Who have been Steelers most efficient pass-catchers in 2021?

Pat Freiermuth #88 of the Pittsburgh Steelers. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
Pat Freiermuth #88 of the Pittsburgh Steelers. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images) /

Pittsburgh’s passing game has not been efficient this year. Here’s a look at the Steelers most efficient receivers so far in 2021. 

If the start of the 2021 season has shown us something, it’s that the Pittsburgh Steelers had an irrational amount of faith in quarterback Ben Roethlisberger heading into his age-39 season.

I have gone on record saying that I was opposed to bringing Ben back for another year, and we are starting to see the results of 18 years of wear-and-tear on an NFL quarterback that has suffered some major injuries along the way — most recently to his throwing elbow in 2019.

Obviously, there’s not much the team can do about it at this point, and Big Ben just needs to improve on a few things to put his team in a position to win football games this year.

Taking a look at Roethlisberger’s target share this season, it’s not hard to see who his favorite receivers are.  However, advanced statistics from Pro Football Reference indicate that it might be time to get a few others more involved in the offense.

Here is Ben Roethlisberger’s passer rating through the first four weeks of the season when throwing to each of these pass-catchers:

Steelers need to get their efficient receivers the ball

Though Pat Freiermuth has only played 48 percent of offensive snaps for the Steelers so far this year, he’s been remarkable in the receiving game. On just 84 total passing snaps so far as a rookie, the second-round tight end has caught 9 of 11 targets for 93 yards and a touchdown.

In comparison, his counterpart, Eric Ebron, has played 49 percent of offensive snaps (104 passing downs) but has earned just 3 catches on 9 targets for 27 yards.

The difference between the efficiency of these two players is also reflected in their grades this season. Pro Football Focus currently has Freiermuth as the 17th ranked tight end; whereas Ebron ranks 66th out of 70 qualifying players.

From a passer rating standpoint, Najee Harris has done fine in the receiving game. However, defenses will gladly allow a quarterback to check the ball down underneath 19 times per game if it keeps them from taking shots down the field.

For a more successful offense, James Washington needs to be more involved. Though he has been very quiet since leading the Steelers in receiving in 2019, it’s important to remember that he’s still a former second-round pick who has been reliable when called upon. Washington was remarkable filling in for Chase Claypool. In limited action through the first four weeks, he has caught 9 of 13 targets for 99 yards for the third-best passer rating when thrown to on the team.

Outside of Eric Ebron, Ben Roethlisberger’s connection with JuJu Smith-Schuster has been the worst on the team. Despite earning 27 targets in his first four games, JuJu has reeled in just 15 of them for 129 yards (4.8 yards per target). Ben also has 1 interception and no touchdowns throwing his direction. Most of the connection issues here have been on the quarterback, but it hasn’t been pretty so far.

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Though Ben Roethlisberger’s arm talent is diminishing fast, the Steelers have a plethora of quality receiving options to spread the ball to, and the quarterback can’t get so complacent with just throwing to Diontae Johnson and Najee Harris. Pat Freiermuth and James Washington need to start getting more involved.