As the Steelers hold their mandatory minicamp this week, I thought it was a good time to reflect on their offseason so far. Among the various storylines that have been debated ad nauseam the past few months, three themes have dominated the conversation. They are the three C’s of the 2021 offseason: contracts, competition and Canada.
The biggest and most interesting question of the offseason was asked before the dust had settled on the demoralizing playoff defeat to Cleveland in January: Would Ben Roethlisberger return as the Steelers’ quarterback? The answer to that question was yes, with Roethlisberger restructuring his deal to cut $5 million off of his salary and $15 million off his cap hit while adding voidable years down the road.
Even at age 39, Roethlisberger is clearly the best quarterback on the Steelers roster. Still, many argued the Steelers should have parted ways with him and allowed backup Mason Rudolph to run new coordinator Matt Canada’s offense for a season before deciding on a long-term replacement (I, for one, was not opposed to such a move).
The decision to bring back Roethlisberger sets up an interesting marriage between him and Canada, with the veteran quarterback preferring one style of play and the innovative coordinator seeming to prefer another. The degree to which the two can find common ground will go a long way towards determining the success of Pittsburgh’s 2021 campaign.
Roethlisberger’s contract restructure was not the only interesting move of the offseason at the quarterback position. Pittsburgh brought in Dwayne Haskins to compete with Rudolph to be Roethlisberger’s backup. While Haskins flamed out after being selecting in the 1st Round by Washington, his deal, which amounts to almost nothing (1 year, $850,000), makes him a low-risk, high-reward acquisition. Few expect Haskins to win the job as Roethlisberger’s successor, but early reviews suggest he is adapting well to his new environment. He will be an intriguing player to keep tabs on as the season evolves.
Finally, the contract situation that proved the most surprising this offseason involved the return of JuJu Smith-Schuster. As the 2020 season closed, Smith-Schuster seemed destined for a big pay-day on the free agent market. The Steelers, tight to the cap as usual, did not anticipate they could afford him. And yet, JuJu remains. How in the name of Omar Khan did that happen?
Khan, the Steelers’ cap management specialist, is a wizard at turning fifty cents into a dollar. But in this instance, it wasn’t really Khan’s doing. With the Covid pandemic sapping the resources of many franchises, the free agent market wasn’t quite the orgy of money it typically has become. Some teams chose to invest frugally (by modern NFL standards), with the premium dollars going to offensive linemen and edge rushers. In short, JuJu didn’t like the money. So, he signed a one-year deal to return to Pittsburgh with his eye on free agency next offseason, when the league will be flush with cash.
It was a smart move by both parties. The Steelers retained Smith-Schuster, alleviating their need to spend a high draft pick on a receiver, and JuJu returned to Pittsburgh under the guise of not wanting to leave while positioning himself for a better payday in 2022. No matter the motivation, if he plays lights-out this season, fans will love him for it.
There’s nothing a football player values more than playing time. Coaches, on the other hand, love few things more than genuine competition to earn it. Competition brings out the best in players by creating a sense of urgency. Or, to use another term, fear. The fear of being benched, or being cut, or losing out on a lifetime dream or a big payday. Fear is a great motivator. Competition breeds it.
The Steelers have done a really good job this offseason creating competition at various position groups throughout their roster. Where depth was necessary, or where a starting job was in question, they brought in veterans and draft picks capable of challenging each other.
Take the center position. With the retirement of long-time starter Maurkice Pouncey, the Steelers had a huge hole to fill in the middle of the line. With only journeyman J.C. Hassenauer returning, they signed old friend B.J. Finney to a one-year deal before selecting Kendrick Green from the University of Illinois in Round 3 of the draft. Green is expected to earn the starting job at some point during his rookie season. The key word, though, is earn. By having to compete with the veteran Finney for the position, he won’t be handed anything. This ensures the Steelers will get the best possible version of Green right from the jump.
The same is true elsewhere on the line. Chuks Okorafor is moving from right to left tackle, where he is expected to be the starter. But the selection of Dan Moore Jr. in the draft creates a viable alternative if Okorafor falters. Moore is a pure left tackle who was a three-year starter from a Power 5 school. Okorafor was part of a weak offensive line in Pittsburgh in 2020, and while he seems better suited to play left tackle, Moore’s selection is bound to have put him on notice that his play must improve in 2021.
Then there’s wide receiver, where four veterans (Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool and James Washington) will compete for three starting spots in Pittsburgh’s base 11 personnel grouping. That battle could be even more intense given the selection of Penn State tight end Pat Freiermuth in Round 2 of the draft. Canada loves tight ends, and with Freiermuth and Eric Ebron in the fold, the Steelers will likely increase their use of 12 personnel, which puts just two receivers on the field.
