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Steelers offensive coordinator Matt Canada creates run plays out of thin air

Looking at Matt Canada running the ball out of empty sets.

Maryland v Indiana Photo by G Fiume/Maryland Terrapins/Getty Images

Last week we looked at Matt Canada’s use of pre-snap motion on a play that ended up an off-tackle run from James Conner.

This week I want to look at the very next play from that 2016 game against Clemson, a TD pass to fullback George Aston.

Let’s start with the formation when the Panthers left the huddle.

This is the same personnel group as the previous play, just lined up in an empty set. Wide receiver to the top, James Conner in the slot, fullback George Aston inside to the bottom of the screen, tight end Scott Orndoff below him and another wide receiver to the bottom of the screen.

A couple things stand out here, first the amount of field this formation takes up, they have wide receivers outside both set of numbers, and no one tight to the formation. Second, while the Panthers threw to James Conner and George Aston quite a bit, the real receivers are all still to the outside of the formation. Often teams put a back or tight end outside and a receiver in the slot to put defenses in the tough spot of either sending a linebacker out to the numbers or covering a wide receiver with that linebacker. Canada did that quite a bit too, but not here. Which is why I think you see Clemson staying tight to the formation, they know enough to expect a run here, even with the Panthers in an empty set.

Last week we focused on the pre-snap motion, and there was pre-snap motion on this play as well.

The Panthers motion the fullback into an H-back alignment (behind the line and therefore a “back,” not an “end”). This motion is what the Clemson defense is expecting. They weren’t buying Aston as a receiver, but now he’s a blocker. If you look at the numbers, the numbers to the top side of the screen are there for a QB run on this play, and the defense reacts by shifting that way and moving one defender up closer to the line.

And now for the payoff.

James Conner comes in motion, giving the Clemson defense exactly what they are looking for. But that’s just one more misdirection and George Aston rumbles up the middle of the field to put Pitt on the board first.

The first takeaway from this play is the most exciting one for me. This is an option run play, with a very similar threat to Baltimore’s Veer option. ignore the formation, and look at the threat James Conner and George Aston present, and compare to this play from week 8.

The Veer is the foundation of Baltimore’s offense in the NFL, and it exists off two simple run threats, one to the outside, and one to the middle. On this play the running back is the threat to the outside, and Lamar Jackson is the threat up the middle. On the Panther’s play, James Conner is the outside run threat, and the inside run threat is the fullback on a shovel pass. Canada presents a similar run threat that the Veer presents, and he does it out of empty set, with a quarterback that isn’t a run threat.

T.J. Watt is a freak of nature and shuts down both options the Ravens have on this play, but look at the Clemson defense, they have both Conner and QB Nathan Peterman dead to rights. In that way the shovel pass option is better than a running quarterback. The offense loses one blocker, but the ball gets past the first wave of the defense on a toss. Check out the blocking in slow motion.

First look at the penetration on both sides of the line. The Panthers leave three defenders unblocked, and they have Conner and Peterman in their sights. But those three players turn an 8 man box facing 5 offensive lineman into 5 blockers on 5 defenders, an easy win for the offense.

If you look at the blocks the line makes, the right guard has the hardest job, he has to move the DT, the other lineman either have smaller players to block or they just have to seal defenders, not move them. The tackle slants up-screen, and that block is won. My favorite block is the right tackle on the defender that is responsible for Aston. He moves to his spot, and waits as his target runs right into him and falls down.

Shovel passes are nothing new to the NFL, and the option threat Canada creates on this play isn’t new to the NFL either. The ability to create multiple “run” threats out of an empty set shotgun formation is a serious positive for an offense with Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback. If you swap out Aston for James Washington or JuJu Smith-Schuster this play is suddenly being run out of 11 personnel (Ben Roethlisberger’s favorite) and the main difference is the player with the ball is faster and more elusive instead of slower and more powerful. The Steelers use several of their receivers as blockers already, so it wouldn’t be a tell if they do it intelligently.

I love the idea of the Steelers running Najee Harris, Eric Ebron, Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson and JuJu Smith-Schuster onto the field, lining up in empty set and the defense asking themselves “Are they going to run up the middle or outside?” The Steelers offense was still effective when they were reduced to Ben Roethlisberger operating out of empty sets (at least until the line fell apart), adding run threats to that formation without putting anyone in the backfield? That’s the kind of creativity that could make a serious impact on the Steelers in 2021.