With most of the media buzz surrounding the Steelers’ #24 overall draft pick Najee Harris in training camp and preseason play, Pat Freiermuth quietly put together a very promising training camp, also flashing his potential in the two preseason games he’s played. At camp, Freiermuth showed off both his blocking and receiving chops, which is the reason the Steelers reportedly valued him as high as their #24 overall pick, depending on who was available. However, they were able to draft him at #55 overall, good value for a tight end of Freiermuth’s potential.
Said all camp Pat Freiermuth caught everything thrown his way. Numbers prove it. Highest catch % we've tracked at camp since 2015 (minimum 20 targets).
1. Freiermuth ('21): 87.5%
2. Bell ('15): 84.8%
3. Wheaton ('15): 80%
4. Switzer ('19): 78.6%
5. Miller ('15): 76.7%
— Alex Kozora (@Alex_Kozora) August 20, 2021
One of his main attributes that stood out (amongst others, such as his ability to separate) in the Week 2 preseason game against the Lions was his hands, which is an attribute that he exhibited in his collegiate career, as well as recently in training camp. According to Alex Kozora, Freiermuth caught 87.5% of his targets at camp. According to PFF, over the duration of his entire collegiate career, Freiermuth never dropped a red zone pass. Even if you weren’t aware of those statistics, you’d still be able to make a good guess about his hands based on his play against the Lions (which was refreshing to see after so many dropped passes last year).
So, let’s take a look.
Clip #1 is Freiermuth’s first catch of the game, and his first touchdown. Lined up just off of the right tackle at the top of the screen, Freiermuth takes a straight path vertically post-snap, and once he reaches the linebacker in his way that’s sitting in the middle of the field, he chops his feet and side-steps him, employing the push-by technique as well. Then, as he reaches the deep safety on his side of the field, he again chops his feet with some arm pumps and breaks inside. As this is happening, Ben throws his iconic pump fake (that even faked out the cameraman) as he waits for Freiermuth to uncover himself in the middle of the end zone and get his head around. After Freiermuth breaks, Ben places a ball over the top of the safety where only Freiermuth can leap to haul it in. Steelers up 6-0.
The second clip is touchdown number two for Freiermuth, this one also coming from a Big Ben pass in the first quarter. Freiermuth is in a tight split in the slot field side. With a linebacker sticking to him vertically, he runs a great route, giving the linebacker a stick nod look. As he reaches the five-yard line and begins to pass it, he utilizes some hesitation and a head fake, signaling an out-break/stick route to the linebacker and giving himself the opportunity to explode back vertically to get on top of him. The deep half safety begins to shuffle towards the sideline and Ben delivers a pinpoint pass over the top of the linebacker covering Freiermuth. Freiermuth shows tremendous body control again as he contorts into a spin to catch the high back-shoulder throw with strong hands in midair, then driving both of his feet into the grass for a completed catch, touchdown #2.
With two touchdowns in the first quarter (both of them coming in the red zone), Freiermuth immediately made his mark as a big-bodied red zone threat in the team’s third preseason game.
That’s one of the main reasons why he was brought in as the Steelers’ second round pick in 2021. Freiermuth is a matchup problem for linebackers and safeties alike, being athletic and polished enough as a receiver to create separation and fight for catches against linebackers, and also being too big and athletic for smaller safeties. Since Freiermuth is able to move around the formation, it becomes difficult for defenses to keep him accounted for and match him up with an ideal defender. Freiermuth’s intelligence, short-area quickness and polished route running, extremely reliable and strong hands, and body control/leaping ability makes him a menace in short-yardage situations.
While Eric Ebron may not have had the best of nights as a receiver in the eyes of fans, mostly due to a costly 3rd down drop following a vintage Big Ben scramble drill (he did have some nice catches and threw some key blocks to his credit), I’m a believer that he and Freiermuth will complement each other nicely in the regular season, allowing Matt Canada to get creative with two tight end sets. Having those two as consistent receiving threats to keep defenses honest will aid the offensive line in creating running room for Najee Harris.
