clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

What does Zach Gentry bring to the Steelers at the tight end position?

Whether or not the Steelers tight end is brought back with a second contract comes down to the value he brings versus a replacement.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Steelers 2023 offseason is underway. As the team looks at it’s potentially departing players due to impending free agency, some players may be returning while others will test the market. To get a better idea as to how the Steelers might be looking, we’re going to dive into several of the free agents starting with ones who played the most in 2022. Next up will be Zach Gentry. 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:

When it comes to the four seasons Zach Gentry has spent with the Pittsburgh Steelers, there is a definite split between the first two years and the the last two. In 2019, Zach Gentry only appeared in four games as a rookie where he played 49 offensive snaps and two on special teams where he was targeted one time with one reception for 4 yards. In his second season, Gentry only appeared in two games with one start and was eventually placed on IR with a knee injury.

Gentry‘s next two seasons for the Steelers were a completely different story. Appearing in all 17 games each of the last two seasons, Gentry started 12 games in 2021 and 13 in 2022. His snaps played were 473 on offense and 139 on special teams in 2021 with 577 offensive snaps with 72 on special teams this past season.

The production and usage as a receiver was much different for Gentry the last two seasons as well. Catching 19 passes during the regular season in both 2021 and 2022, Gentry had 25 targets where he had 167 yards receiving with an 8.8 yards per reception average in 2021. In 2022, Gentry caught 19 of 23 targets for 132 yards with a 6.9 yards per reception average but an 82.6% completion percentage. In 2021, Gentry also caught four passes on four targets for 33 yards during the Steelers single playoff game. Additionally, Gentry is the player who caught Ben Roethlisberger‘s final pass of his NFL career.

Beyond being a receiving option, Zach Gentry is primarily used as the Steelers blocking tight end. To get a better idea of how he is used there, as well as as a receiver, we will need to check the film.

The Film Line:

Zach Gentry doesn’t offer a whole lot as a receiver. He had a few longer gains in 2021 and a couple in 2022, but they tended to look like this:

Steelers @ Bengals, 2nd quarter, 11:47

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

Gentry is in a blocking look on a play action pass. The Bengals have the linebacker responsible for Gentry dropping into zone as soon as he sees that Jaylen Warren isn’t running and Gentry is blocking. That lets Gentry step away from his block and be wide open with time for blockers to get downfield, and this 32-yard gain is the longest of Zach Gentry’s career.

His blocking can set up other pass opportunities as well.

Steelers @ Bengals, 3rd quarter, 1:00

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

I love that “chip” to start the play, and it’s a nice little route to run off of it too. Just ignore the down and distance, because that turns what is a really fun play into a disappointment.

But it is also a reality that can’t be avoided with Zach Gentry. Targeted six times on third down in 2022, Gentry caught all six passes, gaining one first down. On the other five 3rd down catches he fell short by an average of 8 yards. In fact, 22% of Gentry’s receiving yards came from 3rd and long dump offs that fell well short of the sticks.

Gentry’s production was mostly manufactured opportunities and garbage yards. He’s not even a decent receiving tight end.

Steelers vs. Colts, 4th quarter, 13:07

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

That little slip screen stopped working in the middle of the season too. Teams got used to it and would watch for it and blow it up.

Steelers vs. Bengals, 3rd quarter, 1:00

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

Gentry doesn’t offer much on the more clever parts of Canada’s offense. Here the timing and spacing are just a little bit off. Instead of Gentry following Kevin Dotson through a small gap in the line, it’s a loss on the play.

Steelers vs. Browns, 2nd quarter, 6:27

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

He is pretty good when the opposing team completely forgets to cover him.

Connor Heyward increased his snaps after the bye week and outperformed Zach Gentry producing double the yards on one more target than Gentry received. But while he took some of Gentry’s focus in the passing game, he wasn’t stealing snaps from Gentry. The Steelers just used more tight ends. Zach Gentry actually played more snaps in the second half of the season, per game, than he did in the first half. And to show why, we’re going to look at the first three plays of the Steelers Week 17 win over the Baltimore Ravens.

Steelers @ Ravens, 1st quarter, 15:00

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

The Steelers start the game with a run right at Zach Gentry. Gentry controls Jason Pierre-Paul, and is able to turn and seal Paul out of the play as the Steelers gain three yards on the ground.

Steelers @ Ravens, 1st quarter, 14:26

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

Second down and the Steelers run a quick sprint out pass for six yards. Zach Gentry is up to the task of blocking Jason Pierre-Paul on this play as well.

Steelers @ Ravens, 1st quarter, 13:52

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

Third and one on the opening drive and the Steelers run Derek Watt on the H-Back counter. Zach Gentry and Chukwuma Okorafor are double teaming the Ravens 5-Tech defensive end, and when Okorafor gets the end squared up on his first step, Gentry puts his hands on Okorafor’s back and helps drive the line forward.

It’s a thing of beauty watching a runner head right into his line for three yards when he needed one. The Steelers started their game in the Ravens stadium with a 15-play field goal drive that took 7 minutes off the clock. Zach Gentry played the most snaps of any tight end on that drive.

The Point:

In Week 17 when the Steelers came out looking to dominate the NFL’s 3rd ranked run defense in their stadium, they leaned on Zach Gentry, and the first drive set the tone for the entire game. Zach Gentry is a solid blocking tight end, and his in-line blocking would be the most important part of his game to replace if he isn’t re-signed. The Steelers could look to bring the same tight end group back, or they could look to add an in-line tight end that offers high-end blocking and more receiving threat than Gentry does. But when it comes to what the Steelers would lose with Gentry should he decide to move on to somewhere else, it really is all about the blocking.