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Steelers Film Room: Pat Freiermuth influences big plays in subtle ways

A healthy Pat Freiermuth is the secret to the recent Steeler success

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Pittsburgh Steelers Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Steelers are headed to the playoffs after beating the hated Baltimore Ravens. I know you already knew that, but it just felt so good to type that sentence that I may have to do it again. With the anticipation of what lies ahead in this unexpected trip to the postseason, let’s take a look back at some plays that helped notch that 17-10 victory over the Purple Browns.

On the third play of the game, the Steelers would face a 3rd-and-1 on the 34. Mason Rudolph would complete a pass to Diontae Johnson for 7 yards and a first down. On TV, it looked like a bad pass as Johnson had turned to the inside but then had to lunge to the outside to snag it. From the end zone view, this clip is frozen as Rudolph releases the ball. Notice the Raven linebacker is directly between Rudolph and Johnson at this point. If the pass is thrown to Johnson it almost surely is tipped or intercepted. Instead, Rudolph leads Johnson away from the linebacker by throwing to the open window toward the outside.

Take another look at that clip. Kudos to Johnson for not getting alligator arms with a Raven from the outside lining up to hit him as the ball arrives. Johnson secures the ball and glides back toward the line of scrimmage to avoid the hit that could have dislodged the football and caused an incompletion or fumble. Also note why there is a window there for this pass. Again look at the frozen part of the clip. That Raven linebacker is leaning inside to help prevent a pass to tight end Pat Freiermuth. Since Kenny Picket got injured 5½ games ago, Freiermuth has only converted 5 passes into first downs yet the Ravens are paying extra attention to him from the start. This might be what my high school Literature teachers called “foreshadowing”, although I never got the highest grades in those classes so I could be wrong.

The Steelers would sandwich two Raven three-and-outs around a grinding 76 yard touchdown drive that featured six Najee Harris runs, three short Rudolph passes, and 23 yards gained by Jaylen Warren on what looked like a swing pass but went onto the stat sheet as a run because the pass was slightly backwards. As a tip of the straw hat to the previous architect of the Steeler offense, Calvin Austin would even gain 8 yards on a jet sweep along the way to a Harris score that gave the Steelers a 7-0 lead.

The Steelers would have a 3rd-and-3 from the 44 at the end of the first quarter and would try something that shouldn’t surprise anyone who has paid attention to this offense. No matter which of the three quarterbacks were playing, all year long they are programmed to take a shot deep down the sideline when one of their top receivers gets one-on-one coverage. In the clip below we see the Steelers with three receivers to the left side of the formation and Pat Freiermuth to the right. This is a little wrinkle to the usual way we have seen these deep shots all year. Typically it would come from having either Johnson or George Pickens on the isolated side of the formation. This time the Steelers flood the middle of the field with Freiermuth crossing with Allen Robinson from the left while Pickens runs up the hash marks into the two safeties before breaking his route down to the sideline. There are five Ravens covering three Steelers over the middle, one waiting on Jaylen Warren out of the backfield, and one running down the sideline with Johnson. This is a long throw from the right hash marks to the left sideline in a pouring rain with wind that made it look like the rain was falling sideways. The result was what you would expect— an incompletion.

Next, we have an isolated view of Johnson’s route. Johnson has average straight-line speed and isn’t going to leave any NFL cornerback in the dust on a go route. With the clip frozen we see that Johnson has room to the outside. It’s going to take a perfect pass to his outside shoulder to have success.

Next we have a closeup of Johnson trying to adjust to the ball and get to the inside of the closing Raven defender. The black-and-white look shows Johnson’s right arm trying to swim past the Raven.

From the end zone view, we can see the ball land ever so slightly inside. Maybe with a bit less wind and a few less raindrops, this pass could have been perfectly placed. The degree of difficulty with the weather, length of throw, and tight coverage didn’t leave much room for error. Even though it looked close on TV, no cigar for the Steelers here.

Pat Freiermuth has gotten a couple of mentions already today. Earlier in the year he was hampered by a chest/rib injury and some fans were upset with his efforts as a blocker. He then missed five games with a hamstring injury. The Steeler run game has gotten stronger since Broderick Jones became the starter at right tackle, but nothing happens in a vacuum. Freiermuth’s return from injury was two weeks later, and his involvement as a run blocker is no longer a liability.

In the clip below, ignoring for now the motioning Allen Robinson, Darnell Washington and Freiermuth are the two Steelers on the right side of the screen. Washington will take No. 48 and block him down the line of scrimmage all the way to the sideline. Freiermuth will make sure that No. 98 is influenced inside to Dan Moore before heading up to engage No. 53 and help create a hole that gets Najee Harris a 10-yard gain. Robinson does his part, keeping No. 21 a solid five yards away from Harris. While not as physically impressive as Washington’s block, Freiermuth’s is just as effective at getting a big gain for the run game.

Now for the play of the game, maybe of the year. On the road against the most hated rival. Cold and rainy. Playoff chances hanging by a thread. The score tied 7-7. Steelers facing a 3rd-and-4 from their own 29. Baltimore fans whipped into a frenzy during the TV timeout before the fourth quarter. How would the Steelers respond?

The Steelers line up with three receivers to the top of the screen and George Pickens is isolated to the bottom. Baltimore is playing two deep safeties. One will start drifting at the snap toward Pickens, knowing the Steeler tendency to try the deep sideline shot out of this formation, leaving the other to patrol the middle. From the top of the screen, Diontae Johnson will run a 10-yard post route, Allen Robinson will run five yards and sit, and Pat Freiermuth will engage a defender at five yards and turn for the ball. Johnson’s coverage is contacted by another Raven and all three receivers will be open for the first down, but that lone middle-of-the-field safety will break toward Freiermuth and open a window for Johnson to go the distance. Extra attention on Freiermuth cost the Ravens earlier and it would cost them dearly here.

From the end zone, we see just how big that window was. The two Ravens closest to Johnson are about as far apart as the left and right hash marks. NFL hash marks are 18’6” apart. With the perfect timing of Mason Rudolph’s throw, there’s enough space to park a Ford F-150 between the two closest Ravens.

The Steeler offense found new life in the second half of the season. There’s a variety of reasons including a change at Offensive Coordinator, the install of Broderick Jones at right tackle, and the improved quarterback play from pre-injury Kenny Pickett and now from Mason Rudolph. Watching the coach’s film over the past few weeks has exposed me to the underbelly of this new-found success and much of it is the subtle ways that a healthy Pat Freiermuth has influenced defenses.

One more important thought to leave you with: The Pittsburgh Steelers are headed to the playoffs after beating the hated Baltimore Ravens.