from his defender with his speed or find zone windows. He’s a fast tight end, so utilizing him in this fashion allowed for some RAC opportunities. This clip is a blown coverage that allowed him to jog his way into the end zone untouched.
Another clip from the Week 8 Ravens game. The Steelers have a stack look boundary side with Ebron on the line. He takes off vertically post-snap in order to eat up the space between him and his defender. He then displays strength and uses the DBs backpedal to his advantage, giving the DB a shove that sends him flying (not a penalty if it’s not called), leaving Ebron alone in open space. He gets his head around and secures the pass. He tries to get back up for some extra yards after going to the ground, but Ravens defenders swarm him before he can get back up on his feet.
This is the last clip from the Steelers’ first of two 2020 games against the Ravens. Ebron’s in the slot boundary side with a tight split just off of the right tackle. He eyes the defender up with a bit of a stutter-step, foot fire post-snap. He then cuts inside and gets his eyes to Big Ben. Despite a slight tug from the defender, he corrals the pass, keeps his balance, and looks upfield in an attempt to reach the first down marker. He’s unable to, but he comes away with some solid yardage regardless. He made some clutch catches in 2020, moving the chains and gaining much-needed yardage.
Here’s a clip from the 4th quarter of the nail-biting Steelers-Cowboys game. Ebron is in the slot field side just off of the left tackle. The Steelers run a nice route combination that has the two outermost receivers run vertical into curls, in order to push the defenders backwards (for this play call they either run curls or look to immediately block the defenders in front of them – Ebron also scored on a similar look against the Colts in Week 16) which allows Ebron to leak into open space by the sideline for an easy catch. Ebron then hurdles the only defender in his path on his way into the end zone for six. Ebron is a solid weapon when given manufactured touches. He won’t ever be the go-to run-after-catch option for the offense, but he can generate yards with the ball in his hands.
Next we have a couple clips from the Steelers vs. the Bengals in Week 10. Lined up boundary side in a tight split, Ebron runs a skinny post. He stems his route to the outside in order to push the boundary corner (#27 Tony Brown) towards the sideline, giving his QB some room to work with. He then angles back inside with some nice synchronous head and body snap. He gets his eyes on the ball that has already been released with good anticipation and trust from Big Ben. Then he secures the pass and ensures that he holds onto it, despite a low shot from the middle-of-the-field safety.
Ebron’s aDOT (7.1 yards according to Pro Football Reference) was the lowest it’s been in the last three years (9.5 yards in his 2018 and 2019 seasons with the Colts), and I’d like to see the Steelers send him deep a bit more consistently in 2021. He has the route running ability and athleticism to win downfield if sent on routes such as posts, corners, crossers, seams, out and ups, deep ins, etc. He has proven to be successful on a variety of downfield routes in the past and opening up the attack will only help balance the offense (Ben has to hit the deep throws consistently, that’s the key). If Najee Harris gets going on the ground, that could open up some play-action shots to the tight ends in heavier personnel packages as well.
This is the second clip from the Steelers vs. Bengals in Week 10. The Steelers have a bunch set field side. Ebron is on the line as the first receiver with the defender in front of him in press. The defender attempts a jam at the snap, and Ebron’s job here is basically to move the defender backwards (to set a pick, but because the defender is pressed and decides to jam, Ebron has to push him back to give the play space) without being called for a penalty. That’s the case for both sides of the field. James Conner on a slant and Diontae Johnson on a dig/drag are the intended targets in the 3rd and 2, short yardage situation. However, neither targets are open for Ben. Ebron notices this and doesn’t give up on the play. Despite being held, he slips loose from his defender with a pivot, then he works his way outside. Ben lofts a pretty pass over Ebron’s shoulder that he’s able to snatch with a soft right hand for a first down.
Ebron displayed the ability to get open on the fly when plays broke down in 2020, and that’s also something rookie Pat Freiermuth displayed in his collegiate career. Look for the two tight ends to make some clutch plays (JuJu Smith-Schuster needs to be mentioned here as well) when Ben decides (or has) to play some old-school, backyard Ben Roethlisberger-style football in 2021.
Moving on, this clip is from the Steelers’ second matchup with the Ravens, coming in Week 12. The Steelers have a stack look boundary side, and Ebron is on the line. With a defender pressed in front of him, Ebron takes a speed release to the outside, but the defender doesn’t follow. Big Ben sees this and tosses it up to give Ebron a chance in a contested catch situation with the boundary safety by the sideline. Ebron uses his hands to maintain his space with a slight push off against the DB as the ball arrives. He then secures it with strong hands and makes sure to get both feet down inbounds before falling out. Another example of Ebron’s combative grab ability.
