PITTSBURGH -- Pittsburgh Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert is used to hearing a refrain from coach Mike Tomlin every time rookie tight end Pat Freiermuth makes an incredible catch at training camp.
“That’s good,” the head coach says, “but can you block?”
Improving the tight ends’ run blocking from a year ago is among the top priorities of the offense. But just five practices into camp, Tomlin hasn’t quite had an opportunity to see the growth in that unit.
“Like, seriously, we’ve been in helmets,” he said Tuesday. “We’ll see, won’t we?”
He’ll get his first opportunity to measure that improvement Wednesday when the Steelers put on pads for the first time. But there’s already been a noticeable change in the demeanor of the room, ushered in when the Steelers hired Alfredo Roberts as the new tight ends coach.
“He’s the type of football personality that I was talking about,” Tomlin said of Roberts. “We all want a good, high-energy, detailed environment, but we’ve all got responsibilities in terms of creating it. He’s really consistent in terms of the energy and detail he brings to the work, and it adds to us. I knew that because I’ve known him a long time and I think it’s showing.”
Roberts, a longtime NFL tight ends coach and former player, joined the Steelers this offseason and immediately brought an edge to the room by nicknaming his position group “The Bad Asses.”
“Tight ends, we should be badasses,” Ebron said. “We should be able to block badass. We should be able to run badass routes and we should be able to score on anybody in a badass way. That’s the mantra we’re going to take this year and that’s the mantra we’re going to take for our room.”
For Ebron, there’s an extra emphasis on blocking. A year ago, Ebron, 28, ranked as one of the worst pass blockers among tight ends with a run block win rate of 67%, ranking 43rd of 45 qualified tight ends, according to ESPN metrics from NFL Next Gen stats.
Once a begrudging participant on the blocking sleds during practice, Ebron said his mentality about blocking changed this offseason when he worked with the Green Bay Packers' Marcedes Lewis, regarded as one of the best run-blocking tight ends in the NFL.
“I changed my attitude about it,” Ebron said. “I don’t always have to be as dominant on a third down or in the red zone. I need to be a full on tight end. I took into account learning a lot from Marcedes Lewis this offseason because he’s a badass at it, and that’s what I’m going to try to do.”
The importance of blocking -- especially this season -- to reinvigorate the run game isn’t lost on Ebron.
“You know who our first-round pick was? We don’t draft first-round picks for us to not block,” Ebron said, referring to running back Najee Harris, drafted No. 24 overall.
Though he doesn’t have any NFL experience yet, second-round pick Freiermuth earned a reputation as an elite blocker at Penn State -- something Tomlin and his teammates are eager to see when the pads finally come on Wednesday.
“Obviously it’s hard to show you can block with just helmets on,” Freiermuth said. “My job is to make catches and block [defensive ends] and block linebackers. I know that and so I’ve had a good first couple days of camp, but I know the work starts [Wednesday] when the pads go on. I’ve got to prove that I can go out there and block d-ends.”
Beyond blocking, Freiermuth and Ebron, who had 56 receptions and five touchdowns last season, figure to be staples in new offensive coordinator Matt Canada’s scheme.
“I believe that we will play a pivotal part in this offense,” Ebron said. “The way Matt Canada’s offense is set up, we are responsible to know a lot and do a lot. I feel like that’s happening the more and more we practice.”
He’s known for often using a two-tight end pairing, and Ebron and Freiermuth already have good chemistry, similar to the relationship between the quiet, hard-working Vance McDonald and Ebron a season ago.
“We play really well together,” Freiermuth said. “We feed off each other and feed off the energy. He’s going to be the loud guy that goes out there and gets the fans going, and I’m just going to go out there and make the plays and keep quiet. Opposites attract and I think that’s what’s going on right now.”
Roberts, who had a three-year stint with the Indianapolis Colts, compared the duo’s complementary skill set to that of Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen. He also believes Ebron and Freiermuth will help each other improve on their weaknesses.
“I’m a bad golfer, but I play a little bit,” Roberts said. “When I play, and I play with somebody that’s as good or better, it always elevates my play. Having Freiermuth here will take some of the lifting off. Those guys here together, I think will have an opportunity to be dynamic in the sense of working together and fitting into the things we’re asking them to do offensively.”