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The intriguing addition of Matt Canada, and what it could mean for the Steelers’ offense

The Pittsburgh Steelers hired Matt Canada to be their quarterbacks coach, but could there be more to it than that?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 10 Maryland at Indiana Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

I’ve been writing recently on how the Steelers might improve their struggling run game (links to that series are here). For the final installment, I had planned to focus on how the return of Ben Roethlisberger could help. But then, on Wednesday, the team announced they had hired former college coordinator Matt Canada as their new quarterbacks coach. Given Canada’s background, the specifics of his offense and his association with several current Steelers’ players and coaches, this hire has me intrigued. So, rather than focus on the return of Big Ben, I’m going to look at how the addition of Canada might affect the offense in general.

Canada’s resume is both long and impressive. He was a college quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator for twenty-five years, beginning at Indiana in 1994 and including stops at Butler, Northern Illinois, Wisconsin, NC State, Pitt, LSU and Maryland. His 2012 Wisconsin offense, which featured future pro backs Melvin Gordon, Montee Ball and James White, hung 70 points on Nebraska in the Big 10 championship game and advanced to the Rose Bowl. At NC State he coached current Indianapolis quarterback Jacoby Brissett to two successful seasons that saw Brissett throw 43 touchdowns against just 11 interceptions. At Pitt, Canada’s offense averaged over 40 points a game with Nathan Peterman at quarterback. They beat 3rd-ranked Clemson 43-42, scored 42 points on Penn State and put up an absurd 76 against Syracuse. It was the most prolific scoring offense in Panther history. His work at Pitt earned him a nomination for the Broyles Award, given annually to college football’s top assistant coach.

Canada is not without his controversies, however. In 2017, Ed Orgeron hired him to run the offense at LSU. Canada and Coach O had a quick falling out, resulting in a buyout after one season and an odd non-disclosure agreement prohibiting all sides from discussing the issues that arose. Canada was quickly hired by Maryland, and less than a month into his first (and only) season there, found himself enmeshed in a scandal that resulted in the firing of head coach DJ Durkin. This resulted in Canada being elevated to the position of interim head coach, where, despite leading the Terrapins to a win over 15th-ranked Texas and a 51 point outburst in a near-shocking upset of Ohio State, he was let go.

So, what do we make of Matt Canada? Is he the offensive innovator who, in this article from Sports Illustrated, was credited with devising many of the schemes Andy Reid incorporated into his prolific Chiefs’ offense? Or is he the guy with a reputation as a malcontent who had seven jobs in nine years before finding himself out of football in 2019? Quite possibly, Canada is both. Whether he can assimilate to whatever role the Steelers’ define for him and stick around long enough to have an impact remains to be seen. One thing is certain, however: Matt Canada knows offense, and his schemes are compelling.

Let’s take a look at some of what Canada has done and how it might impact the Steelers in 2020.

One quote from the Sports Illustrated article about Canada stands out for its potential relevance in Pittsburgh:

“I love his offenses,” says Chris Doering, an ex-Florida receiver, radio host and SEC Network analyst. “In terms of creativity, the shifts and motions and eye candy stuff, it puts defenses in a bind.”

Putting defenses in a bind was not something the Steelers did much in 2019. Even with Roethlisberger, the biggest “bind” the 2018 Steelers presented came in the form of Antonio Brown. Brown was a one-man dilemma for defenses, forcing them to choose between the challenge of single-covering him and being vulnerable in the passing game or committing a safety to help and being exposed to the run. With Brown gone, the Steelers looked much simpler to defend, even before Roethlisberger went down with his season-ending injury.

Before we continue, let’s better define what we mean by “putting a defense in a bind.” Ask any defensive coordinator some of the things he hates to see and you’ll likely hear some combination of the following: shifts, motions, tempo, multiple formations and personnel groups, unbalanced sets, a quarterback who can run and the dreaded Ace (double tight end) formation. Each of these things force defenses to prepare or adjust in some way that takes them out of the element in which they are most comfortable: namely, their base defensive concepts.

