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Steelers Analysis

Steelers OTAs Takeaways: Freiermuth’s Big Role, Fields Change

The Pittsburgh Steelers continue to install their offense and make changes on an individual level at their second day of OTAs.

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Pittsburgh Steelers TE Pat Freiermuth
Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Pat Freiermuth at the team's OTAs, May 22, 2024 - Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

PITTSBURGH — Offseason training activities (OTAs) have different meanings for players across the individual team. While the team drills instructional bases, each individual aims at specific goals, whether testing out a hotly-trained skill from the offseason or a rookie who has to get their feet wet to feel what the NFL is like daily. So, the second day renders my consciousness somewhat experimental on the individual level, while the team-specific ideas aim to lay the base. The Pittsburgh Steelers are no exception to that. However, on a significant individual and team level, one player that stands out is tight Pat Freiermuth.

Pittsburgh Steelers TE Pat Freiermuth

Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Pat Freiermuth during OTAs at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex on May 21, 2024. — Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

Pat’s Big Year?

You could argue that no one benefits more from Arthur Smith’s hiring than Freiermuth. Jaylen Warren and Najee Harris, I get it, but Freiermuth has an easily projectable role in Pittsburgh’s offense. Whatever you think about Smith, he gets productivity from his tight ends. Kyle Pitts, Jonnu Smith, and Delanie Walker have soared under his guidance in some manner.

But Freiermuth is leaning into that alpha dog top tight-end role. It is akin to all of those three names above. Freiermuth lined up all over the formation from out wide to the slot to in-line tight end, and his route tree is expanding, too. The Matt Canada offense trusted Freiermith with many choice routes but limited his route tree to a small sample. This season? A lot more in-breakers and a diverse route tree should come with the Smith offense.

Freiermuth told me he runs slants, digs, flag routes, and more. That’s new because it never appeared on his profile last season or in previous years under Canada. And where Freiermuth wins is his smoothness in space and his rugged toughness, which translates into an elite catch rate. Freiermuth does not drop the ball. This role in Smith’s offense is so different that Freiermuth has taken up watching some wide receivers, including Drake London.

Flashback one second to Freiermuth’s game in Cincinnati last season, and remember how effective of a seam buster he was? Well, the only vertical route he ever ran was as a seam buster, and defenses adjusted more to collapse on him vertically. Now, he should have more versatility to unlock his game across the formation in the receiving game, and of course, he will be asked to take a step up as a blocker. In the early portion of the offseason, it seems like the Steelers offense has significant plans for No. 88.

Pittsburgh Steelers CB Darius Rush

Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Darius Rush at the team’s OTAs, May 22, 2024 – Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

Feel the Rush

Alright, I told you all I would go for one standout each day, and maybe I will expand that if necessary at some point. But Wednesday’s pick emerged quickly, and that would be Darius Rush. Rush had two impressive pass breakups. Displaying his length, downhill explosiveness, and improved confidence in his technique. He came out of South Carolina as a raw prospect, so his trust in another year at cornerback in a stable environment will foster his growth.

The Steelers did not wall off Rush or Cory Trice this offseason for a reason. They like these two young cornerbacks who have fantastic physical abilities but have to put the mental side of the game together. Rush exerts himself more confidently, and it shows in his play speed. I can not say I saw Rush play as fast as he did on Wednesday often a season ago, which should be attributed to his new level of comfort.

“It’s been a long journey for sure, but just to be back in this building, I’m grateful, grateful, grateful for the opportunity and just looking forward to carving out a role here in this organization, whether it’s defense or special teams, you know, so I’m just here to compete every day and instill some trust into these coaches to show that I’m able to compete and play for them,” Rush said.

Rush is taking to special teams well this year, too. James Pierre is gone, so the team needs a new gunner, and Rush has the ideal athleticism and body type to work with the new kickoff rules. Rush will be integral to Pittsburgh’s special teams units this upcoming season. Rush is well on his way to making an impact if he can take a step as a cornerback.

Pittsburgh Steelers QB Justin Fields

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Justin Fields during OTAs at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex on May 21, 2024. — Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

The Fields Change

On Tuesday, Steelers Now’s Derrick Bell wrote a fascinating piece on how the Steelers already switched Justin Fields’ mechanics. The change is subtle. Fields is now leading with his right foot after having his left foot forward during the past two seasons in Chicago. However, I remained curious about why Fields decided to make that move, whether Smith or quarterbacks coach Tom Arth prompted that change.

As it turns out, Fields did that all on his own. Smith encouraged Fields to do whatever made him the most comfortable, and while it happens to line up with what Russell Wilson prefers leading with his right foot in shotgun, Fields has always put his right foot forward since he played in high school.

Former Bears offensive coordinator Luke Getsy liked having Fields put his left foot forward. Part of that inspiration came from Aaron Rodgers and Getsy’s roots in Green Bay, but Fields is now back to his natural footwork on that front. But in Pittsburgh, Fields is doing this to be as free-flowing as possible.

As he told me, it is more about closing his eyes and relying on his muscle memory than anything else. Pittsburgh wants to coax Fields’ upside out of his game, and this is just one of the steps to doing just that. Fields is off to an excellent start at OTAs, and the physical tools pop, but I am interested in watching how his game evolves over the weeks. I want to see the consistency and stacking of days on top of one another.

Pittsburgh Steelers WR Roman Wilson

Pittsburgh Steelers WR Roman Wilson at the team’s first day of OTAs, May 21, 2024 – Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

Roman Wilson…Again

This is not as much my observation, but my ears pinged what the team has said about one wide receiver in particular. Joey Porter Jr. was asked point-blank which wide receiver has stood out to him so far, and the answer came quickly from Roman Wilson. Porter called Wilson’s role similar to the one he played at Michigan, which means a lot of free releases and over routes that get him open in the middle of the field.

That is how the Steelers should use Wilson, anyway. Wilson caught two touchdowns against a Penn State defense that Porter played on in 2021. He is no stranger to Wilson’s speed and how he wins on the football field. To earn that mutual respect is noteworthy from an ascending young player like Porter, but Wilson has earned it.

That is in team drills, but wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni has some sizzle to him and has targeted Wilson more than a few times in their periods. Wilson has the tools that sparkle, but the little intricacies still need to come together to pop as that significant wide receiver piece they envision him being in the future.

Steelers CB Josiah Scott

Steelers CB Josiah Scott at Steelers practice Sept. 4, 2023 – Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

Scott in the Slot

What is going on in the slot? Well, Josiah Scott is early on in the process for the Steelers. Scott said he has run first team as the slot cornerback over the first two days of OTAs. A veteran with experience, it is unsurprising that the Steelers lean on Scott and his expertise to start.

“I’m approaching it like any other year,” Scott said. “This is a one-day-at-a-time thing. You can’t think about it too much. I’m learning something new daily, and I hope I’m showing what I can do.”

During his time in Philadelphia, Scott’s play could be classified as rocky. He has excellent run support skills but is new at pass-rushing. The consistency in down-to-down coverage reps is not on his resume, though, and that makes any endeavor as a defensive back tricky. If Scott is involved in this slot cornerback answer, expect it to profile as a committee with a run-down slot (Scott) and a pass-down-specific slot.