Comfort In Freiermuth, Interior Options Led Steelers To Trade Claypool, Tomlin Says

Mike Tomlin spoke with reporters one day after a historically busy NFL trade deadline that saw the Pittsburgh Steelers make a pair of moves, selling off WR Chase Claypool while buying CB William Jackson III. The Claypool deal is certainly more impactful, a young starter shipped out for a likely Top-45 draft picks, and Tomlin was of course asked about the major deal.

Via the team’s Twitter account, Tomlin said comfort in the options to replace and see increased roles in Claypool’s absence made the team willing to make the move.

“We’ve got some games left to play and we feel really comfortable with the depth that we have at Chase’s position, “Tomlin said. “The wide receiver position and more specifically, we’re really comfortable with our playmaking ability inside. He’s made the majority of his plays to this point in the season inside. Not only at the wide out position, but that’s a space that we are really comfortable with, with Pat Freiermuth as well being a significant component of our attack on the interior portions of the field. And so that depth couple with Pat’s presence and development is what allowed us to feel comfortable in terms of moving hi and acquiring that draft capital.”

Freiermuth has been a trusty middle-of-field option for the Steelers since breaking into the league last season. Strictly an underneath and safety valve option last season, Pittsburgh has expanded his route tree and gotten him downfield more often. In 2021, his yards per catch average was a paltry 8.3. This season, it’s over 11 yards per grab. Last year, he registered just two receptions of 20+ yards. Midway through this season, he’s up to six.

Pittsburgh bumped Claypool into the slot this season to replace the departed JuJu Smith-Schuster. But Claypool wasn’t a natural fit, not blocking to his size and lacking the feel and nuanced to play within so much traffic. Freiermuth aside, the Steelers will look towards using options like Steven Sims, Gunner Olszewski, and others to fill Claypool’s role as the team’s F/slot receiver.

“Gunner, Miles Boykin, man, we got some guys that have logged some game time and appear to be poised for an increased role.”

Those names may have logged some offensive snaps but haven’t run many routes. Olszewski’s time on the field has been for a majority of running plays while Boykin has played in one wide receiver sets as a big-bodied blocker. But Claypool’s trade opens the door for the team to weight multiple options. Sims is the most likely starter, who Tomlin spoke to as someone who can assume the role well.

“He’s been making plays when called upon and I think based on what we’ve seen so far, it’s reasonable to expect that to continue.”

Sims saw his most playing time in Sunday’s loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, playing 14% of the offense’s snaps with three targets and two carries. Sims has climbed the ladder from practice squader to return man to bit-piece offensively. Now, he’s in line to see 25-35 snaps per game. But the team will mix in other options. Perhaps Diontae Johnson plays a bit more in the slot. The Steelers may try to use more two tight end sets with Freiermuth and Zach Gentry or rookie Connor Heyward, a solid route runner, could be used in certain packages. At 2-6, the Steelers would be wise to explore their entire roster and see who could emerge the rest of this season and into 2023.

Hear more from Tomlin below.

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