This is Part Two of our examination of how Matt Canada’s offense will impact many of the decisions the Steelers’ make this off-season. In Part One we looked at what Canada’s past tells us about the schemes he is likely to use in Pittsburgh. Here, we’ll look at the personnel required to execute them.
General manager Kevin Colbert made an interesting statement last week when he declared that the rollout of Canada’s system would be a gradual process:
The part that caught my attention was where Colbert indicated it would be impossible to jump into Canada’s offense with the Steelers’ current personnel. As I mentioned in Part One, Canada’s system stresses multiple groups and formations, a variety of shifts and motions, varied tempos, an emphasis on pocket movement and a play-action passing game. It is a sharp divergence from the scheme former coordinator Randy Ficthner employed. Fichtner’s scheme was largely static, operating predominantly from 11 personnel, limiting formations and motions and relying on Ben Roethlisberger to diagnose defenses and make decisions. It’s no wonder Colbert sees the rollout as a gradual process. It’s a significant paradigm shift.
To make that shift, the Steelers will have to alter their personnel across the board. Here’s a look at the skill position groups and how the talent on hand, in free agency and in the draft might fit Canada’s scheme.
Ben Roethlisberger’s agent announced recently that his client will return next season (there has been no formal announcement from the team). As he approaches age 39, Roethlisberger can still play football. He is the best quarterback on the Steelers’ roster without question. However, at this point in his career, his skill set is very specific. When protected well, he can stand in the pocket and pick apart a defense. Beyond that, he is limited. He cannot move around anymore, does not like pre-snap movement or play-action, is not trained in RPOs and cannot throw the ball down the field consistently. In a different offense, with a better run game and a better line, his style can still work. In Pittsburgh in 2021, there are reasons for concern.
Few of the elements of the new offense play to Roethlisberger’s strengths. Why hamstring Canada, then, by forcing him to work around Roethlisberger’s limitations? This is the perfect time to respectfully bid him adieu and evaluate Mason Rudolph. Rudolph may not be the ideal choice but he is better suited to run Canada’s system. Additionally, a Roethlisberger return puts Rudolph on the bench for the final season of his rookie contract. The Steelers would then have to extend him or cut him loose without getting an honest look at how he works with Canada. That makes little sense. The smart move is to let Rudolph run the show for a year, with either Dwayne Haskins or a low-priced veteran as his backup. If Rudolph shows promise, the Steelers can extend him. If not, they can pursue their potential-franchise QB the following off-season, when they will have the cap space and (likely) better draft position to do so.
Roethlisberger’s return will mean Canada will have to tailor the offense to his strengths. It won’t be the offense he wants to run but Canada is a creative coach and can find common ground. Hopefully, Roethlisberger will meet him there.
Ideally, the Steelers want a versatile back for Canada’s system who can run power schemes, get to the edge and catch the football. They can split those duties among multiple backs but a single player who can do all three would create greater flexibility in the offense.
The Steelers current stable of backs lacks that player. James Conner is the most versatile and has the benefit of having played for Canada at Pitt. But Conner will likely depart as a free agent. Jaylen Samuels and Anthony McFarland played for Canada in college, too, but neither are suited for a feature role. Benny Snell Jr. is not fast enough for Canada’s outside zone scheme and is best as a complimentary player.
This puts Pittsburgh in the market for a running back. There isn’t much money to sign free agents, but that hasn’t stopped speculation they could pursue Green Bay’s Aaron Jones. Jones is the best back on the market, however, and is likely to command around $14 million a season on his new deal. It seems unlikely the Steelers can afford him.
A cheaper alternative would be Arizona’s Kenyan Drake, who amassed 955 rushing yards and caught 25 passes last season. Drake is not quite as explosive as Jones but possesses similar capabilities as a runner and receiver. He is 27 years old and has carried the ball more than 200 times in a season only once in his career, meaning his legs are still fresh.
Cheaper still is Indianapolis’s Marlon Mack, who is just 24 and rushed for over 2,000 combined yards in 2018-2019. Mack is on par with Jones when healthy. Therein lies the rub. Mack missed all but one game in 2020 after tearing his ACL. That will drive down his price in free agency but will make him a risky investment, too.
Should the cash-strapped Steelers turn to the draft to fill their need, Alabama’s Najee Harris and Clemson’s Travis Etienne have both been mentioned as possible targets. Harris can run the power schemes Canada loves and can get to the edge on outside zone plays. He improved each year at Alabama as a receiver and is adequate in pass protection. He would be more of the every-down back the Steelers have traditionally favored.
