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Steelers Offense in Focus: Using the power run game to set up big plays

When Matt Canada has a successful rushing attack, his offense really opens up.

Cleveland Browns v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

This article got shelved for almost a month due to some technical issues with uploading longer gifs to articles, like long TD runs. Those issues are fixed now, so welcome back! If you need a refresher, the previous articles are linked at the end of this article.

This is the fourth part in our look at Matt Canada’s offense at his various college coaching jobs. Today we again look at his time at the University of Wisconsin, when his offense was defined by the run game, and his three future NFL starting running backs.

In the last part, we looked at a play action pass, and today we are going to look at how his strong run game set up big plays, specifically from misdirection. We’ll start like we always do, with the initial formation.

Another heavy set with two running backs and one wide receiver, this time aligned in single back with both tight ends to one side, Melvin Gordon lined up at wide receiver is the only difference between this formation and a traditional single back set.

This formation is heavily leaning to the bottom of the screen, with both tight ends and a back lined up as a receiver, they are showing power to that side. Now let’s move on to the motion.

Nothing elaborate, just balancing the tight ends. I love the linebackers moving and pointing and talking, you can tell the motion is in their heads, they are thinking about how players may move, and while they don’t mess up reacting to the motion, they are moving around and thinking, they aren't chomping at the bit to attack the play, they are thinking, it’s a small victory for the offense, but small advantages can lead to big benefits.

The inside run game that was the workhorse for Matt Canada’s 2012 offense has the defense crashing the middle. The counter runs (and shovel passes) from wingbacks and tight ends has Nebraska’s #42, the linebacker on the play side, watching the man who motioned to his side as the ball goes right past him. The only one defending Melvin Gordon is the deep safety that takes over man responsibility for Gordon.

Check out the main part of this play from a different angle.

There’s one player defending the actual run here. Melvin Gordon is more than a match for a safety, and he’s gone for a touchdown. This touchdown is created by several factors.

First and foremost, the inside run game was strong enough that teams had to pay serious respect to it. One of the contributing factors in the Steelers run game falling apart was David DeCastro’s injury in week 5 and his return had him not playing as well. When Dotson and a healthy DeCastro were playing with Maurkice Pouncey, the threat of a jet sweep was real, because teams had to work to defend inside runs. When the inside run game fell apart, so did the threat of a jet sweep.

Second is the motion and various threats from wingbacks. Second tight ends and fullbacks are almost always the least dangerous weapons on the field, and defenses can put their weakest defenders on them, or use that defender to help other places. Matt Canada turns that on it’s head by attacking teams with that position, wing back counters, passes, and lots of motion make the defense pay special attention to a player they normally would pay the least to, and that shows up here in a big way. The linebacker staring down the #2 tight end is the player in the best position to help the safety shut down the jet sweep, but he doesn’t even realize what is happening, because he has to watch his man, the #2 tight end who came to his side in motion.

The previous three parts of this series focused on the motion Canada uses to make teams think before running plays, even basic run plays, and how he uses the #2 TE or FB (typically as a wing back) as a playmaker when the defense is focused on more traditional threats.

While all of that can be called window dressing for a pretty standard college offense, it isn’t just sizzle, it is manipulation. Forcing defenses to think about a player that they are used to ignoring with little risk, makes the better offensive weapons harder to contain. If you think of the way Antonio Brown’s gravity could make Coby Hamilton a target worth throwing too at times in 2016, Matt Canada’s offense would be like Todd Haley moving Cobi Hamilton around a lot, finding creative ways to get him the ball and gain yards, causing the defense to divert fewer defenders to Antonio Brown.

The Steelers have been collecting versatile depth weapons like Jaylen Samuels, Derek Watt and Anthony McFarland for years, and drafted Pat Freiermuth this season. The options for versatile H-backs and wingbacks are on the team. The changes on the offensive line this summer have resulted in them replacing key parts of one of the most effective pass blocking lines in the NFL with mauling interior run blockers. Building a power run game with Najee Harris has been a major focus in the Steelers offseason, and the success or failure of that focus will be an enormous factor in the success of Matt Canada’s offense in 2021.

Previous Offense in Focus articles