The Pittsburgh Steelers just played their first game of the season without wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, with at least 11 more coming. The fifth-year veteran suffered a season-ending shoulder injury last week, much to everybody’s surprise, and they’re now feeling out how to replace them.
Unsurprisingly, given that he worked so much in the middle and in the slot, the tight ends were featured more prominently in last night’s game. Or as the veteran in the room, Eric Ebron, said after the game, “All we know is the Donkeys was out tonight. We came through, we made plays. 3rd and short, Pat Pat put that, E-Breezy”.
As a reminder, the Steelers’ tight end room dubbed itself the Badasses, or as Ebron said, the ‘Bad Donkeys’ for the cleaned up version. Alongside rookie second-round pick Pat Freiermuth and third-year Zach Gentry, they are rounding themselves into a formidable group.
Both Ebron and Gentry had their most productive days of the season so far. The former caught two passes for 10 yards, but one was a crucial third-down conversion through contact. He scored on a one-yard touchdown run as well. As for Freiermuth, he caught all seven of his targets on the day for 58 yards, both career highs.
“It was awesome just getting the tight ends involved”, the rookie said about his increased opportunities, which shouldn’t be going down. “JuJu, obviously it stinks that JuJu’s out, but we know that we’re gonna get more touches and stuff like that, so I think we made the most of it”.
There is still room for improvement, and that starts with getting their tight ends into better positions. A couple of Freiermuth’s targets, for example, were short of the sticks on third and long, and he got what he could out of them with little hope of actually getting the first down.
Freiermuth has caught 18 of the 20 targets he has faced so far this season, with only one drop. Ebron has had his struggles, but he still has those plays that he makes that remind you what he is capable of. Meanwhile, Zach Gentry has a prominent blocking role, and head coach Mike Tomlin was unambiguous in saying he was their best blocker at the position.
In all, it was a nine-catch, 68-yard day out of the tight end position, plus a one-yard touchdown run. They can certainly get more efficient opportunities, but I think we still see them getting involved more in this way, facing 8-10 targets per game, sometimes even more, if the game calls for it.