The Pittsburgh Steelers are surging. Winners of three consecutive contests, head coach Mike Tomlin has the Black and Yellow faithful believing the 2021 campaign can be salvaged. The Steelers have crawled their way back to relevance in the AFC playoff picture and currently own the final wild-card spot.
Part of the reason for Pittsburgh's stark turnaround can be attributed to an improved passing game in recent weeks. Starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has thrown for an impressive 748 yards and four touchdowns without throwing a single interception throughout the course of their current three-game winning streak. In the midst of their newfound ability to move the ball through the air with greater efficiency, a budding star has revealed himself at the opportune moment. Rookie second-round pick Pat Freiermuth has begun to live up to his draft billing, totaling 109 receiving yards and a touchdown reception on 13 catches during Pittsburgh's recent string of victories.
The former Penn State standout now appears poised to serve as a crucial weapon in Pittsburgh's much-improved passing offense down the stretch. Opportunities are often half the battle, and Roethlisberger has peppered Freiermuth with a healthy 14 targets in the passing game over their past two contests. Offensive coordinator Matt Canada has begun to realize and take advantage of the types of mismatches Freiermuth draws in coverage. An increase in opportunities is thus far yielding great results.
Freiermuth's second-half outlook only improves when you consider some of the weak passing defenses Pittsburgh will encounter on their schedule in the weeks to come. Matchups against the Kansas City Chiefs, Tennessee Titans, Baltimore Ravens, and Cincinnati Bengals await. All four of those passing defenses currently rank in the bottom 10 of passing yards allowed per contest, with the Ravens allowing a league-worst 296.1 yards per game. Games against the Detroit Lions, Minnesota Vikings, and Chicago Bears should also allow for plenty of opportunities for Freiermuth to continue on his upward trajectory.
Freiermuth's recent breakout has hardly come as a surprise to those of us who were excited about him as a prospect throughout his time at Penn State. The Lawrence, Massachusetts native was largely considered the second-best tight end available in the 2021 NFL Draft behind the unicorn that is Kyle Pitts and is currently living up to that projection. In the passing game, he is a sure-handed receiver that does an excellent job catching and securing the ball away from his frame. He is a sound route runner that makes for a difficult assignment in coverage, and we have seen those skills translate from college to the NFL.
Pittsburgh has played itself back into a favorable position in the ever-competitive and wildly unpredictable AFC conference. They will continue to battle for a playoff spot and Freiermuth's increased role and production will continue to serve them nicely down a crucial stretch that will ultimately define the success or failure of their 2021 campaign.