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An in-depth look at Matt Canada’s use of pre-snap shifts and motions

Breaking down a single play from Matt Canada’s college offenses.

NCAA Football: Maryland at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

We’ve talked a lot about Matt Canada’s offense since he was hired by the Steelers over a year ago. We got to see some of his influence in 2020, although almost entirely limited to the early season run game.

With Randy Fichtner gone, and Matt Canada now the offensive coordinator, I want to start looking at some plays Canada ran in college. The goal is to look at the mentality and concepts he uses, and to get a better idea of what we can expect to see in the Steelers offense in 2021.

To start, I want to take a look at an example of Matt Canada using pre-snap motion, often moving multiple players to completely change the formation. I’m going to use a play from the first drive of the Pittsburgh Panthers’ upset of Clemson in 2016, when Matt Canada was the Panther’s offensive coordinator.

First, the formation they broke huddle in:

Let’s start by looking at the personnel. To the bottom of the screen is wide receiver Quadree Henderson, a speedy and elusive player. In the slot is the Panthers fullback, George Aston. Aston was used as a blocker, runner and receiver in 2016, and caught a pass lined up out side in this game. Tight end Scott Orndoff is just off the line, James Conner is the running back behind him and to the top of the screen, Aaron Matthews is the receiver heading out to his spot. Pitt is in 21 personnel (two backs, one tight end and two receivers) with the full back out in the slot.

Here’s the first few seconds after the Panthers line up.

I included a tiny bit of the first motion because I want you to see the defense reacting to the initial formation. The safety points to the fullback, sending a linebacker out to cover Aston and the other safety comes up to take James Conner in the backfield. Right as the defense is figuring out their assignments, Canada throws a massive motion at the Tigers defense.

Only four of Pitt’s eleven players stay in the exact spot they were in coming out of the huddle, and 5 players make big movements.

Let’s start at the bottom of the screen. Pitt now has their right tackle off the line, he’s now covering the tackle formation wise, he’s now eligible. The left tackle moves to the right tackle’s spot, giving Pitt an extra lineman to the right. They move James Conner to the opposite side of quarterback Nathan Peterman and drop Quadree Henderson behind the right tackle turned receiver.

The threat to run to the extra lineman is pretty serious here, and a quick screen to Henderson would be a good option as well. The Panthers don’t run either, but they show Clemson that threat, and they get to see how Clemsons players react to the Panthers’ unbalancing the line.

They gave them a full second and a half to adjust to that formation, and looked like they were going to snap the ball before doing this instead:

The lineman and Scott Orndoff the tight end move back to their original spots, but with Orndoff now on the line of scrimmage and the fullback lined up as a wingback instead of in the slot. Quadree Henderson has moved to the slot to the top of the screen and they went from shotgun with a sidecar to under center with a tailback.

You can see all the movement as the defenders try to keep up with their man. You also see the safety who dropped into a single high look move out to cover the slot. Now it’s time for the payoff, the play the Panthers spent all this energy setting up.

That’s an off-tackle run from James Conner. A nice 6-yard gain on a very common play. The jet sweep motion is a neat wrinkle, but other than that it’s a play you see every game.

That’s one of the reasons you will hear Matt Canada’s motions referred to as window dressing. The plays aren’t brand new, they are old staples, with a bunch of distraction beforehand. Like a magician adding a new flourish to an old trick. Sure, it might confuse some freshman or cause some miscommunication every once in a while, but confusion isn’t the only goal here.

In one play, on the opening drive of the game, the Panthers coaches got a ton of information about how Clemson’s defense is planning to defend against them. They showed them an unbalanced formation and got to see how the players reacted to it. There’s a lot of information being gathered that will help with play selection for the rest of the game. And by using this kind of motion frequently, the offense get to see any changes the defense puts in to stop it.

The defense can’t reliably game plan to defend that unbalanced look at the exact time the offense decides to actually use it. If they put in a change, you’ll see it when you show that look again. Matt Canada is gathering a lot of information on every play, getting a better and better look at the specific game plan his opponent has in place to defend his offense.

There’s another level to this kind of motion. When the Panthers finally run the ball, Clemson is still thinking about their assignments and they are moving laterally. Look at the linebackers, not one of them moves more than a yard toward the line of scrimmage before a blocker gets to them. This is a 2nd and 2 play, and the linemen get to the linebackers beyond the first down line.

I’ll be looking at other plays from this game in the future, and some games from his other coaching jobs. As we approach Matt Canada’s first season in charge of an NFL offense, it will be valuable to look at what he’s had success with in the past.