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Film Room: Matt Canada’s potential value to the Steelers offense

The Steelers aren’t looking to re-invent their offense, but to do things they already do better

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 06 Maryland at Michigan Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Matt Canada’s potential impact on the Steelers offense is something a lot of people have been talking about (especially me). One of the main comments which comes back is that Matt Canada isn’t the offensive coordinator, Randy Fichtner is, and the Steelers offense is run through Ben Roethlisberger who isn’t likely to want to see wildcat plays and college offense in his playbook.

This is all valid. So I thought I would put together a film room based on a play from the Jets game, where the Jets used a Matt Canada-esque play to gain 7 yards.

Week 16, 1st quarter, 1:18.

The ball carrier is lined up as a wingback, off the line of scrimmage, just outside the tight end. Not a complicated play on the surface. But lets take it back a few seconds and look at the play pre-snap.

The play starts with Ty Montgomery, a hybrid WR/RB lined up as the running back. To the top of the screen there is only WR Robbie Anderson, on the line, covering up the tackle. to the bottom of the screen there is TE/WR hybrid Daniel Brown, WR Jamison Crowder, and finally RB Le’Veon Bell. Three receivers to the bottom, one to the top, and a running back. The Jets send both Montgomery and Bell in motion, and you have Montgomery as an H-Back to the top of the screen, a tight end and wide receiver to the bottom and Le’Veon Bell in the backfield. Then right before the snap Crowder comes in motion like he’s running a jet sweep.

This is a full swap of the numbers situation, from 1 to the top and 3 to the bottom to, at the snap, 2 at the top, 1 to the bottom and a wide receiver coming across the formation.

Now that you understand what is going on personnel-wise, let’s dive into the meat of the play and how if affects the defense.

At the snap Le’Veon Bell starts going to the left of the screen. All the motion to the right has Le’Veon with a pseudo-tight end and not a lot of defenders on his side, so T.J. Watt, Vince Williams and Mike Hilton are all concerned about Le’Veon Bell getting outside the defense with only Joe Haden in his path. Meanwhile Cameron Heyward takes one step to his right, ready to defend the jet sweep. Bud Dupree follows Ty Montgomery but even the smallest impediment from the tackle has him too far behind the play to stop it.

Once Cameron Heyward takes that step to the right, and Vince Williams sees the pulling blocker and thinks the play is to Bell, the Jets have won the down. Watch the play, the Jets blockers don’t win blocks. Heyward takes one step, reads the play, and goes right to the ball. Bud Dupree gets slowed down a bit. The left guard has to go find T.J. Watt, but his block is irrelevant. The right guard barely gets a hand on Mark Barron and the right tackle gets to push Vince Williams in the direction Williams is already running. The play gains 7 yards because the Steelers were looking at 3 different threats.

This is a Matt Canada style play, and I wanted to show how it was used to convert a key third down against a really strong defense.

Wingback runs and Jet Sweeps

You may be surprised to know the Steelers use every single element you see in that play from the Jets. Sure, you won’t find a wingback runs in the Steelers playbook, but you will find something very similar.

2017, Week 2, 2nd quarter, 13:35. JuJu Smith-Schuster goes in motion before the snap.

Le’Veon Bell draws the attention of the linebacker (#54) and the defensive end (#99), creating a wide open lane for JuJu Smith-Schuster to run through for the touchdown. This was the rookie receiver’s first NFL reception. It’s similar in concept to what the Jets ran with Ty Montgomery, the major difference is the Steelers are in shotgun here, so instead of handing it off, it’s a pass.

The Steelers used a lot of concepts in the above play in Week 4 against the Cincinnati Bengals.

Week 4, 1st quarter, 3:11. Jaylen Samuels is the player closest to the right tackle in the bunch at the bottom of the screen.

The Steelers use James Conner and Diontae Johnson to draw defenders outside while Jaylen Samuels runs into the gap behind them. That’s a pretty easy 5 yard gain, and would have had a chance for more if #91 hadn’t driven Pouncey back and forced Samuels farther to the top of the screen.

Week 4, 1st quarter, 2:36. Jaylen Samuels comes in motion from the top of the screen.

None of the Bengals are fooled here, Samuels just beats most of the defense to the outside on what is essentially a jet sweep (again turned into a pass by the shotgun start) and it’s another 5 yard gain.

