clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Might the Steelers be contemplating a Jalen Hurts-Matt Canada offense in the post-Ben Roethlisberger era?

Are the Steelers preparing themselves for life after Ben Roethlisberger?

NCAA Football: Senior Bowl Vasha Hunt-USA TODAY Sports

I had the pleasure of attending the Glazier Football Clinic in Atlantic City last week. The Glazier Clinic is a three-day conference featuring coaches from the high school, college and professional levels presenting on a wide array of topics — from broad issues like program-building and establishing a great locker room culture to specific things such as defending RPOs and the fundamentals of pass protection.

The presentation I enjoyed the most was by Tim Salem, who coaches tight ends at the University of Pittsburgh. Coach Salem is a high-energy individual who had me so fired up by the end of his talk I was ready to put the pads back on. Then I stood up after sitting in an uncomfortable conference room chair for an hour and my body reminded me I’m 50. Still, Coach Salem was a great speaker and he caught my attention both as a coach interested in his topic (zone-read option concepts) and as a writer here at BTSC.

What did the latter have to do with Tim Salem? In discussing the various ways Pitt has implemented the zone-read over the years, Coach Salem talked extensively about the game-plan the Panthers utilized in 2016 to upset then-2nd ranked Clemson in Death Valley. Pitt scored 43 points and rolled up nearly 500 yards of offense on the eventual national champs, who were loaded on defense with future pros like Dexter Lawrence, Clelin Ferrell, Christian Wilkins and Ben Boulware. They did it by implementing a game-plan Salem described as the best he’d seen in his thirty-plus years as a college coach. “Clemson had no idea what we were doing,” Salem told the packed room. “And sometimes I didn’t, either.”

According to Coach Salem, the key to Pitt’s success on offense that day was two-fold: first, they used a variety of shifts, motions and formations that kept the Tigers from drawing a bead on how Pitt intended to attack them. And second, they had a quarterback (Nathan Peterman) who was able to run the ball just enough to force Clemson to account for him. That opened things up for running back James Conner, who rushed for 132 yards, and forced Clemson to bring a safety into the box to defend the run, allowing Peterson to throw for 308 yards. Peterson ran for just 18 yards on six carries but the combination of the read-option scheme with the passing attack Pitt employed presented a problem Clemson never solved.

The architect of that game-plan was Pitt’s offensive coordinator, Matt Canada, whose addition to the Steelers’ staff in January I chronicled in this piece. Canada has been widely hailed as one of the brightest offensive minds in college football over the past decade. He has succeeded with a variety of styles - from 22 personnel ground-and-pound at Wisconsin to an air-it-out attack at NC State to his read-option approach at Pitt. Of all of his offenses, the one at Pitt was the most prolific. That offense broke school records for points per game (42.3) while finishing sixth nationally in total offense.

Fast forward to this past Saturday. While watching my seven year-old son play recreational basketball (highlight of the game: a first-grader projectile-vomiting near mid-court), I was scrolling through BTSC when I came across this article about the possibility of the Steelers drafting Oklahoma quarterback Jalen Hurts. Hurts has been a player who has intrigued me these past few years with his blend of mental toughness, leadership traits and athleticism. I remembered how much respect I had for Hurts when he gracefully accepted losing his starting job to Tua Tagovailoa at Alabama in 2018 then came off the bench for an injured Tua to lead the Tide to a come-from-behind win in the SEC championship game over Georgia. The fact he was immediately selected as a captain by his new teammates when he transferred to Oklahoma the following season told me all I needed to know about Hurts. The 32 touchdowns, 3,851 yards passing and 1,298 yards rushing while leading the Sooners to the College Football Playoff in his lone season at Oklahoma was impressive, too.

Given Coach Salem’s comments at the clinic about Matt Canada and the speculation that the Steelers might have an interest in Hurts, let’s play a game, then. Call it a visualization exercise. Imagine the very real possibility that the Steelers have an interest in Hurts. Now imagine two years down the road, with 40 year-old Ben Roethlisberger having retired and offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner, whose employment status in Pittsburgh is often thought to be tied to Roethlisberger, having been shown the door. Might the Steelers be planning for a future where Matt Canada runs an offense that features Jalen Hurts at quarterback? And, if so, what might that offense look like? Taking into consideration what both Canada and Hurts do well, here are some thoughts on the potential offense we could see in Pittsburgh in the not-so-distant future.

