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The impact of Matt Canada’s offense on the Steelers’ off-season, Part One: Scheme

Taking a deep dive into the impact Matt Canada will have on the Steelers’ offense. Today we look at the scheme.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 17 Ohio State at Maryland

The 2021 off-season will be one of the more intriguing and impactful ones in recent memory for the Steelers. With so many questions about their roster to resolve, salary cap issues to manage and the upcoming draft to consider, their decisions will undoubtedly shape the near-future of the franchise. For an organization that likes its waters calm and glassy, the next few months could bring tidal waves of change.

Amidst this array of calculations is the system Matt Canada is likely to implement as he moves into his new role as offensive coordinator. The Steelers have major decisions to make at every position group on the offensive side of the ball. Ben Roethlisberger or Mason Rudolph at quarterback? James Conner or a replacement at running back? Who fills Juju Smith-Schuster’s role at receiver once he leaves (as expected) in free agency? Who replaces the retired Vance McDonald at tight end? What will the reconstructed offensive line look like?

None of these questions can be answered without considering Canada’s offense. It’s well known Canada was regarded as a pioneer-of-sorts as a college coordinator for his use of pre-snap movement. Some of that made its way into Pittsburgh’s game-plan early in the 2020 season. The shifts and motions gradually disappeared, however, presumably at Roethlisberger’s request. With Canada succeeding the deposed Randy Fichtner as coordinator, it seems likely they will return.

Pre-snap motion is simply window-dressing, however, a tactic used to muddy the ability of a defense to react. When we talk about an offense, we’re talking philosophy and scheme. Pre-snap movement is certainly a part of that for Canada, but it’s no more his “offense” than disguising coverage is a “defense” for Keith Butler. Canada’s philosophy will be much broader and, given his history, difficult to pinpoint until it’s actually unveiled.

General manager Kevin Colbert hinted last week it was unlikely the Steelers would roll out the entire Canada package at once. This tweet from Mark Kaboly indicated as much:

Clearly. Colbert does not believe the Steelers are equipped to execute Canada’s vision as currently constructed. This would seem to suggest an overhaul of the team’s offensive personnel. However, when we look at Canada’s history as a college coordinator, one thing that jumps out is his ability to adapt his scheme to fit his talent.

At Northern Illinois, for example, Canada built an offense that averaged 34 points per game around dual-threat quarterback Chandler Harnish, who threw for over 3,000 yards and ran for over 1,000. At Wisconsin it was 22-personnel power football. The Badgers rushed for nearly 240 yards per game and earned a trip to the Rose Bowl. North Carolina State came next, where Canada ran an 11 personnel spread scheme centered on the passing of Jacoby Brissett. He moved on to Pitt in 2016, where his offense was an eclectic mix that highlighted his use of motion and deception. Pitt scored 35 or more points in 10 of 13 games, including a 76-point performance against Syracuse and 43 and 42 point outbursts in upsets of Clemson and Penn State.

So, Canada has found ways to succeed in a variety of situations. Still, like most coaches, he has a preferred style of play. After gathering as much film as I could of his various collegiate offenses, here are some constants no matter where he’s been.

PLAY-ACTION PASSING

The play-action pass is a Canada staple. Play-action is a constraint concept that keeps a defense from attacking the core plays an offense runs while providing opportunities for big plays by maneuvering them out of position. Play-action displaces defenders with ball-fakes and throws to the areas they’ve voided. It’s different from drop-back or quick passing concepts, which often attempt to outnumber a defender in his prescribed zone or exploit him in a one-on-one matchup.

Here’s the first play from scrimmage of Canada’s Northern Illinois offense in their 2011 game at Bowling Green. Canada opened in a Diamond formation that put four potential ball-carriers in the backfield. With Bowling Green thinking run, he immediately called a bootleg that resulted in a first down:

It’s a nice concept from an interesting design. The really interesting thing is what happened next. Watch the first play again. Just as the camera zooms in, you can count all eleven Bowling Green defenders within eight yards of the football, with the four defensive backs lined up at equal depth. This told Canada they were in cover-4, where the safeties would be responsible for vertical routes from the inside receivers.

Canada must have noticed how aggressively the safeties reacted to the first run fake so he came right back to it. This time, he gave the defense a 2x2 look with an H-back to the boundary and a slot to the field. He ran a dive fake and sent the H, who had run an out-cut on the previous play, straight up the seam. The safety (#11) bit hard on the run-action and the H ran right by him. It was an easy pitch-and-catch for a touchdown:

I love how aggressive Canada was with his opening script. He got into a run-heavy set on first down, anticipated Bowling Green would attack it and went play-action right away. Then, as soon as he noticed their safeties crowding the box, he dialed up a shot play. It was a great job of quickly diagnosing the intention of a defense and exploiting it.

