The Pittsburgh Steelers’ offensive identity—such that they have one—will necessarily have to evolve over the course of the season, if not simply to account for the loss of wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, who has been their most consistent presence for the past four-plus years.
The veteran suffered a season-ending shoulder injury during Sunday’s game, only the second time in his career he will have missed significant time, following a knee injury he dealt with in 2019. One possibility we may see in terms of adjustments in his absence is an increase in two-tight end sets.
It helps that the Steelers, finally, after many years without, have three tight ends that they light and are willing to play. Rookie second-round pick Pat Freiermuth seems already to be in the lead, while veteran Eric Ebron is still a factor, but we’re finally seeing 2019 fifth-round pick Zach Gentry getting the opportunity to dress and contribute regularly. On Thursday, offensive coordinator talked a bit about the former Michigan quarterback-turned-tight-end.
“He’s a big guy who can block. We think he can also be a threat in the passing game”, he told reporters, via transcript. “You saw what he did when he got down the field, so we’re obviously using his skillset and trying to create matchups with all our guys in different roles. I think he’s improved. I think he’s a guy that’s put a lot of time in here long before I came around, and you can see what that work has done”.
The Steelers more or less gave him a redshirt year as a rookie in 2019, conscious when they first drafted him that he would need time to develop. He rarely dressed last year, either, perhaps in part because the lack of a proper offseason and no preseason gave them limited opportunities to evaluate his progress.
But they like the strides they have seen him take over the course of this offseason, and I think they have been evident as well. He’s not competing for the top tight end job or anything, but he certainly has looked like somebody who is worthy of contributing. He has actually done pretty well in pass protection in particular, but he still has untapped potential in this offense as a receiver, which was his strength at tight end in college.
The Steelers have not asked a lot of their tight ends in the passing game yet this season, however. The entire position group has just 19 catches through five games for 158 yards and one touchdown. Freiermuth has 11 of those catches for 100 yards and a score. Gentry has caught three passes for 21 yards.
Both Freiermuth and Ebron have each logged a little over 150 snaps so far this season. Gentry understandable lags behind, but has played 74 snaps, or about 23 percent of their offensive total, which averages out to about 15 snaps per game. Considering he only played 69 total offensive snaps in 2019 and 2020 combined, I would say that’s significant.