Pat Freiermuth highlights promising direction for Steelers offense

Pat Freiermuth turned in the first 100-yard receiving game of his career on Sunday in Cincinnati. Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

CINCINNATI -- Pat Freiermuth grinned as he looked down at the blue-and-white block letters screen printed across his gray hoodie. It was no coincidence, he said, that he was wearing a TEU -- Tight Ends U -- sweatshirt after a career afternoon in the win against the Cincinnati Bengals. "I just hopefully brought some good luck [with me]," Freiermuth said "I learned some good things down there. ... I was talking to my family over Thanksgiving. I was like, hopefully this is the one that I can build on."

Freiermuth attended TEU -- an annual retreat put on by George Kittle and other premier NFL tight ends to enrich the position group in Nashville -- for the first time this summer, but to this point, he hadn't been able to showcase his skills in his third season.

But in the first game with Mike Sullivan calling plays in place of recently fired offensive coordinator Matt Canada, Freiermuth exploded for the best game of his career with nine catches for 120 yards. Prior to Sunday's win against the Bengals, Freiermuth's season-long stat line was nine catches for 60 yards and two touchdowns.

"Pat had an unbelievable game," quarterback Kenny Pickett said. "Really happy for him battling back off an injured hamstring, which isn't easy, so it's great to have 88 out there."

The plan, Freiermuth said, was to get him involved early and often Sunday, provided the Bengals were showing them the two-high safety looks they'd seen on film. And on the first play of the game, Pickett rocketed a 24-yard dart to Freiermuth down the seam on a play-action pass.

"Confidence, man," Freiermuth said, explaining the impact of his catch. "Connecting on that first play, on an explosive, it made everyone believe."

It's not that Freiermuth has lacked confidence -- or that the offense has lacked confidence in him -- it's that he hasn't been available to make those kinds of plays for most of the season. Last season, Freiermuth had 98 targets, 63 catches, 732 yards and two touchdowns, and figured to be a big part of the offense in Pickett's second season. But in Week 1, he left the loss to the 49ers with a chest injury. Three weeks later, Freiermuth found himself down on the field in Houston, surrounded by athletic trainers tending to his first ever hamstring injury. He missed the next game against the Baltimore Ravens, but he appeared on track to return after the Week 6 bye. Then, he had a setback in practice, aggravating the injury.

Instead of returning to the field for the Oct. 22 game against the Los Angeles Rams, he went to Injured Reserve. And that's where he stayed from Oct. 21 until he was activated on Nov. 18. In his first game back, he was a non-factor in the loss to the Browns, recording one catch for seven yards.

"It's been tough, man," Freiermuth said of his season. "Obviously balancing some injuries. Never really was healthy since Week 1, taking that hit to the chest."

In his absence, the Steelers largely ignored both the tight end position and the middle of the field. Despite drafting Georgia product Darnell Washington in the third round and having other tight ends on the roster in Connor Heyward and Rodney Williams, the Steelers were loath to use them. Entering Sunday's game, Steelers tight ends averaged 4.8 targets per game, ranking 28th in the league. The team's tight ends also averaged just 21.3 yards per game and 5.1 yards per attempt. And, prior to the win, only 33% of Pickett's passes were thrown between the numbers in the middle of the field, the lowest in the NFL. And of the passes he did attempt in that area, he completed a league-low 59.8%.

But with a new playcaller and a healthy Freiermuth, Pickett went to the tight ends early and often. Not only did he connect with Freiermuth on the first play, but he also had a 10-yard completion to Washington and two passes to Heyward for 11 yards. Pickett also found Freiermuth for a 29-yard completion on third-and-13, and later, for two big third-down conversions on the team's lone touchdown drive of the day. All told, Pickett completed 12 of 14 attempts for 141 yards to his tight ends, the most completions and yards to that position group in his career. And Freiermuth's 120 receiving yards were the most by a Steelers tight end since Jesse James in Week 2 of 2018.

"I was kind of just playing off of what they were showing defensively," Pickett said. "Felt like they were showing a lot of middle field open coverages where we needed Pat to step up and be big for us, which he was. Had him in some one-on-one routes too to move the chains." The tight ends weren't just more involved because of the change in playcallers. A big part, Heyward said, was the looks the Bengals were giving them and the execution by the Steelers to take advantage of them.

"I feel like every week we try to get our tight ends involved, and it just all depends on the look," Heyward said. "Sometimes everybody runs four verticals, and this game, it just happened to pop off the screen with Pat. He played really well, and Kenny made the throws. And then obviously O-line protecting him. Sometimes it's there, but if everybody's not doing their job, then it's like, why are we throwing the ball in the middle? But when everybody does their job and they give us the right look, that's where the ball goes."

The next step for the offense is to replicate the success Pickett had throwing to the tight ends and over the middle. Of course, Heyward said, there's a chance Freiermuth gets doubled next week against the Arizona Cardinals because he had a big game this week.

But that's where developing a multidimensional offense can -- and should -- help the Steelers as they try to make a playoff push in a wide-open AFC North with a more fluid offense.

"That's what game planning's for," Freiermuth said. "And that's why we have the two players on the outside. If they double me on the inside, you got the two outside guys, and if they doubled two outside guys, you got me inside. So it's good to have us at full health."