Last Sunday against the Buffalo Bills was a complete decimation of the Pittsburgh Steelers, not only on the scoreboard, but from a health standpoint as well. The current injury report is a laundry list of impact players who will not be able to suit up for tomorrow’s game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Most of the players who have been ruled out are on the defensive side of the ball, including 80% of the starting secondary, but the big name missing on offense is TE Pat Freiermuth due to a concussion. With his absence, TE Zach Gentry will get the start. Gentry was on the injury report to start the week but resumed practicing at full capacity on Thursday. However, Gentry will not fill the void himself, as rookie TE Connor Heyward will look to assert himself after he caught his first pass of the season last week against Buffalo.
In the preseason, Heyward was an exciting sixth round prospect who produced a couple of highlight-reel catches. In all, he caught five balls for 30 yards and showed the aggression and intensity that fans have come to expect from the Heyward family. At Michigan State, Heyward transitioned from running back to tight end for his fifth year and had 35 receptions for 326 yards. With only one year of experience at the position, it was encouraging to see the comfortability and natural feel that Heyward possessed in preseason.
Despite his promising start, Heyward has not seen much regular-season action due to the depth at tight end, but he does offer a skillset that could be useful against Tampa Bay and is certainly a change of pace from Gentry. When comparing the two, their measurables could not be any less similar. Heyward is six feet tall, which is very short relative to other NFL tight ends, and Gentry is one of the tallest the league has to offer, at 6’8”. Despite the eight-inch difference in height, Heyward only weighs 35 pounds less than Gentry, due to his much stockier and condensed frame.
Gentry is a natural blocker because of his impressive size and frame, which is often what he is used for when he sees action in games. He has never been one to run the route-tree that Freiermuth does, which shows the limitations that his speed and athleticism present for a person of his size. Because of this, Heyward may see equal opportunity in the passing game even though he is technically the third-stringer. He has shown the ability to make contested catches and has experience making people miss at the collegiate level, so it should not come as a surprise if he receives a modest workload in the passing game.
Despite this, he is not a comparable talent to Freiermuth which is why he was a sixth-round pick and not a second, so look for the Steelers to lean on their receivers a little more than usual this week, but Heyward will certainly be involved.