The Pittsburgh Steelers must figure out a way to get Pat Freiermuth deeper targets in 2022. A recent ESPN survey across the league ranked Freiermuth outside the NFL’s top ten tight ends, but did make him an honorable mention.
Freiermuth does need to improve his in-game blocking, but the biggest factor that will improve his standing will come from how he’s used. Per Pro Football Focus, Freiermuth averaged 5.9 yards downfield across his 77 targets last season. Out of the 18 tight ends with more receiving yards last season, 16 had an average depth of target further downfield than Freiermuth.
Much of that was because of the limited capabilities of Ben Roethlisberger, who averaged 7.1 air yards per target on the season. That’s the lowest of Roethlisberger’s career, and a sign of how limited the Steelers’ passing game was with his lessened arm strength.
PFF recorded 58 of Freiermuth’s 77 targets to come nine yards downfield or fewer. That’s more than 75 percent of his targets in short distance. That wasn’t the case for the NFL’s leading tight ends in receiving yards. Mark Andrews averaged 10.9 air yards per target, while Travis Kelce averaged 7.5 yards, Kyle Pitts 11.2 yards and George Kittle 8.3 yards.
Freiermuth only had a single target beyond 20 yards on the season. But even in his short targets, Freiermuth made the best of his chances. Watch this target from Roethlisberger that came in a rush due to a Bengals blitz. Freiermuth needed to gain nine yards to get the first down and gained all of it on his own.
Watch Freiermuth’s quick turn up field to make a defender miss before gaining the first down:
That was 1 of 11 forced missed tackles from Freiermuth on the season, sixth-most of NFL tight ends. He maximized his chances even on receptions around the line of scrimmage.
But when Freiermuth got in the red zone, issues of target depth were negated and defenses had a problem. The Steelers were able to force matchups an opportunities that gave Roethlisberger higher percentage passes for touchdowns.
Watch how Freiermuth’s quick out route worked behind Diontae Johnson on a two-point conversion and the easy passing window it made for Roethlisberger:
But what’s most promising about a second year for Freiermuth comes from how well he performed in contested catches. NFL Next Gen Stats recorded Freiermuth rate of caught tight-window passes at 61.5 percent. That was the second-best percentage among NFL tight ends.
Freiermuth made plenty of catches while covered well by defenders as a rookie. Those plays made him an asset to the Steelers, and with deeper targets in 2022, could make him more appreciated in their offense. Notice how Freiermuth engaged his defender with his inside hand to establish leverage for the jump ball in the end zone:
Those post-up plays were Freiermuth’s best feature from last season. They also came in big moments of close wins that kept the Steelers alive in their playoff chase. He caught two such touchdowns against the Bears, and his best play of the year against the Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium.
What’s most impressive about these plays is how Freiermuth not only high-pointed the ball, but fought through deflections from solid coverage by defenders. Notice the focus he has to not only snag the pass off a deflection, but keep his feet in-bounds for a touchdown:
Freiermuth developed a good reputation for making these types of big plays for the Steelers. He doesn’t let that reputation make him overconfident and sees plenty of room for growth, a good sign for a young player entering his second season.
It’s always good for a player to seek improvement. But Freiermuth’s growth must be coupled with Matt Canada’s scheme giving him more opportunities at deeper targets downfield. If more of his receptions came further downfield, more of his forced missed tackles can lead to bigger scoring opportunities.
It will also make for more opportunities against linebackers as defenses deploy their defensive backs to cover the Steelers’ wide receivers. If the Steelers work Freiermuth into their offense as a deeper threat down the middle of the field for Mitch Trubisky or Kenny Pickett, defenses won’t be able to focus as much on other playmakers like Najee Harris and Diontae Johnson.
It also might mean Freiermuth gets better chances for bigger yards, and put him in the NFL’s top ten tight ends after the 2022 season.