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A bigger role for the tight ends is paying dividends for the Steelers’ offense

The Pittsburgh Steelers are starting to utilize their tight ends more, and it is making a big difference.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Cleveland Browns Scott Galvin-USA TODAY Sports

The Steelers defeated the Cleveland Browns 15-10 on Sunday in a tightly-contested game that felt like old-school AFC North football. It featured great defense, physical rushing attacks, a knockout shot on a kicker and fewer points than most junior league games. With apologies to Chris Boswell, it was beautiful to watch.

One of the major concerns for the Steelers heading into the Cleveland game involved how the offense would replace Juju Smith-Schuster, who was lost for the season two weeks ago with an arm injury. Smith-Schuster was the team’s best receiver and most versatile player. His absence was especially troubling in the slot, where he excelled, and where the Steelers lack an accomplished replacement.

If Sunday’s game is any indication, we have a pretty good idea how coordinator Matt Canada intends to compensate. Canada leaned heavily on his two young tight ends against the Browns. With veteran Eric Ebron injured, Pat Freiermuth got 58 snaps, or 78% of the total on offense, while Zach Gentry took 45 snaps (61%). By contrast, James Washington, the Steelers’ third receiver, was on the field for 34 snaps and fourth receiver Ray Ray McCloud received just 11. Many believed McCloud would take on a larger role once Smith-Schuster went down, but that was not the case on Sunday. Instead, it was Freiermuth and Gentry, who rewarded Canada for his faith in them by achieving two of the top three PFF grades for the entire offense.

Canada’s decision to use a second tight end broke from the Steelers long-standing preference for operating primarily out of three-wide, 11 personnel sets. The fact that Freiermuth, a rookie, and Gentry, a third-year player who barely saw the field his first two seasons, received those snaps speaks volumes about the growing confidence both Canada and Ben Roethlisberger have in them. The Steelers have called 100 passes and 97 runs the past three weeks — all wins — in a trend that suggests Roethlisberger is buying in to Canada’s emphasis on running the football and finding better balance on offense. The tight ends have been a big part of that transformation.

Here’s a look at how Canada used his tight ends against Cleveland and how he was rewarded for his faith in them.

When fans think about tight end sets, they often picture closed formations and stacked boxes. While the Steelers included some of those in their game-plan on Sunday, they also used their tight ends to spread the field. This was especially true with Freiermuth, who is athletic enough to line up in the slot, where you can see him circled in the photo below.

The Steelers got man-coverage on all five of their receivers to this empty set. Cleveland rushed four, played a single safety deep and used the other to disrupt routes in the middle of the field. This put a linebacker on Freiermuth, who was simply too athletic for him in space. Watch how the quick head fake and jab step to the outside at the top of Freiermuth’s route caused the backer to false-step, and how Freiermuth beat him back inside as a result. Roethlisberger’s throw was on the money and Freiermuth lowered his shoulders and used his 255-pound frame to make an extra three yards after contact:

Here’s the same formation from later in the game. Cleveland switched up its coverage, bringing the backer previously assigned to Freiermuth on a blitz and dropping the near safety down to cover him. The Steelers went “hot,” though, and got the ball to Freiermuth quickly on a bench route. He caught it, turned upfield and made the safety miss with a nifty cut. That turned a short reception into a gain of more than 20 yards:

Of course, the play from Freiermuth that garnered headlines was his touchdown catch that provided the Steelers their winning points. This catch also originated from a set where Freiermuth aligned in the slot. On 4th and goal from the +2 yard line with 11:09 remaining, he ran a corner route against safety Ronnie Harrison. Harrison did a nice job contesting the throw, getting his left arm between Freiermuth’s hands and momentarily separating them from the football. Freiermuth reached back with his right arm, however, and managed to pull the ball into his body. He wrestled his left arm free of Harrison and used it to secure the catch while somehow getting both feet in bounds as he fell through the back of the end zone:

Here’s the catch from a better angle:

While the last play is the most spectacular of the three, they all display a skill set Steelers’ fans have desired from their tight ends for quite some time. The routes are crisp, the hands are soft, and the runs after the catch are reminiscent of Heath Miller. I’m not ready to anoint Freiermuth the second-coming of Miller — he’s a rookie, after all — but his potential makes it tempting to do so. Freiermuth needs time to develop before a fair comparison can be made, but the early returns suggest it isn’t far-fetched that he and Miller could one day be mentioned in the same breath.

Speaking of development, no player on Pittsburgh’s roster has come as far the past few seasons as Gentry. As a rookie, the 6’8 Gentry often resembled a baby giraffe in cleats. He was noticeably awkward and was overmatched at the line of scrimmage. Many, including me, projected him as a practice squad player at best. And yet there he was on Sunday, lining up in a pivotal division game and more than holding his own against a physical Cleveland defense.

