Upon Review: Grading the 2023 Steelers tight ends

Steel City Underground presents it’s ‘Upon Review’ series of Pittsburgh Steelers positional group grades for the 2023 NFL season with statistical analysis and performance reviews.

The Pittsburgh Steelers got away from utilizing their tight ends as much in Matt Canada’s offense. Yes, the individuals in the group were asked to block, especially Darnell Washington. Pat Freiermuth and Connor Heyward were inserted for blocking, too, but none of the trio were especially top-priority targets in 2023, even after Canada’s departure.

This was an area that might have given Pittsburgh’s offense more opportunities, but the tight ends group was often overlooked. It became evident that using them in the middle of the field was not an area of comfort as it has been in previous seasons.

For the reasons mentioned above, we’ll be grading the tight ends group together rather than giving each starter an individual grade.

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Pat Freiermuth

The most veteran tight end on the roster did miss five games due to injury, but he had a low performance when he was in the game. He caught just 32 passes for 308 yards and 2 touchdowns.

How much of his performance was related to not being 100% healthy versus just not being given more opportunities is the bigger question.

In a season that featured an offense in a major state of flux, complex play calling seemed to add to the lack of production rather than open things up, even though the receiving group was having their own issues.

Freiermuth certainly gave his best when given the opportunity, including one game with 120 yards receiving. His stat line illustrated just how little he was targeted, however.

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Connor Heyward

In his second season with the Steelers, Heyward got seven starts to the zero starts he got his rookie season. He was utilized on some special plays, though, and not truly as a primary target option.

In 2023, Heyward got more snaps with the offense but was targeted just 32 times. He recorded 23 receptions for 167 yards as a result.

Like the entire group, Canada just did not get him involved in many plays… or maybe some would argue that the Steelers quarterbacks did not choose the option of targeting tight ends. Whatever it was, Heyward made the most of the opportunities he was given, primarily acting as a fullback-type blocker for the ground game from the tight end position when he wasn’t sent out on a short route.

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Darnell Washington

A mountain of a man, why Washington was asked to act as an extra offensive lineman instead of trying to get him more involved in receiving, especially in the red zone, was a mystery. The Steelers weren’t particularly good in the red zone, when they were able to get there, but his height should have at least warranted more shots than he got.

Rumors among Pittsburgh beat writers were that Washington’s size compromised his knees. If that were the case, you’d think he’d have issues getting off the line of scrimmage to block.

It’s not clear what the purpose of selecting Washington in the 2023 NFL Draft was, in my opinion. There is real potential there for him to be more involved in the offense. He’s not being moved to offensive lineman for 2024 per team sources and coaching staff.

Other notes

The Steelers called up Rodney Williams from the practice squad to bolster special teams and add depth when Freiermuth was hurt. Although his time with the offense was limited, Williams did well on special teams.

Position group grade: C

It’s extremely difficult to even grade this group for 2023 because the sample size of moments on the field were completely overshadowed by how the offense was set up to operate. The fact that Arthur Smith, the new offensive coordinator in 2024, likes to utilize tight ends in his offense points to more opportunities for the group… but 2023 was something of a wash.

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