Big Boy Offense: Steelers to Lean on Tight Ends More in 2022
PITTSBURGH — When the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Connor Heyward in the sixth round of the 2022 NFL Draft, many assumed that he would supplant Derek Watt as the team’s fullback.
Through OTAs and minicamp, that hasn’t even come close to happening, with Heyward working exclusively in the tight ends room and Watt solely with the running backs. Both players have worked on special teams and don’t appear to be in competition with one another for a roster spot.
That makes sense in some ways. Though Heyward was a running back and a tight end at Michigan State, he never played fullback, and though he has the body type and size for the position, he’s not really a traditional fullback in a lot of ways. He’s not that polished of a blocker for his size, and his talents lie more with receiving and running.
What didn’t necessarily make sense then is the Steelers using one of their seven draft choices on an undersized tight end, that — Cam Heyward’s brother or not — would seemingly be No. 3 on their depth chart at best behind Pat Freiermuth and Zach Gentry, and is probably less polished and experienced at his primary position than incumbent No. 3 Kevin Rader.
But after three weeks of Steelers practices on the South Side, the picture has come into a lot clearer focus: The Steelers seem poised to use a lot more two tight end sets in 2022.
Last regular season, on 1st and 10, the Steelers lined up with one tight end 325 times and with two tight ends 94 times. It’s clear that, even when JuJu Smith-Schuster was lost for the season to injury, that three wide receivers was the primary formation.
But not only is Smith-Schuster gone via free agency, but backups Ray-Ray McCloud and James Washington are as well. Their replacements are two rookies in George Pickens and Calvin Austin III and two players that were rarely used by their former teams in Myles Boykin and Gunner Olszewski.
The Steelers wide receiver room has gone from one of unquestioned quality and depth to one that seems like one of the thinner groups on the team in terms of experience entering the 2022 season, so it makes sense to want to rely less on them, especially in the early going.
Meanwhile, the tight end room has a four-year vet in Gentry, a promising young star in Freiermuth, Rader and Heyward. It’s a position with a lot of players that the coaching staff feels comfortable with.
“Everyone in our group is definitely capable in the pass game,” Rader said this week after minicamp. “Everyone’s got speed, great hands. I just think this year, we’re definitely elevating. Everyone’s ceiling is above where it was last year. Everyone’s got more confidence. Now we know the whole system of the offense with Coach Canada and everything like that. Everyone’s just growing.”
Offensive coordinator Matt Canada went so far as to call Gentry — who started as the No. 3 tight end last year and finished as Freiermuth’s backup — a starter.
“I think that’s a great group for us right now,” Canada said to Missi Matthews of Steelers.com. “Fredo’s doing a great job with those guys. He always does. You start with Gentry and his leadership. Certainly a guy who’s a Steeler and been here and worked his way to becoming a starter. I think that’s really, really what we want and what our organization is about.”
If the team is planning on two tight ends playing a lot, then having four on the roster doesn’t seem like much of a stretch, and having Heyward and Rader as backups actually makes a lot of sense.
Last season, Gentry played almost exclusively as an in-line tight end, lined up on the line of scrimmage next to a tackle.
“The Y tight end, a lot of what I did last year, is inline blocking and pass protection,” he explained.
The other tight end, called the F tight end, is the player that does most of Canada’s motions and shifts, and is also responsible for a lot more in the passing game.
“If you’re that other guy (F), you’ve gotta have a little light in your head to think about where you’re lined up in the formation, if you’re shifting, if you’re motioning after that shift, things like that,” Rader said. “And then routes off that are more receiver-based. It’s not as much like a tight end. The way you’re running the route is different.”
Freiermuth, already an accomplished receiver, is a good fit for that position. Last year, the Steelers entered the season with two tight ends that seem to fit that role in him and Eric Ebron. This year, that spot should highlight Heyward’s prowess as a receiver and runner and mitigate some of the concerns about his size. He said it’s pretty similar to what he was doing at Michigan State.
“Besides the shifts, a lot of it is all similar,” he said. “Football travels. Everybody kind of uses the same stuff. It’s just different terminology. That’s just been the main thing.”
There are advantages to playing multiple tight ends as compared to three wide receivers. Many of those come in the run game, where a receiver is replaced by a more competent blocker. The 12 personnel, with one back, two receivers and two tight ends, can also be more symmetrical than any other offensive formation, not giving the defense a clue as to what the strong or play side of the formation might be.
“It seems like we want to work on establishing a more dominant run game,” Gentry said. “I think that’d be a good way to go in order to do that. I think having two tight ends on the field opens up a lot of things in the run game and the pass game.”
The other area it helps is in the red zone. When taking the top of a defense off is no longer an option, having players that can use their size and strength to create space can be an advantage. In the team’s seven shots goal line drills and two-minute offense drills throughout OTAs and minicamp, time and time again, the Steelers quarterbacks looked to tight ends to make big plays.
“When you’ve got tight ends [in patterns], you want them to be able to make those tight-window catches,” Gentry said. “When the field gets short, you want to be able to have combat catches and put it on the top shelf. Those are things that we’re asked to do and so far — you’ve seen Pat catch a ton of those — the guys in our room are catching them consistently. Hopefully, we keep throwing those.”
“I thrive in the red zone,” Freiermuth added. “I definitely know the spacing. I know what the defense likes to to do in the red zone. Just kind of exploiting that and taking advantage of those opportunities.”
It adds up to a lot more of big guys in the 80s in the Steelers offense. From the veteran mix of the team’s personnel, to helping balance the run game, and creating red zone mismatches, it seems that the Steelers have found a way to make their offense more well rounded going forward.
“I’d say we’re definitely more involved this year,” Rader said. “We’ve run a lot of two tight end — even three tight end. In the offseason, we haven’t done that much (in the past). The fact that we’re doing it now, seems that they’re going to be running it more during the season.”
With Gentry and Rader as inline types and Freiermuth and Heyward as movable chess pieces, the Steelers have a deep group of tight ends with a variety of talents that could let a creative coordinator like Canada use their individual skillsets to create and advantage for the team, and the draft strategy of choosing to add Heyward makes a lot more sense now than it did then.