To begin, it’s important to understand who Jalen Hurts is not. He’s not Ben Roethlisberger, obviously, nor anyone in Roethlisberger’s mold. Hurts is 6’2, which doesn’t disqualify him as a pocket passer, but he is best suited to make quick, single-read throws from the pocket (as opposed to Roethlisberger’s preferred full-field progressions) and to move the pocket via play-action, bootlegs and sprint-outs. Under Fichtner, the Steelers are a pocket-heavy passing attack with quarterbacks suited to play that way. With Hurts, this would have to change.

But change how? Hurts isn’t Roethlisberger but he isn’t Lamar Jackson, either. The Steelers would not attempt to build a run-heavy attack like Baltimore’s if they drafted Hurts. He is neither as fast nor explosive as Jackson and, to imitate Baltimore, the Steelers would have to build their entire offense around Hurts. This means an investment in tight ends and speed receivers as well as a backup quarterback who could play a similar style. This is not the direction in which the Steelers would likely head.

The best comparison I can think of for Hurts is Seattle’s Russell Wilson. Before you blast me in the comments, I’m not saying Hurts is as good as Wilson (although, who knows? Wilson lasted until the third round because of the same concerns about his size and accuracy that are currently dogging Hurts). I’m simply saying Hurts and Wilson are physically and stylistically comparable. Hurts is taller (6’2 versus 5’11) but both are thickly-built at 215-220 pounds. Wilson is a more accurate passer and is more adept from the pocket but both are excellent at moving the pocket and at improvising once a play breaks down. As we see below, defenses must maintain discipline in their pass rush lanes or both Hurts and Wilson will take advantage of the opportunity to pull the football and go.

Here’s Wilson stepping into an open rush lane created when an undisciplined edge player gets too far up-field:

Now watch Hurts in virtually the same scenario:

The interesting thing about the GIF with Hurts is, if you watch the routes develop in front of him, you can see this is a Mesh concept, where two underneath receivers cross at the linebacker level while additional routes create a vertical stretch on the defense. This is one of the most common concepts run by the Steelers. Hurts has an open crosser moving from right to left but elects to tuck the ball and go instead. It’s a smart choice, given the fact a completion to the crosser would have yielded an eight or ten yard gain while Hurts was able to scramble for a touchdown. Learning when to throw and when to run will be part of the maturation process for Hurts as a pro quarterback. It’s something Wilson has mastered that has helped elevate him from a great athlete playing quarterback to a great quarterback, period.

A more interesting clip of Hurts as a potential quarterback in Pittsburgh is the next one. Watch it first and then we’ll break it down:

This is a play-action pass off of one of those read-option concepts Tim Salem discussed during his clinic talk. This concept, and others like it, are the ones Matt Canada was so fond of during his time at Pitt. The read-option here is an inverted zone where the quarterback keys the defensive end, who is unblocked. On traditional zone read, the running back would run inside with the quarterback a threat to pull the football and run to the edge. On inverted zone-read, the QB and RB switch roles with the RB taking a sweep path to the edge and the QB running inside. Tim Salem showed us this exact concept at the Glazier Clinic. Here it is as drawn in my notebook:

Notice the second back in the backfield serving as a lead blocker. This is particularly important because, on the complimentary play-action pass, that second back converts his blocking assignment into a seam route, where, as you see in the GIF, he is wide open. Matt Canada loves play packages like this, where variations off of core plays are constructed to take advantage of how defenses react to the core play itself. In this particular package, the edge player is manipulated by the core play (inverted zone-read) while the alley player, who must defend the sweep action, is manipulated by the play-action pass should he pursue the sweep too aggressively. Because the core play and the variations look almost identical (the only difference here is the pulling guard, which is needed to block the edge in pass protection), it’s almost impossible for a defense to get a good feel for what the offense will run, even after the ball is snapped.