Week 4, 3rd quarter, 11:16. Jaylen Samuels is the wildcat QB, James Conner comes in motion.

The wildcat forces #95 to hesitate, and Conner blows past him. Again the jet sweep creates immense stress on the defense’s lateral speed. Too much of a gap is created between defenders and Conner cuts up field for a big gain. A tiny bit of hesitation combined with attacking the defense’s lateral speed creates opportunity for the offense.

These are the same type of runs we saw the Jets use, only they count as passes because the Steelers are in shotgun formation. That is important, because Ben Roethlisberger doesn’t like taking his eyes off the defense. He doesn’t like play action and the Steelers aren’t very good at it with Ben, so running plays like this out of shotgun will be a much better fit for Ben Roethlisberger.

Putting it together

The biggest factor with these plays is how the offense sets them up. The reason the Jets run worked was the Steelers respected the various threats the Jets presented. The Steelers didn’t use as many moving pieces as the Jets did, or as many as Matt Canada has in his play designs, but they did a decent job of creating multiple threats on a lot of plays.

Week 3, 3rd quarter, 15:00. Diontae Johnson is the receiver to the far left side of the screen.

The Steelers create misdirection here with a play they set up well. Xavier Grimble starts the play running counter to the line blocking,. This was a pretty common move the Steelers used on run plays at this point of the season. The line blocks hard to the play side, the tight end comes across the play to pick up the backside defender. You can see how little reaction Grimble gets, while most of the defenders are focused on James Conner. You can also see Nick Bosa cut inside Grimble to avoid what he expects is a block to seal him out of a James Conner run, only to take himself out of the play.

Week 4, 2nd quarter, 11:18. Jaylen Samuels is the Steelers player farthest to the top of the screen.

One of the most important parts of these plays is the use of either an H-Back or wingback.

The problem with those positions is they need to be viable threats to run a route from that alignment or they become really easy to defend. This play started with James Conner in the backfield, James Washington to the bottom of the screen, and to the top, Nick Vannett tight to the line, with Zach Gentry and Jaylen Samuels lined up outside him. This is a jumbo set: Two tight ends, two running backs and a single wide receiver. The Steelers used their third tight end and backup running back in a two-man pattern against a defense with only three defensive backs on the field. If Jaylen Samuels can be reliable on these plays, it adds the threat of him lining up as a wingback. The same is true of any player the Steelers use in an H-back or wingback role. If they aren’t a threat to run a route, throw a block, or run with the ball they will be easier to defend. The more they can do, the more threat they create and the harder it will be for the defense to predict where the ball is going to go.

The Steelers have a solid number of players capable of filling these roles. Jaylen Samuels has done it the most, but James Conner, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Diontae Johnson have done it too. It’s likely James Washington, Derek Watt and Anthony McFarland Jr. could also be used this way.

Week 4, 2nd quarter, 10:39. JuJu Smith-Schuster is the H-back in the bunch set, James Conner is the RB next to Mason Rudolph. (Ignore the ineligible receivers downfield.)

This is the best example of the Steelers doing something Canada-like. The threat of the shovel pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster is there, pulling defenders up to defend the pseudo-run, while Diontae Johnson’s motion and route pulls a defender out of the space James Conner gets into to catch the pass. Nick Vannett is lined up outside, and the Steelers get a 4-level attack on the defense in a 15-yard span.

The Pittsburgh Steelers faced the Bengals in Week 4 needing a spark on offense, and they found it using a lot of elements you see in Matt Canada’s offense. Those elements would show up in other weeks, but more sparingly because while they allowed the Steelers to attack their opponent’s laterally. This ceases to be a real threat if there aren’t any vertical threats to accompany them, and the offense wasn’t able to build on what they started.

The Steelers brought Matt Canada into the organization because he is one of the best minds in football for running these concepts, and not just as trick plays or gimmicks that work for one game but fail when teams expect them. Canada has shown the ability to incorporate these elements into a season-long game plan, one that adapts game to game, and can change drastically based on the talent. How much the Steelers utilize Canada will be largely based on how successful his designs are, but we’ve already seen the Steelers use a lot of what Canada brings to the table. With and without Ben Roethlisberger at quarter back, we are now waiting to see how much better those elements can be used.