POWER RUN CONCEPTS

Wherever he’s been, Canada has found a way to utilize traditional power run-blocking schemes. Power, for those who are unfamiliar, is a block-down, kick-out scheme with a backside lineman pulling around as a lead blocker. On paper, it’s often executed like this:

The alignment of the kick-out blocker (H) can vary depending on personnel grouping and formation.

Canada’s penchant for creativity has allowed him to add effective wrinkles to the traditional design. Take this play from his 2012 Wisconsin offense. From a 22-personnel set, Canada put one of the tight ends in motion and then brought him back as a second lead blocker. This allowed Wisconsin to get an extra hat at the point of attack and account for the safety, who is usually a plus-one defender in the box. The extra blocker helped spring running back Montee Ball for an additional ten yards:

It’s easy to say that Wisconsin, with their hulking linemen and physical backs, should be able to run power no matter what. But that’s not always the case, as defenses often overload the box to stop the run. Rather than abandon his core play, Canada solved the problem with a creative twist on the traditional scheme.

Here’s Pitt running a red zone shovel-option with power blocking. It looks nothing like the previous play but it’s the same scheme. I’ve slowed the GIF down so you can get a good look at it. The difference is, rather than block the edge player, Canada has the quarterback read him and then make a decision whether to pitch the football inside to the tight end or outside to the running back. The backfield action creates a horizontal stretch on the defense, which opens a seam inside for the tight end as he wraps around from the back side of the formation:

Here’s one more. This is Canada’s 2014 offense at NC State. He runs quarterback draw with power blocking, turning out the edge player with the tight end and then bringing both the running back and backside guard through the hole as lead blockers. It’s another “plus-one” design that gets an extra blocker at the point of attack:

Canada will also combat an overly-aggressive defense with play-action off of the power scheme. The pulling guard is an effective way of getting defenders to think run and react accordingly:

I don’t know how Canada will run power with the Steelers. He has shown he can do it in a multitude of ways. Inevitably, he seems to fit it into his broader offensive philosophy by suiting it to his personnel.

CREATIVITY AND DECEPTION

I could spend the next month breaking down Canada’s use of creative formations and motions to confuse defenses or put them in a bind. For the sake of brevity, here are some brief examples.

This is Empty with a four-receiver bunch to the field. Canada called QB draw here, and it resulted in a touchdown:

Here’s long motion from the slot who then comes back around to get the ball on a reverse:

Here’s a reverse to an offensive tackle:

And here’s this, whatever it is:

Seems gimmicky, right? The last one might be. But there’s a method to the madness. With all of these shifts, motions, misdirections and odd alignments, Canada is stressing a defense by making them switch their strength calls, re-set their fronts, change their coverages, make sure they’re not being out-leveraged and, above all, exerting discipline once the ball is snapped.

Canada is the anti-Randy Fichtner in this regard. Fichtner’s scheme was straight-forward. The offense lined up in a few standard groupings and formations and the defense set themselves accordingly. Roethlisberger liked it that way because it provided him a clear pre-snap picture and helped him make decisions about what to do with the football. It was essentially a “me versus you” scheme that relied on the future Hall of Fame QB to be better than his opponents.

Canada did not have that luxury in many of his coaching stops. At Indiana, NC State, Maryland and even Pitt, his talent was often inferior. Canada’s creativity was born of necessity, then, since he could not simply line up and run plays at the opposition. He had to slow them down, make them uncomfortable and create confusion. With the Steelers in transition on offense, that seems an appropriate philosophy.

SUMMARY

Canada will supplement his core concepts with jet sweeps, outside zone runs, pocket movement from the QB and a vertical passing game. His offense is not complicated but the window dressing he provides in terms of shifts, motions and formations makes it appear so. Best of all, Canada has demonstrated a clear rhyme and reason for his schemes and seems to understand how to use them. That is as important as the schemes themselves.

His core philosophy couldn’t be further from the one the Steelers employed in 2020. It’s no wonder Kevin Colbert sees the transition from Fichtner to Canada as a gradual one. If it were like going from English to Spanish perhaps it could be done quickly. This is more like English to Klingon.

How, then, will the Steelers adapt their personnel, as Colbert suggested, to fit Canada’s style of play? Thoughts on that question will be the focus of part two of this series.