Side note, when asked what it is about the red zone that brings out the best in him during his post-game press conference, Freiermuth responded; “I like scoring touchdowns. I like celebrating with the fans, I like celebrating with my teammates…”
What an answer. I think “Muuuth” has a chance to become a fan favorite real soon.
Moving on, this clip is Freiermuth’s third and final target from the game. This one came from Mason Rudolph, not Ben Roethlisberger, but it was another target in scoring position. Lined up just off the left tackle field side, Freiermuth cuts across the middle of the field on a shallow route, quickly getting his head around to look for a pass.
The Lions send pressure, and Rudolph puts the throw behind Freiermuth right as a man gets in his face. Freiermuth is covered decently well and the ball placement doesn’t give him a chance to make a catch. Incomplete pass on 3rd and goal, but it is noticeable that Freiermuth was on the receiving end of the pass on the money down. That could be a trend that continues into the regular season, especially in the red zone.
It wouldn’t surprise me to see Freiermuth share the role of Ben’s go-to target with JuJu Smith-Schuster in short yardage and/or on 3rd down situations, even more so as the season wears on.
Next clip. Freiermuth was not targeted here, but he (tight split in the slot field side) shows some burst/quickness following a hop release post-snap to stack the defender covering him as he makes his way up the seam.
Now that we’ve discussed Freiermuth’s flashy receiving plays that fired up yinzers everywhere, let’s take a look at some of the nitty-gritty: blocking. As noted earlier, Freiermuth wasn’t drafted to be one-dimensional. He flashed his blocking ability in college and in camp, and he did so in this game as well. While there will be growing pains for him as a rookie (understandably so I might add), Freiermuth has a solid foundation to work with, and he even noted how the game began to slow down for him this week (and in the game last week against the Eagles) when asked about his contributions as a blocker in his post-game interview. Hopefully he continues to feel that way moving forward.
As Steelers Depot contributor Jonathan Heitritter highlighted in a film room this summer, Freiermuth was asked to move across the line of scrimmage post-snap to pick up unblocked rushers/get to the second level linebackers in order to seal them off to the outside in this game. Freiermuth was sent across the formation as both a puller and in split flow scenarios. Below are some examples of Freiermuth coming across the line as a blocker post-snap.
In this clip, Freiermuth is lined up as an H-back boundary side and is pulling in tandem with right guard Trai Turner. Lions defenders on the left side of the Steelers’ line come unblocked and rush in quickly with the Steelers trying to pull Turner and Freiermuth to the left. Freiermuth is unable to pick anyone up as he runs into the back of Turner, who is stunned by a closing defender, resulting in a Najee Harris sandwich served up by two Lions defenders. Najee had no chance on this rushing attempt.
Here’s another clip of Freiermuth (boundary side) serving as an H-back puller. The Lions’ D-line and linebackers anticipate the snap well and penetrate up front. Freiermuth struggles to come across due to the Lions’ push, then he takes an iffy angle to engage with the linebacker, but he ultimately gets hands on the LB’s shoulder, which is enough to move him towards the sideline. Not a bad effort from Freiermuth, but it doesn’t matter, because Kalen Ballage can’t find much room to work with either way (Ballage does a good job of gaining what he can rather than trying to do too much).
Lined up as an H-back yet again, this time Freiermuth comes across on a split flow. He dives low at the unblocked edge rusher, but the LB is able to hop him and keep his balance, then he swarms Anthony McFarland Jr. with his teammates to stop the run.
Here’s another split flow block with Freiermuth as an H-back. He tries to get low and engage with his shoulder, but he seems timid and gets blown up at the point of attack, collapsing any chance of a hole for McFarland. Again, the rest of the line didn’t help the situation here either.
Now here’s a very solid rep from Freiermuth, and easily one of, if not his best from the game. At H-back, split flow yet again. He lowers his pad level, engages the defender with his shoulder, and stone walls him, absorbing a blow to do so. He seals the edge and gives Ballage a hole up the middle for a short gain. While I would like to see Freiermuth square himself up to engage his block in a more fundamentally sound fashion (nit-picky), this is a rep where he accomplished his assignment well (even if the rest of the line didn’t hold up their end of the bargain).
