The bedrock of Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Pat Freiermuth’s rookie season, even more than his hands, was his scoring production. He put the ball in the end zone seven times, tied for the fourth-most by a rookie in team history and the most (tied with fellow tight end Eric Green) by a non-wide receiver.
He scored two touchdowns last season, and for whatever it’s worth, neither of them were thrown by the Steelers’ primary starting quarterback, Kenny Pickett. Both of them came from Mitch Trubisky, first in week two against the New England Patriots and then in week 14 against the Baltimore Ravens after Pickett was injured. One both occasions, they were already trailing by multiple scores.
For as much as he improved in some areas of his game, he wants to find the end zone more again going into year three. “If I took a step forward, it was in my run after catch and the number of targets I saw and the yardage”, he told Dale Lolley for the team’s website recently. “Obviously, I wish that I had more touchdowns and I wish that I put together blocking more throughout stretches instead of little increments”.
It can’t go without mentioning that Freiermuth was far from alone in his lack of scoring success, in the red zone or otherwise. After all, the Steelers tossed the fewest touchdowns in the league, just 12 all year in a 17-game season. And one of them was thrown by wide receiver Chase Claypool, who was traded midseason.
Nobody on the team had more than four receiving touchdowns from start to finish, that total belonging to rookie wide receiver George Pickens, all of which were thrown by Pickett. Second on the list was actually running back Najee Harris with three. Freiermuth was the only other player with more than one, with fullback Derek Watt, Claypool, and tight end Connor Heyward being the only ones to score a receiving touchdown.
The Steelers in 2022 were the first team to post a winning record while throwing 12 or fewer touchdowns in a season since the New York Jets managed it in 2009, at the time with a rookie Mark Sanchez (they reached the conference finals).
The Tennessee Titans also managed it in 2007, and the Chicago Bears in 2005, but it’s become increasingly rare in a passing league, for obvious reasons, for teams to be able to have relative success without being able to consistently put the ball in the end zone through the air.
Freiermuth proved a capable target in the red zone for former quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in 2021. He needs to be one of the players who makes it a comfortable space for Pickett in 2023 and beyond to find that consistency, particularly in the red zone, if this offense is going to put up points.