Pre-snap movement, for example, requires a defense to make quick, sound gap adjustments so they are not out-leveraged. Tempo makes a DC simplify his call sheet because it’s difficult to get complex calls relayed in time. A running quarterback is tough to defend because it’s hard to account for the quarterback in the run game. To do so a defense must bring a safety into the box, potentially exposing itself against the pass. Ace provides the offense an eighth run gap while leaving two receivers on the outside. A one-high shell exposes the defense to deep passing concepts like four verticals. A two-high shell leaves that eighth run gap undefended. All of these concepts create problems for defenses, putting them, as Doering said, “in a bind.”

If one team’s personnel is significantly better than their opponent’s personnel, none of this will matter. They will simply out-talent them and call it a day. In the NFL, though, the talent disparity is rarely significant enough to nullify the advantages that effective scheming can create. As we saw this season in Roethlisberger’s absence, personnel matters. But so do schemes.

In Randy Fichtner’s first season as the offensive coordinator in Pittsburgh, the offense was fairly prolific. The Steelers finished second in the league in passing, fourth in total offense and sixth in points per game. That offense, however, was personnel-oriented. It centered around the passing of Roethlisberger and the receiving of Brown and Juju Smith-Schuster. The schemes were fairly vanilla, often relying upon Brown to get open or Roethlisberger to diagnose coverages. The Steelers based out of 11 personnel, and other than the occasional Ace grouping, did not deviate much. They did not shift or motion often. They rarely played up-tempo.

In 2019, with Brown gone, Roethlisberger on IR and many of the other starters injured, the Steelers lacked the personnel to operate from this approach. Fichtner faced a tall task trying to build an offense around a host of young players with little NFL experience. Still, other than a run-heavy jumbo set that involved six offensive linemen and a wildcat package that produced diminishing returns, Fichtner failed to devise schemes that could get defenses out of their comfort zone.

Enter Matt Canada. Canada’s schemes have been regarded by many in the coaching profession as some of the best in the business. Specifically, Canada has been lauded for his use of pre-snap movement, the jet sweep concept and for finding ways to tailor his offensive schemes to the strengths of his personnel. At Northern Illinois, for example, he built the offense around dual-threat quarterback Chandler Harnish, who passed for over 3,000 yards and ran for over 1,000 in one season under Canada. At Wisconsin, he assembled a power attack behind a huge offensive line and their trio of stud running backs. At NC State, he turned Brissett into a pro prospect and helped then-sophomore Jaylen Samuels have a breakout season. At Pitt, he built a record-setting offense around Peterman and James Conner, who was returning from cancer treatment. Conner flourished, becoming a 1,000 yard rusher.

None of the offenses mentioned above looked alike. At Northern Illinois, Canada favored spread sets and ran the ball with his quarterback. At Wisconsin, it was 22-personnel power football. At NC State, he threw the ball like it was going out of style. And at Pitt it was all of the above. The common thread that bound each of these offenses was Canada’s use of shifts, motions, tempos and read-options, all of which were effective at keeping defenses off balance and at creating advantages of leverage and numbers.

Below is an example of how Canada used a read-option concept to manipulate the Clemson defense in Pitt’s upset win at Death Valley in 2016. When I say “option” I’m not necessarily talking about the quarterback running. Rather, I’m referring to how he reads certain defenders to make decisions on where to go with the ball. The RPO is the latest iteration of a read-option but the concept in general is not new.

The Pitt clip shows a variation of the shovel-option where the offensive line blocks the traditional Power play but, instead of kicking the edge defender, he is left unblocked so the quarterback can read him. If the edge player widens, the QB will shovel the ball inside to the H-back trailing the pulling guard. If the edge closes, he will pitch it to the running back (in this instance, James Conner) who is tracking wide.

This is a concept Steelers’ fans should be familiar with. They ran it to defeat Jacksonville in the final seconds in 2018, with Roethlisberger taking the third option and running the ball himself. The play looked like this:

The wrinkle Canada put on it back in 2016 was brilliant. With a three-receiver set to the field, Canada knew he was getting man coverage to the boundary. The corner would run with the wide receiver, leaving the play-side linebacker to cover Conner. The backer is “in a bind” here because he has dual responsibilities: filling the B-gap if the quarterback shovels the ball inside or running with Conner if he wheels out of the backfield. Canada correctly anticipated the backer would fill and, rather than have Conner serve as the pitch man, he sent him up the sideline as a receiver. Peterman did a nice job selling the shovel-option with his first few steps then got the ball out before the edge player could tackle him. Touchdown, Panthers.