Elsewhere, the Rudolph/Haskins competition at backup quarterback will be intriguing. Rudolph is the clear favorite but Haskins has tremendous ability and should push Rudolph. The backup running back spot will be interesting, too. Someone among Benny Snell Jr., Anthony McFarland, Jaylen Samuels and Kalen Ballage is getting cut. All will need to bring their ‘A’ game to survive.
On the defensive side of the ball, competition for the slot corner, dime backer, backup edge rusher and rotational line spots should be great. The Steelers may still add a veteran at one or more of those positions, which will add further intrigue to the mix.
It hasn’t been a sexy offseason from a personnel standpoint but the additions the team has made should ensure great competition at some of the weakest spots on the roster.
Do aliens exist? Who killed JFK? And what will Matt Canada’s 2021 Steelers’ offense look like? These are three of the great mysteries of modern times.
To the first, I say yes. To the second, Oswald — don’t overthink it. As for the third, who knows? But a small clue was offered last week when Brian Batko of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette tweeted the following clip from Steelers’ OTA activities. It is a video of Pittsburgh’s running backs and quarterbacks walking through some of the concepts Canada is installing. The video has a Zepruder-like graininess to it and forecasts a similar (albeit far less consequential) disaster: The shovel pass. Canada is bringing back the shovel pass!
To quote Captain Kurtz from Apocalypse Now: “The horror. The horror…”
But look closer, astute football junkies. This is not merely a shovel pass. This is a read-option. Specifically, it’s a concept the Baltimore Ravens have run time and again the past few years with Lamar Jackson. That’s right, the Steelers are installing a Lamar Jackson-style offense with Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback!
Ok ok, simmer down. I’m joking. Kind of. Before you flip your lid at the thought of Roethlisberger attempting Jackson-style run plays, let me explain.
It’s not the exact same play. The concept is similar — it’s a play called Power Read — but the design is different. On both plays, the front-side linemen block their inside gaps while the backside guard wraps around for the play-side linebacker. And on both plays, the play-side edge player is left unblocked as a read-key. In Baltimore, the Ravens have Jackson ride the running back, who is on an outside run track, and read the edge. If the edge sits inside, Jackson gives the ball to the back. If the edge widens, Jackson pulls it and runs behind the guard.
Here’s Baltimore running the play against the Steelers last season. Jackson will read T.J. Watt, who is walked off the line just outside the right hash. When Watt widens at the snap, Jackson pulls the ball and attacks up the field:
Clearly, the Steelers don’t want Roethlisberger attempting anything like this. However, because read-option concepts are excellent ways to conflict a defense (the quarterback can make the read-key wrong no matter how he reacts), Canada wants to include them in the offense. How, then, can the Steelers gain the benefit of a read-option without asking Roethlisberger to carry the football?
Let’s look at the GIF from OTAs again and explain:
We see Roethlisberger ride the back (Najee Harris) just like Jackson did. You can see a Steelers’ assistant coach acting as the read-key. When the coach comes up the field to attack Harris, Roethlisberger pulls the ball and flips it inside to fullback T.J. Watt, who is following the guard from his pre-snap alignment on the backside of the play. Watt simply replaces the quarterback as the second runner.
This is a nice wrinkle on the traditional Power Read. It’s a versatile play, too. A variety of players can execute Watt’s role — Eric Ebron, Pat Freiermuth, Juju Smith-Schuster, Jaylen Samuels — so the Steelers can run it out of different formations and personnel groups. It will require reps between Roethlisberger and the running backs for the feel of when to give the ball and when to pull it. That’s why Canada is introducing the concept now, so the backfield can get plenty of practice throughout the summer.
Traditionalists may find these concepts gimmicky. Others may recall how Roethlisberger struggled with read-options under Randy Fichtner. Fair enough. Just remember that Canada specializes in these types of plays and that Roethlisberger, while not an outspoken advocate of their use, has said all the right things about the new offense so far. If Canada can teach them and Roethlisberger is willing to learn, these types of concepts could make the Steelers much trickier to defend than they were in 2020.
That last sentence underscores the bottom line. The Steelers’ offense had grown bland and stale. They needed to put defenses in greater conflict. Thus, Matt Canada. While the schemes aren’t likely to be radically different, the formations, personnel groups and smoke-and-mirrors used to protect those schemes will be.
Whether the offense is indeed better than it was in 2020 remains to be seen. The roll-out, though, will be fun to watch.