Gentry is now a thick 265 pounds and blocks with both finesse and power. Take this play. In the photo below, the arrow indicates that Gentry, aligned inside of Freiermuth in an unbalanced set, was to climb to the near linebacker on a zone run:

Gentry’s path to the block was excellent. Rather than go to where the backer was aligned, which often results in a blocker pushing the defender into the back, Gentry angled for where he’d be as he flowed to the football. Gentry actually beat the backer to the spot, which allowed him to attack the backer’s play-side shoulder and shield him from the ball-carrier. Running back Najee Harris squeezed inside of Gentry’s block for a nice gain.

In the next clip, we see him do something similar on a bootleg from Roethlisberger. Gentry, aligned as the tight end on the right side of the line, was responsible for washing down the pinching edge player to clear a path for Roethlisberger on his roll-out. The fake pitch to running back Anthony McFarland drew the attention of the edge player, but the fact that Gentry stayed square, allowed him to commit inside and then ran his feet to wash him down showed great patience and technique. Many young players, in their eagerness to make contact, lunge at defenders in these situations and put themselves off-balance, where they are susceptible to penetration. But Gentry kept his feet under him, which put him in great position to execute the block:

The next block showcases Gentry’s strength. On one of the most important snaps of the game, the Steelers, trailing 10-3 in the 3rd quarter, converted a 4th and 1 from near midfield in route to their initial touchdown. You may have to watch this clip a few times to see Gentry’s block, but it’s worth it.

Gentry aligned as the tight end to the right side of the formation with receiver Chase Claypool on the wing just outside of him. At the snap, Gentry fired off the ball and blocked down on defensive end Joe Jackson, dropping Jackson to his knees. Gentry then continued to drive his legs until Jackson fell to the ground two yards beyond the line of scrimmage. While Harris ran inside of Gentry’s block, bulling his way forward for the conversion, the fact Gentry man-handled Jackson, who is listed as 6’4-280, speaks volumes about how physical he’s become:

While Gentry has made his mark as a blocker this season, he showed on Sunday that if you ignore him as a receiver he can make you pay. On this 1st and 20 play from early in the 4th quarter, the Steelers aligned in a bunch set to the field with Gentry the point man in the bunch. They ran out-cuts with both of their off-ball receivers while Gentry ran a divide route up the seam. Cleveland blew the coverage, sending both a linebacker and a safety with the flat route, and no one covered Gentry in the middle of the field:

Forgive the Browns for voiding the middle, where Pittsburgh has rarely thrown the ball the past few seasons. With their big tight ends in the lineup, a resuscitation of that strategy may be at hand. Overall, Gentry caught 3 passes for 39 yards on Sunday while Freiermuth caught 4 for 43 yards. Their 12 combined targets were the most for the Pittsburgh tight ends all season.

The increasing role of the tight ends may be a matter of necessity given the injury to Smith-Schuster. For Canada, though, it puts him squarely within his comfort zone. Canada loved multiple tight end sets in college, where his offenses often operated from 12 and 22 personnel. Now, seven games in to his first campaign as a pro coordinator, we may be seeing the offense Canada envisioned when he was promoted to the job. The Steelers are going heavier, running the ball more and becoming increasingly creative with their schemes and alignments. Canada has tempered his use of shifts and motions as a means of manipulating defenses, perhaps as a concession to Roethlisberger, who has never seemed to like them. But he’s finding ways to compensate. Getting creative with his tight ends has become one such way.

Take the Steelers’ first drive of the second half on Sunday. While the results were poor — a five-yard run by Harris followed by two incompletions — the way Canada deployed the tight ends was interesting.

On 1st down, he stacked them side by side to the left of the formation in an unbalanced look that forced Cleveland to kick their front to the strength. Then he used jet motion from Claypool to slow the linebackers so the Steelers could run inside zone at the bubble in the front:

On 2nd down, Canada put the tight ends to the boundary in an old-school wing formation. Freiermuth, who was the wing, even tilted in towards the formation the way teams did it in the 1930s. This gave him a better angle for a down-block should the Steelers run sweep or, thinking ahead, put him in position to receive the ball on a counter play coming back to the field:

Finally, on 3rd down, Canada stood both tight ends up, with Gentry aligned as an H-back to the boundary and Freiermuth in the slot. This again forced a rotation from Cleveland’s defense that opened a window for Roethlisberger to throw a slant to Diontae Johnson, who was singled-up in coverage on the back side:

While the drive faltered, Canada used his tight ends to force Cleveland to adjust their fronts and coverages so they would not be out-leveraged. He then attempted to take advantage of their rotations by exploiting the weaknesses they created. The execution on the drive was poor but the conceptualization was excellent.

Moving forward, this feels like the tip of the iceberg. So long as the tight ends continue to produce, Canada will reward them by finding new and interesting ways to use them. That bodes well for an offense that may just be hitting its stride.