PITTSBURGH (AP) — Pat Freiermuth is hoping his unexpected sabbatical is finally over.
The Pittsburgh Steelers activated Freiermuth off injured reserve on Wednesday, clearing the way for him to return for Sunday's visit to Cleveland.
Freiermuth hasn't played since injuring his right hamstring in a loss to Houston on Oct. 1. He appeared ready to come back before Pittsburgh's trip to Los Angeles on Oct. 22 before aggravating the leg in practice, leading to a month of standing on the sideline watching.
“That was frustrating, just feeling it in practice, a freak thing, I felt I was ready,” Freiermuth said. "Definitely frustrating, but happy that I did what I had to do on IR to come back.”
The Steelers (6-3) have managed to stay in the AFC North race without Freiermuth, though the offense has struggled at times without Freiermuth's No. 88 finding mismatches over the middle.
Pittsburgh's passing game has mostly been limited to working outside the numbers to wide receivers George Pickens and Diontae Johnson and ranks 29th in the league.
“(Freiermuth) is another (target) that defenses have to respect with the way he works in the middle and (does) different things for us to really help the whole offense out," quarterback Kenny Pickett said.
Freiermuth and Pickett have developed a strong rapport since Pickett took over a month into the 2022 season. Freiermuth had eight catches for 53 yards in the first four games, including a pair of touchdowns, numbers that he hoped would increase as the weeks wore on.
Instead, Freiermuth spent more than a month buried in the trainer's room trying to attack what became a tricky rehab.
“It’s hard because (the injury is) one of those things you can’t really tape it up, can’t shoot it up with things to numb it,” he said. “It's hard because the littlest thing can set it off like it did last time.”
On gamedays Freiermuth found himself in sweats on the sideline, serving as equal parts cheerleader and mentor to rookie Darnell Washington and first-year player Rodney Williams, who were used almost exclusively as blockers, with Connor Heyward assuming Freiermuth's role on passing downs.
Heyward is productive to be sure but lacks Freiermuth's 6-5 frame, making him an inviting target for Pickett, particularly in the red zone.
Freiermuth made it a point to praise Pickett and the offense for helping the Steelers remain in the playoff mix after a 3-1 surge that's included a series of narrow victories, the latest a 23-19 win over Green Bay last Sunday.
“I think Kenny has done a great job executing the offense, so has anyone else when I was out," Freiermuth said. “Just excited to see (what can happen).”
What probably needs to happen at some point over the next two months if Pittsburgh wants to play into late January is finding a way to put up more yards and points. The Steelers have been outgained in each of their first nine games, finding a way to survive by relying heavily on turnovers while also taking care of the ball.
Coach Mike Tomlin said his team needs Pickett and the league's 28th-ranked offense to be more productive. It's something Pickett is striving for, within reason.
“You want to light up the stat sheet, but as long as we’re getting the wins, you know I’m OK with that, I sleep good," Pickett said. “So keep pushing, keep having that mindset, stay together as a group and I think everything else will be alright.”
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