These are some more examples of solid blocks from Freiermuth, but they also showcase a recurring issue I noticed upon inspecting his reps. The blocks are okay, but he needs to work on sustaining and finishing them, instead of allowing the defender to disengage as the ball carrier reaches his vicinity, or doing just enough to get by, then giving up on the block. If he wants to be regarded as an elite blocker, he must finish blocks strong.
In the first clip, Freiermuth (in-line on the right side of the line) engages the edge rusher lined up in front of him with Eric Ebron, then he works his way to the next level, engaging the DB closest to him. He peeks back to see that the run is going nowhere, and he gives up on his block. I’d like to see a bit more tenacity from him to sustain and finish blocks, like the lineman (rookie center Kendrick Green) in front of him who walked the defender off the screen and out of the club. It’s understandable on this play due to the quick result of the run that he clearly knew wasn’t going anywhere, but I didn’t see any reps where he truly finished his block strong in this game.
In the second clip, Freiermuth (in-line boundary side) immediately works his way to the second level linebacker (rookie Derrick Barnes). He gets some nice initial push, but the linebacker seems to remain composed and in control the entire time, and eventually he tosses Freiermuth out of the way. If the running back had made it to Freiermuth’s block, the linebacker would’ve been in position to make a play on him because he easily disengaged with Freiermuth’s block.
Yet another example where Freiermuth could have done a better job sustaining his block, then finishing it, rather than just doing enough to get by (pretty nit-picky though at the end of the day. Freiermuth has plenty of time to keep working in that regard). However, holding blocks is the difference between modest and chunk gains.
Now on to pass protection. This clip is Pat Freiermuth (in-line bottom of the screen) working against an edge rusher. Freiermuth initially gets worked back in the one-on-one matchup, but he maintains engagement with his hands. The running back (McFarland) and left tackle (Chukwuma Okorafor) come over to offer slight assistance. Freiermuth holds up until Rudolph gets the pass off, so he does his job (even if it wasn’t exactly pretty).
After reviewing Freiermuth’s blocking reps from the game, I thought he had an adequate showing. Based on what he’s displayed thus far, I think he’s a ways away from being a true force as a blocker (which is okay, he’s only played two preseason games. No need to panic). He needs to show a consistent, tenacious mentality in order to do so. He possesses the intangibles and has shown instances that would suggest he is capable of becoming a good to elite level blocker, but he needs to put it all together to regularly perform as such.
As I discussed earlier in the article, when Freiermuth was asked about his contributions as a blocker in his post-game interview, he answered that he felt as though he progressed as the last two preseason games went on, and that his comfort level rose with increased reps. We have to remember that this was only his second preseason game, because he missed the Hall of Fame Game against the Cowboys with injury.
With that in mind, Freiermuth still has time to learn and grow in the run game. As he continues to settle in, hopefully he’ll begin to gel and grow with the other members of the rushing attack.
Freiermuth saw a bit of action in the Steelers’ preseason matchup with the Eagles a week ago, but this week he made his presence known in a big way, catching two touchdowns on three targets. It seems that the rookie will be involved a good amount early on in the regular season, which is a positive sign, as tight end is one of the most difficult positions to transition from college to the NFL. Rookies tend to face a steep learning curve, and while I don’t expect monster numbers from Freiermuth straight out of the gate, I also wouldn’t be surprised to see him consistently contribute in the run game, as a security blanket, and in the red zone throughout the 2021 season.
The Steelers are definitely going to need him in the rushing attack, as this offense appears primed to run through Najee Harris, with a clear goal of controlling the football and thus the time of possession, while also playing fundamentally sound defense with a focus on winning the turnover battle. The offensive line and tight ends will need to bring it each and every week.
Let me know in the comments below how you felt about Freiermuth’s performance overall. How many snaps do you think he’ll play in 2021, and how many touchdowns do you think he can score with Big Ben Roethlisberger tossing him passes?
Thank you for reading!