Halfway through the Steelers 2021 season, the offensive line was playing the best it would all season, and Pat Freiermuth was just making his presence known as more than just a promising rookie, but a go-to threat for the Steelers.
But Matt Canada, Ben Roethlisberger and Pat Freiermuth would implant that threat into every defensive coordinator’s brain with a play in the third quarter against the Chicago Bears.
Steelers vs. Bears, 3rd quarter, 2:14
Pat Freiermuth is the Steelers furthest to the top of the screen.
This doesn’t look super-impressive. A nice pitch and catch with Pat Freiermuth bullying a smaller defender to pull in a back-shoulder catch. There’s a lot more to it.
We’ll start with Pat Freiermuth’s part in the play. Freiermuth is the only Steeler to the right side of the offensive line. That puts him in a one-on-one matchup with one of the Bears starting cornerbacks, Kindle Vildor. Vindor engages Freiermuth right off the line, and Freiermuth easily wins the physicality, even turning the route more vertical through contact near the goal line. He secures the catch like he did almost every time he was thrown the ball in the end zone, and the Steelers get the touchdown.
Good job by Freiermuth. This wasn’t his first time going up against an outside corner, and after this play he would get lined up outside more, in sets like this and with him outside and receivers in the slot next to him. Freiermuth’s ability to win those matchups is huge. Often teams will put a tight end or running back outside and a smaller receiver inside to force the opponent to choose between putting a linebacker on the tight end out wide where they are no help in run defense, or putting a corner on the tight end and a linebacker inside, giving the offense a slot receiver matched up with a linebacker.
I’m sure most people reading this can picture plenty of times the Steelers have faced that dilemma and put a Vince Williams or Robert Spillane on a dangerous slot receiver. Most of the time on those plays the tight end or running back on the outside doesn’t factor into the offense as more than a pawn to create a mismatch elsewhere, but top players like Travis Kelce and Alvin Kamara have created major advantages for their teams by being able to be a real threat while lined up outside facing a starting corner. Pat Freiermuth showed in 2021 that he could be that type of player.
And now let’s take a second look at the play, this time from the all-22 film, and check out the defense this time. We’ll start with a picture from right before the snap.
I labeled all the players in coverage so you can see how this alignment creates mismatches. The Steelers are in 11 personnel, they have one running back, Najee Harris, one tight end Pat Freiermuth and three wide receivers, all to the bottom of the screen. The Bears countering with nickel defense makes sense, 3 cornerbacks for the receivers, a linebacker for each of the tight end and running back.
But in this alignment the Bears have a cornerback on Pat Freiermuth and a linebacker on Chase Claypool. No team is going to be comfortable covering Chase Claypool with a linebacker. Now watch how the defense reacts to the play.
You can see the defense is very concerned about the middle of the field, and it leaves Freiermuth one-on-one with a corner who has no help. I love this picture:
Chase Claypool is splitting the linebackers, pulling the free safety to him. If the safety doesn’t get to Claypool it’s an easy pitch and catch to the back of the end zone. The linebacker to the bottom of the screen is moving to cover Diontae Johnson on his shallow cross and the box safety is picking up Najee Harris. The Steelers putting Najee Harris and Pat Freiermuth to one side of the field has the Bears covering their tight end and running back with a cornerback and safety. That is how you get two linebackers in coverage on Chase Claypool and Diontae Johnson.
There’s several options for Ben Roethlisberger here. He can try to drop the ball into Chase Claypool between the linebacker and safety. He could let Diontae Johnson come a bit farther across and throw it underneath, letting him outrun the linebacker and see what he can get, or he can do what he does on this play, and put the ball up and in the end zone and let Pat Freiermuth make a play. It doesn’t take a Hall of Fame quarterback to make the play here. and Roethlisberger’s back shoulder throw isn’t even a great one. This is a play that Kenny Pickett or Mitchell Trubisky could make, because the talent on the field and the design of the play gives the quarterback mismatches to exploit.
Chase Claypool is expected to play more in the slot in 2022. Pat Freiermuth looks better heading into his second season than he did last year. The offensive line should be at least as good as it was in this game if they are healthy. Swap in George Pickens or Calvin Austin III for James Washington and this play works as well or better than it did in 2021.
Matt Canada’s offense is designed around creating opportunity through misdirection and mismatches. He has an offense with players like Freiermuth, Claypool, Johnson and Harris that have already proven capable of creating and exploiting mismatches in his offense. That should have Steeler fans excited to see what this offense can do in 2022.