PITTSBURGH (AP) — The sound still catches Pat Freiermuth off guard.
On the road anyway.
So yeah, it was a little weird last Sunday when the Pittsburgh Steelers tight end caught a pass and heard a sizable chunk of black-and-gold-clad fans inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta yell “Muuuuuuuuth” as he made his way downfield.
The 24-year-old understands the chant is an honor and also a callback to retired Steelers tight end Heath Miller, who spent 11 seasons as Ben Roethlisberger's security blanket. The vast majority of Miller's 592 receptions were met with the crowd — no matter the venue — bellowing “Heeeeeeeeeath” after those receptions.
Miller retired after the 2015 season. Yet his shadow has loomed for the better part of a decade while the Steelers have searched for his replacement. Ladarius Green lasted one season in 2016 before concussions curtailed his career. Jesse James put together two solid if mostly unspectacular years in 2017 and 2018. Ditto for Vance McDonald from 2017-20.
Neither of them, however, could shed the specter of Miller. While the chants of “Heeeeeeeeath” after James and McDonald would make a play were mostly tongue-in-cheek, they were also telling of a fan base that wasn't quite ready to move on.
Now it seems, they have. Having Freiermuth put on near-weekly displays of why he in many ways seems to be Miller's spiritual successor will do that.
The latest came last Sunday against the Falcons when Freiermuth turned a short out pattern into a 57-yard sprint, flexing afterward in a celebration that evoked Miller's favorite — though rare — move after a big play.
Like Miller, Freiermuth is 6-foot-5. Like Miller did with Roethlisberger during his rookie season in 2005, Freiermuth has quickly developed a rapport with a young quarterback in rookie Kenny Pickett. Like Miller, Freiermuth finds a way to get downfield despite a relative lack of speed that fluctuates somewhere between plodding and passable.
Freiermuth has converted 29 of his 50 receptions into first downs, tied with wide receiver Diontae Johnson for most on the Steelers (5-7) even though Johnson has 11 more catches. His respectable 5.5 yards after-the-catch average is a testament to his ability to find open space before breaking a tackle. Or sometimes three.
Despite the obvious similarities, Freiermuth downplays the comparisons to Miller, though he said Miller gave Freiermuth his blessing about a chant that is no longer exclusively his.
“The origin of it pays respect to Heath,” Freiermuth said. "He said it’s cool to see it transition into ‘Muth.’”
It's already become so ubiquitous that when fellow tight end Zach Gentry makes the occasional catch, the crowd will still yell for Freiermuth. Just as it did for those that initially tried to replace Miller.
“Zach, when he runs off the field and we change personnel, he gives me a little side eye, like ‘Come on bro, really?’” Freiermuth said. "But it’s pretty funny.”
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin believes Freiermuth's emergence is simply the next step in a process that began the moment Pittsburgh selected him in the second round of the 2021 draft, envisioning Freiermuth to become a red zone target for the next decade.
Freiermuth is on his way if he can stay healthy, an “if” that lingers over Freiermuth every time he takes the field. He's already sustained multiple concussions during his short professional career, including one against Buffalo in October in which he appeared to briefly lose consciousness.
He missed one game but returned with a larger helmet, one that he believes makes up for in safety what it lacks in aesthetics. The new helmet essentially has “shock absorbers” on all sides, compared to most standard helmets that only have that absorber in the front just above the facemask.
“I hated it at first because I thought I would look like an idiot,” Freiermuth said. "But at this point, I don’t really care as long as my health and safety is OK.”
Two things that are important not only to Freiermuth personally but to the Steelers as a whole. Pickett's trust in him is obvious and the two have made it a point to bond off the field, something Roethlisberger and Miller — whom Roethlisberger called the best teammate he ever had on more than one occasion — did nearly two decades ago.
“Obviously, (we're) getting to know each other,” Freiermuth said. "Still young in our careers here and I just know we’ve got to build that relationship.”
NOTES: WR George Pickens downplayed his very visible frustration on the sideline during the win over Atlanta when cameras caught the rookie yelling he wanted the ball. “Don’t try to make something it’s not,” said Pickens, who had one catch for 3 yards. “Because every player, allegedly every receiver in the past before, you got (Terrell Owens) I could name so many names (want the ball).”
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Will Graves, The Associated Press