The design of this play is impressive. What’s more impressive is the way Canada anticipated how Clemson would defend the shovel-option and how he built an answer for it into his game-plan. That type of creative scheming is something the Steelers offense has lacked the past few seasons.

Here’s an example of Canada manipulating a defense with pre-snap movement from his time at NC State. The lead-in here is bad, but on this red zone play Canada aligned his jack-of-all trades, Jaylen Samuels, in the backfield to the left of the quarterback before motioning him towards the right slot. The concept here is fairly simple — it’s a pick play, with the slot receiver running a rub on the linebacker following Samuels out of the box. Meanwhile, the receiver to the outside runs a post-corner, drawing the defender covering him away from the flat. The combination of the rub and the route cleared space for Samuels while the sprint-out from the QB created an easy pitch and catch for the touchdown.

This concept doesn’t look intricate but there are a few tweaks Canada provides that make it more complex than it seems. First, by bringing Samuels out of the backfield he ensures a match-up against a linebacker. Had he aligned Samuels as a trips receiver to the slot, he would have drawn coverage from the safety, who was likely a better pass defender. Second, the post-corner from the wide-out is a much better route here than a fade, which is often used in this situation. A defender covering a fade has an easier time falling off the route and picking up the flat than he does when covering a post-corner. The post pulls him inside, drawing him away from the flat route and making it almost impossible to work back to it.

The only way to defend this route combination, then, is for the slot defender to communicate the rub with the linebacker coming out of the box and for the two defenders to switch responsibilities. That’s easier said than done with the linebacker coming from so far away. If Samuels had been lined up in a trips set, the slot corner and safety could have easily communicated the switch. Not so with a linebacker who started in the box on the opposite side of the formation.

So, once again, we see an example of how Canada knew the situation, knew the coverage he was getting and built a wrinkle into a core concept to exploit the defense. Often, it’s not gadgets or revolutionary ideas that make offenses difficult to defend but subtleties like these that break tendencies or create favorable match-ups.

It’s been speculated, on BTSC and elsewhere, that Canada has been brought in to help the Steelers’ young quarterbacks, Mason Rudolph in particular. This seems logical, given the fact the Steelers did not have an official quarterbacks’ coach in 2019 and Canada’s success in college with QBs of varying skill sets. Still, I can’t help but wonder how much this move is about Rudolph and how much it’s about Randy Fichtner. Given Canada’s familiarity with Samuels and Conner, his success with each in college and the fact that Fichtner has struggled to define a role for Samuels, the move makes perfect sense. In a year that finds the Steelers short on both draft capital and free agent money and limited in their ability to acquire new pieces on offense, why not bring in a guy who can help Fichtner be more efficient with the pieces he already has?

Finally, there is the question of the offensive coordinator role in general. It’s no secret Fichtner struggled in 2019. Given the hand he was dealt, those struggles are understandable. But Fichtner’s struggles seem to have prompted the Steelers to bring Canada on board like they did with Teryl Austin after Keith Butler’s difficult 2018 season. Canada is a nomad and has talked openly about wanting to be a head coach at some point, so it’s unlikely he’ll stick around Pittsburgh very long (unless, of course, he were elevated to the OC position, which is a discussion for another day). In the short term, if his role is to work with the quarterbacks, help Fichtner “put defenses in a bind” and develop more specific roles for the running backs, so be it. If Canada can have the sort of impact on the offense that Austin appears to have had with the defense (bringing in better players certainly helped, but I have to assume Austin played a role as well), the Steelers will be in good shape.

Long story short, the addition of Matt Canada should be seen as a step in the right direction for an offense badly in need of assistance. Whether his impact here is minimal or turns into something significant remains to be seen. In the meantime, I look forward to a Steelers’ unit that is more creative and difficult to defend in 2020.