Hurts was sensational at Oklahoma running these concepts. Canada employed them with great success at Pitt. Maybe the Steelers’ purported interest in Hurts is coincidental. Or maybe, looking at the post-Roethlisberger future, Mike Tomlin envisions a very different offense for his football team, one that is built more on what Seattle does with the mobile Wilson and that uses Canada’s expertise in variation and play-disguise over the far more traditional Roethlisberger/Fichtner scheme. Lacking a Roethlisberger protégée who can successfully execute such a pocket-heavy scheme, the alternative may be to ride the wave of offenses built around mobile quarterbacks and multiplicity.

Of course, the fancy play designs and deception will only get you so far. A team has to be able to execute basic plays as well, especially in the passing game. What makes Wilson such a great quarterback is that, in addition to his athleticism, ability to improvise and how Seattle’s scheme is tailored to his strengths, the man can flat-out throw the football. Wilson is a great passer whereas Hurts, at the moment, must improve in that area. He can be wild at times and his willingness to run sometimes keeps him from staying in the pocket and working through his read progressions.

Hurts is not a poor passer, however. Most scouts seem to feel he is further along at this point than Jackson was when he left Louisville. The fact he can make plays like the one below, where he perfectly places the ball on a difficult back-shoulder fade up the seam, suggests an ability to make high-level throws (the back-shoulder up the seam is much harder than its more common counterpart up the sideline because, on the sideline throw, the boundary serves as a landmark. When throwing back-shoulder in the middle of the field, there is no such landmark).

The Steelers would not need Hurts to start right away, so he would have time to grow as a passer. Being with the right coaching staff can make a world of difference in that regard. Jackson has benefited from Greg Roman’s tutelage in Baltimore. It stands to reason that Hurts would have a coach perfectly tailored for his development here in Matt Canada.

Perhaps this conversation is a bunch of nothing and the Steelers have little real interest in Hurts. Perhaps their draft needs at other positions will dissuade them from investing a high pick in a guy who isn’t likely to take the field right away. Or, perhaps, having a player like J.T. Barrett on the roster has given the Steelers a glimpse into what an offense constructed around this type of quarterback might look like. Hurts is a much better player than Barrett but their size (Barrett is 6’2-225) and skill sets are similar. Maybe Barrett has piqued their interest and they see Hurts as the upgrade they’d need to make such an offense work. It’s hard to know what the Steelers are thinking as far as their post-Roethlisberger plans are concerned. But, given Canada’s presence, and the league-wide trend towards athleticism at the position, drafting Hurts doesn’t seem an impossibility.

I won’t be shocked if it happens. There’s a reason the Steelers signed Barrett, who is a vastly different type of quarterback than the others on the roster. If the only reason they signed him was to run the Ravens’ offense in practice for last year’s season-finale, as has been suggested, why is he still on the roster? Barrett is not the answer going forward but it’s quite possible they believe a better version of him could be. There’s no telling how long Roethlisberger will remain healthy and it seems clear the team is not yet sold on Mason Rudolph as the heir apparent. Drafting Hurts would allow the Steelers to begin preparing for a different sort of life after Roethlisberger. With Rudolph still on the roster, they could bring Hurts along slowly without having to throw him into the fire and endure the type of season Rudolph just suffered. They could put Hurts into various packages designed to his strengths and get him game experience in managed situations. Then, when the time is right, they could roll out the “new” offense with Hurts (and likely Canada) at the helm. Just like Baltimore did when Jackson replaced Joe Flacco. Or like Seattle did when they transitioned to Wilson from Matt Hasselbeck.

What this really comes down to is the following: what is the best path forward once Roethlisberger retires? Is it the status quo on offense, with Rudolph or some other traditional pocket-passer at quarterback? Or is it an overhaul built around Canada’s creativity and a player like Hurts whose versatility is perfectly suited for an outside-the-box approach? I wish I was a fly on the wall in the Steelers’ off-season meeting rooms so I could hear the conversations unfolding around this topic. With the draft still two months away, it seems unfair for us to have to wait and wonder.