Etienne is not an inside runner on Harris’s level but is the more explosive player. He would likely be paired with Snell in a running back rotation and could also be used in a hybrid slot receiver/running back role. Etienne’s speed (4.38 in the 40) would make him a great candidate for jet sweeps, outside zone runs, quick screens and reverses. He would be a jack-of-all-trades in the Canada system.
The Steelers would have to use their first pick at 1/24 to grab Harris and perhaps Etienne as well. Whether they would use that pick on a running back is a moot subject should they sign one of the free agents. My preference is Mack, who I believe is worth the risk and who, after playing in Indy’s system, which employs many of the wide zone and play-action concepts Canada favors, would be well-acclimated to the offense. Signing Mack would give the Steelers the versatile back Canada craves while alleviating the need to spend a first-round pick at the position. If the Steelers sign one free agent this off-season, Mack would be a great choice.
With Vance McDonald retiring, Eric Ebron will almost certainly return for a second campaign. Ebron had some issues with drops in 2020 but turned in a decent season despite not being utilized properly. His greatest value seemed to be as a field-stretching tight end whose ability to get down the seam would open up the middle. Instead, he was relegated to simple flat, stick and crossing routes as the vertical passing game disappeared.
Canada’s penchant for play-action restores Ebron’s value. His size and mobility make him ideal to slip behind linebackers who jump at ball-fakes or to target on late-releases off of bootlegs. Ebron is not a greater blocker, though, so adding a tight end with blocking credentials is necessary.
The player the Steelers should target in this sense is Tennessee free agent MyCole Pruitt. Pruitt is a banger at 6’2-250 who helped the Titans forge one of the best rushing attacks in the league the past few seasons. He caught just 20 passes in three years in Tennessee but did record four touchdowns and can be useful as a red zone target. He should not be particularly expensive in a free agent market that includes sexier tight ends like Hunter Henry, Jared Cook and Jonnu Smith. Pruitt would be a nice plug-and-play compliment to Ebron and would give the Steelers their most physical blocking tight end since Heath Miller.
Juju Smith-Schuster’s return is doubtful. Still, the Steelers have a trio of receivers in Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson and James Washington who form a solid nucleus.
Canada’s emphasis on the vertical passing game bodes well for Claypool and Washington, each of whom are good deep-ball receivers on the outside. Johnson predominantly plays outside too but may see more time in the slot if Smith-Schuster departs. Johnson’s quickness and precise route-running makes him the logical candidate to move inside when Canada wants his three best receivers on the field together.
Canada will probably lobby for a true slot in the mix as well. He likes a versatile player in that spot who can run and catch. At Pitt, he used receiver Quadree Henderson as a de facto running back from the slot position. Henderson had 60 carries and averaged 10.5 yards per rush in 2016 on an array of reverses, jet sweeps and gadgets.
The Steelers could stay in-house for that role by re-signing Ray Ray McCloud, who is a restricted free agent and likely to come cheap. Henderson and McCloud are similar in speed, stature and ability. They could also fill this role through the draft. They are unlikely to take a receiver early and will probably look for one in the middle rounds. They reportedly met with Auburn speedster Anthony Schwartz, a projected mid-round pick, whose speed and versatility make him attractive in the Henderson role. Other intriguing options include South Carolina’s Shi Smith, who is a shifty slot player; Demetric Felton of UCLA, a hybrid running back/receiver who could be a poor man’s Etienne; and D’Wayne Eskridge, another slot candidate from Western Michigan.
Eskridge is a name to keep an eye on. He played outside at WMU but, as a 5’10-190 pound former 100-meter dash champion, is better suited for the slot in the NFL. He is a converted defensive back and still a bit raw but is quick off the ball and possesses breakaway speed. The Steelers may very well have their eye on Eskridge given their need in the slot and their affinity for players from the MAC.
Canada’s system begins with the quarterback. If it’s Rudolph, we will see a faster rollout. If it’s Roethlisberger, we may get something more like Canada Lite. I’ve said my piece and will root for the best no matter what the team decides.
Beyond the QB, the Steelers need a versatile back to replace Conner, a physical tight end to compliment Ebron and a dynamic slot player to be a Swiss Army knife. Given their fiscal constraints, they are not likely to acquire the ideal players immediately. But with smart drafting and cap management, they can find viable pieces to debut the new offense.
The bigger rebuild is likely to occur up front, where the Steelers struggled mightily last season. In the final installment of this series, we’ll look at how the offensive line might be restructured to accommodate Canada’s system.