Steel Curtain Network: A Pittsburgh Steelers podcast

Will the Steelers use a different deployment of their tight ends in 2024?

On the latest episode of the Steelers Stat Geek podcast, I looked at the Steelers tight end production in recent years and compared it to teams coached by Arthur Smith. As is often the case when looking at statistics, the research can go in a different direction to find out something else related to the question.

For this specific exercise, when I was seeing how much more production the Atlanta Falcons had at the tight end position over the last three seasons, I had to ask myself if Kyle Pitts should actually be treated as a tight end. If he was only used as a tight end in title but not in usage, is this something that was going to translate to the Steelers?

To determine how Pitts was being used, I used the snap counts from Pro Football Focus (PFF) to determine how Pitts aligned within the offense each season. Looking specifically for “inline” snaps, I found that Pitts rarely lined up in the traditional spot for a tight end. In fact, he only lined up as an inline tight end on 32.1% of the snaps in 2021, 38.2% in 2022, and 21.6% in 2023.

As I prepared to potentially adjust my numbers for tight end production, I decided to look back at the Tennessee Titans. With Arthur Smith as the offensive coordinator in 2019 and 2020, I wondered how tight ends were aligned to see if it was something specific to Pitts or more how Smith likes to use his tight ends.

In those two seasons, the tight end with the most production from a receiving standpoint with Jonu Smith. But for the two seasons Arthur Smith was the offensive coordinator, Jonu Smith lined up as an inline tight end 80.5% of the time in 2019 and 71.7% of snaps in 2020.

Thinking I had my answer about Kyle Pitts once again, I thought I should do my due diligence and look at other “tight ends“ on the Tennessee Titans. When looking at the stats on Pro Football Reference, they had Corey Davis mislabeled as a tight end in 2019 as everywhere else I had seen him as a wide receiver. But another player who was labeled as a fullback, Anthony Firkser, did not line up in the backfield hardly at all and was utilized much more as a tight end. Additionally, he wore number 86 and was labeled as a tight end by PFF. But even as a tight end, Firkser only lined up “inline” 35.5% of his snaps in 2019 and 25% of his snaps in 2020, a season where he saw over 50 targets.

Because I started to have some doubts, I also looked at Delanie Walker in 2019 and his alignment before he was lost due to an ankle injury. It appears as if Walker lined up inline only 40.4% of the time and Firkser ended up seeing an increase in snaps with a similar alignment after Walker was injured.

When comparing these alignment percentages to the Steelers, their tight ends lineup as inline at a much higher percentage when looking at the numbers, going back to 2018. The tight end with the lowest percentage of snaps at the inline position in 2018 was Vance McDonald with 72.5% while Jesse James lined up 82.6% and Xavier Grimble 80.5%. The 2019 season saw tight ends lining up inline even more as McDonald was 87.6% with Nick Vannett being 85.2% and Xavier Grimble 83.3%.

The 2020 season saw the Steelers using a tight end in different positions more than previously as they added Eric Ebron who lined up inline 66.5% of his snaps. Vance McDonald stayed inline almost primarily with 92.0% of his snaps. With the drafting of Pat Freiermuth in 2021, he played in line 72.4% of his snaps with Eric Ebron being 78.4% and Zach Gentry being considered either inline or on the offensive line for 96.5% of his snaps. The 2022 season saw Freiermuth moved away from the traditional inline spot slightly more as he was inline 69.9% of his snaps with Connor Hayward being similar at 70.3%. Once again, Zach Gentry was inline or on the offensive line 95.8% of his snaps.

The 2023 season saw rookie Darnell Washington taking on more of the Zack Gentry alignment as he was in line or offensive line 95.1% of his snaps. In his limited snaps, Rodney Williams saw much of the same as he was 91.2% of the time inline. Connor Hayward was very similar to his rookie season with 69.3% of his snaps coming inline while Pat Freiermuth saw his least amount of inline snaps at 56.8%. What should be pointed out is Freiermuth was in line 77.0% of his snaps prior to his injury (though the first four games). Freiermuth only returned for one game before the Steelers made a change at offensive coordinator and he was moved around much more to finish out the season.

With the Steelers beginning to implement their tight ends in different ways the last half of the 2023 season, as well as Arthur Smith utilizing tight ends in the slot and wide formations at a significant rate, seeing a different deployment of tight ends for 2024 is something Steelers fans should expect. With reports of Pat Freiermuth lining up a lot in the slot during OTA being added in, the Steelers could be in line to see a significant jump in production from the tight end position as these players are utilized even more in the passing game, especially when it comes to their alignment.

To hear the entire breakdown comparing the Steelers production at tight end versus teams coached by Arthur Smith, check out the most recent episode of Steeters Stat Geek below:

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