This next clip is Steelers vs. Washington. Ebron motions over to a trips bunch set field side from an H-back position. At the snap, Chase Claypool and JuJu Smith-Schuster basically serve as blockers to set a two-man pick that allows Eric Ebron to cut inside on the slant. The Washington defenders do a solid job of recognizing the short throw and they’re able to sandwich Ebron, but he does a great job of holding on through the punishment. Not a first down, but good effort.
Another clip against Washington. Ebron is in a nasty (a.k.a reduced or tight) split just off of the left tackle boundary side. He finds a hole in the defense on a corner route and he gets his head around to track the football. He hops and brings it in while anticipating a hit from the defender(s).
Something I noticed with Ebron in 2020 is that he can do a better job of extending his arms at the catch point, especially in contested catch situations, rather than catching with his body or with his arms not fully extended (alligator arms), which reduces his catch radius (and gives the defender more time to recover) and strength to hold onto the football through a final effort from the defender. It didn’t impact the outcome of the play here, but it’s something that can definitely help lower his drop total and further aid him in combative situations in the future if he works on it (he is good in those contested catch situations, using his frame to wall defenders off and using his athleticism to outjump defenders).
This clip is from Steelers-Bills. Ebron is in the slot at the top of the screen. Post-snap, he fights through the press, then he snaps his body violently to the outside, and makes the grab, finishing the play by getting his feet inbounds for the two-point conversion, before falling out backwards.
Like the last clip, this is another example where I think Ebron could have done a better job at extending his arms. Again, it didn’t impact the outcome of the play here, but overall it can only help his ability to consistently haul in contested catches. Like I said, he’ll have more of a catch radius and arm strength, making it tougher for his defender to dislodge the ball from his grasp. Body catches often result in drops.
While the main knock on Eric Ebron’s play in 2020 has to be his blocking, this article is only focusing on him as a detached receiver. So, the second and third knocks on his 2020 play have to be drops and inconsistency production wise. They overlapped at times. In 2020, Eric Ebron dropped 7 passes according to Pro Football Reference. The pass catching unit struggled with drops as a whole, and it’s one of the main areas in which they need to focus on improving entering the 2021 season. Like some of his teammates, Ebron’s drops came in bunches, and 4 of his 7 came in a two-week span at the end of the season (2 came in the first two weeks as well).
Also like some of his teammates, Ebron’s problem appeared to be due to taking his eye off the ball and looking to generate yards after the catch before even securing the football. In other words, he struggled with concentration drops. This isn’t anything new for Ebron however, as his drop % has been in the 7-9% range the last three years. He dropped 9 passes in 2018 for a drop percentage of 8.2%, and he dropped 5 passes in 2019 for a drop percentage of 9.6%. As I have noted, another factor could be Ebron not extending his arms consistently enough when attempting to catch passes. Ebron is also a streaky player whose production isn’t consistent on a weekly basis. He’ll have a quiet outing one week, then explode the next (and vice versa).
It’s something that is to be expected from him over the course of a season.
These two clips are both from the Steelers’ game vs. Washington. They depict Ebron’s two drops from that game. In the first clip, Ebron is in the slot field side, just off of the right tackle. He runs a hitch route, and it’s a bad drop. He’s wide open and tries to scoop the ball into his chest, but he’s unable to because he begins to turn upfield, looking to make something happen after the catch before even securing it.
In the second clip, Ebron is in a nasty split at the bottom of the screen. Another stop route, and he turns the same way despite being on the opposite side of the field. He tries to catch with his body, and it results in a drop. A prime example of why Ebron needs to get into the habit of extending his arms to make grabs instead of alligator-arming. Now, his arms shouldn’t be fully stiff/rigid, as a slight bend at the elbows helps with force absorption from the ball’s impact, but he needs to do a better job at catching passes away from his body with strong hands.
Eric Ebron’s 2020 season was very solid. In my humble opinion, he filled his role well and met the expectations that were placed on him when he signed with the team. He wasn’t brought in to be a dominant force as a blocker, but if he even slightly improves his ability to the point where he’s able to lose gracefully on a consistent basis in 2021 (with another year of understanding in the offense), and if he’s used in a similar fashion to last year on the majority of his blocking reps (where he isn’t asked to execute many complex blocks but rather ones where he already has positioning to his advantage and can use his quickness to win off the snap), that’ll greatly aid the Steelers’ ability to achieve their goal of creating a balanced attack. Pairing Ebron’s skill set with Pat Freiermuth’s should allow the two to bolster a more well-rounded tight end room in 2021. The pair should be a productive tandem, and it’ll be fascinating to see the ways in which offensive coordinator Matt Canada utilizes them in his attack.
At the very least, Eric Ebron should be a productive piece of the passing attack yet again in the 2021 season.