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Can Zach Gentry continue to surprise in 2022?

Many weren’t expecting much out of the Steelers third tight end in 2021, but his play helped solidify the position for the coming season.

NFL: JAN 09 Steelers at Ravens Photo by Randy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Steelers are chugging on through the 2022 offseason. Looking at a number of players and positions as the roster has fluctuated, sometimes it’s players the Steelers have on their roster taking a step that can really add to the coming season. One player who took a nice leap in 2021 is tight end Zach Gentry. But can he make another jump in 2022? This is the subject for this week’s Steelers Vertex.

Let’s get a quick reminder of where this nerdiness is coming from.

Vertex- a single point where two or more lines cross.

Sometimes to make a great point, it takes two different systems of analysis to come together and build off each other in order to drawl a proper conclusion. In this case, the two methods are statistical analysis and film breakdown. Enter Dave Schofield (the stat geek) and Geoffrey Benedict (the film guru) to come together to prove a single point based on our two lines of thinking.

Here comes the breakdown from two different lines of analysis.

The Stats Line:

Through his first two seasons in the NFL, Zach Gentry had a total of one reception on one target for 4 yards. This catch came in his rookie season where he appeared in four games. In his second year in 2020, Gentry was inactive for the first eight games of the season. Finally getting a helmet in Week 10, Gentry actually got his first start in Week 11 before landing on injured reserve.

With many Steelers fans having low expectations that Gentry would contribute in any way in 2021, he came through as a very pleasant surprise. Appearing in all 17 games, Gentry was credited with 12 starts by being on the field for the first offensive play. Interesting enough, Gentry started three more games than rookie tight end Pat Freiermuth. On the season, Gentry had 19 receptions on 25 targets for 167 yards.

For the 2021 season, Gentry saw his most output in the Steelers’ games at Cleveland in Week 8 and in Baltimore in Week 18 where he had 39 yards receiving in each game. Against Cleveland, Gentry had three receptions on five targets while in Baltimore he had four receptions on five targets.

Through the first 10 games of 2021, Gentry only saw the majority of offensive snaps twice. Occurring in Week 8 and Week 9, Gentry saw an increase in snaps due to Eric Ebron being inactive. Once Ebron was lost for the season following Week 11, Gentry saw his number of snaps increase significantly the remainder of the season.

When it comes to grades by Pro Football Focus, Gentry was the 28th ranked tight end in the NFL with an overall 66.0 score. Where Gentry had the highest score on the season was as a pass blocker where his 78.2 grade had him fourth in the NFL just behind a teammate Pat Freiermuth.

So in what ways did Gentry contribute to the Steelers offense in 2021 to give the numbers some context? Let’s check the film.

The Film Line:

Zach Gentry entered the 2021 season as the Steelers #3 tight end, a cheap blocking tight end that not many Steeler fans thought much of. A not small number of fans saw him as a negative on the roster, a blocking-only tight end that offered less than putting an extra offensive lineman on the field.

By the end of the season, he had proven he could be more than that.

Steelers vs. Broncos, 1st quarter, 1:43.

Zach Gentry (#81) is the tight end to the bottom of the screen.

This is one of my favorite plays the Steelers ran for Zach Gentry. Gentry is pass blocking until he is “beaten” by the edge rusher. Then he simply turns and catches the ball for a unique and effective screen pass. The Steelers ran this play several times in 2021, and it worked well.

The key to this play is the fact that Gentry is a fantastic blocker.

Steelers vs. Ravens, 1st quarter, 4:42.

Zach Gentry (#81) is the tight end to the left side of the screen.

Tyus Bowser is no slouch as an edge defender. Gentry not only holds the line with Bowser but drives him further outside, creating space that Najee Harris is able to take advantage of to get yards late in the play. Bowser gets in on the end of the tackle, but watch Bowser’s feet and the yard markers, Gentry removes Bowser from any meaningful role on this run play.

Steelers @ Browns, 2nd quarter, 14:54.

Zach Gentry (#81) is the tight end to the bottom of the screen.

Gentry is in charge of blocking the edge rusher, and he shuts him down to the point that Derek Watt coming over to offer help has nothing to do. Gentry shows a great anchor on the initial impact, then clears the defenders hands off of him with a push and has complete control of the defender afterward.

Steelers @ Browns, 3rd quarter, 1:42.

Zach Gentry (#81) is the tight end on the line of scrimmage to the top of the screen.

You can see why these plays work. Gentry starts out blocking, then when the rusher makes a move to get off his block, he simply lets them and he’s open. Watch inside linebacker #51 for Cleveland, he is invested in the play fake to Najee Harris and has to try and catch up to Gentry after he sees it is not a run. The play design takes two defenders out of the play because Zach Gentry is not a priority target to defend.

Speaking of not being a priority target to cover. . .

Steelers @ Browns, 4th quarter, 12:56.

Zach Gentry (#81) is the tight end to the right side of the screen.

That’s a 24-yard gain simply because no one on the defense bothered to cover Zach Gentry. They all had more important things to do.

There’s a lot of clips from this Week 8 matchup with Cleveland, and for good reason. Eric Ebron was injured and missed this game, so this is Zach Gentry’s first game as the Steelers #2 tight end. He would keep that job.

But he didn’t just keep his spot, he earned the trust of his coaches and especially his quarterback, and as the season went on, it showed.

Steelers vs. Ravens, 4th quarter, 5:23.

Zach Gentry (#81) is the tight end to the near side of the formation.

Look at the situation on this play. The Steelers need 2 yards, and they call on this play that is designed for Zach Gentry. They know defenses don’t prioritize him, but he’s also proven reliable enough to trust with making a play when the game is on the line.

As the Steelers neared the end of the season the play-calling and Ben Roethlisberger’s willingness to throw to Gentry when plays broke down both showed up on film. Gentry wasn’t just a really good blocking tight end, he was also someone the Steelers could trust to make plays when needed.

Notice that none of these receptions are based on Gentry’s ability to beat man coverage, run great routes, or win contested catches. He hasn’t shown that in his three years with the Steelers, but when the play design has the defense looking elsewhere first, Gentry becomes a viable option.

Steelers @ Ravens, 4th quarter, 5:23.

Zach Gentry (#81) is the tight end to the top of the screen.

Like this beauty in Week 18. The Ravens see Pat Freiermuth and Zach Gentry head out in front of Chase Claypool and bite hard on the threat of a screen pass. The deep coverage wisely prioritizes Freiermuth and that leaves Zach Gentry wide open for the longest gain of the game, and his longest gain of the season.

The Point:

Zach Gentry epitomizes a key role player in Matt Canada’s offense. His main value is his blocking that creates opportunity for other players, but as teams focus on avoiding him to stop Najee Harris, Chase Claypool or get to the quarterback, Gentry has the talent to make use of the space he is given. Matt Canada’s strength as a play-designer and caller is getting a lot of value out of players like Zach Gentry.

Gentry started the season playing snaps strictly as a blocking tight end, receiving a few targets on Matt Canada’s gadget plays. But when Eric Ebron was hurt Zach Gentry took over the #2 tight end role and didn’t give it back. The last 4 weeks of the 2021 season Gentry was 5th on the Steelers in receiving yards, and first in yards per target. While Gentry is still not a valuable receiver in a traditional sense, the more the Steelers buy in to Canada’s offense, the more opportunity there will be for players like Zach Gentry to produce.