clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Steelers Offense in Focus: Matt Canada does play-action right

Turning a run play into a pass play is a recipe for success.

NCAA Football: Illinois at Maryland Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

After his stint in Wisconsin with their three future NFL starting running backs and strong offensive line, Matt Canada moved on to North Carolina State, where he again took over an offense that lost a quarterback to the NFL draft. This time Mike Glennon had just left the Wolfpack for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers when Matt Canada took over.

The Wolfpack gained a transfer quarterback from Florida State in Jacoby Brissett, but Brissett was required to sit out one season and was unavailable in 2013. Quarterbacks Brandon Mitchell and Pete Thomas would split time and pass for 240 yards per game, while the Wolfpack ran for 160 yards a game, behind an offensive line that was not at all a match for the Wisconsin line Canada had in 2012. At NC State Canada used more spread offense and zone-read concepts to get yards.

As always we start with the pre-snap movement. The broadcast didn’t do a good job of catching the motion on this play, but it was worth using, so here it is.

The Wolfpack swap players from each side, ending up with two receivers to the left of the quarterback, and the tight end, fullback and running back to the right.

Matt Canada runs this read option off a jet sweep motion, and the quarterback keeps the ball for 3 yards. Pete Thomas is not a runner, but he rambles for 3 yards on first down. Obviously Matt Canada won’t be asking Ben Roethlisberger to run the ball, but we already covered how Matt Canada would later use shovel passes to mimic QB runs, there are ways to run this play without asking Ben Roethlisberger to run the ball, and Canada has done it.

But whether or not he can run this play with Ben Roethlisberger isn’t the point of this article. What we need to do is go back and look at the play, and what each player does in the play.

  1. The left guard pulls inside to the right side, like a lead blocker for the quarterback.
  2. The fullback and running back both head outside to their right, blocking for the jet sweep.
  3. The sweep man runs his sweep motion, ending up outside the play to the offense’s right.

Now watch the very next play.

There are two big changes to this look that we need to cover. First, the wide receiver to the top of the screen replaces the second back in the back field. The second change in #80, who was the Wolfpack’s fastest player and most dangerous jet-sweep runner. He comes in to run the jet-sweep, and starts in the backfield, to the quarterback’s left. Look at the players moving after the snap, they are doing almost exactly the same thing as the run play above, even the left guard coming over to block the right defensive end looks like the pull from the previous play.

That’s important, because again Matt Canada is layering expectations for the defense. He’s showing them the play they just defended, but with a key difference. In the first play the cornerback picks up the running back coming out of the backfield like a blocker, but in this play there is a wide receiver for the corner to cover, and the running back, Shadrack Thorton (#10), who led the team in total yards in 2013 ends up wide open. Check it out from the overhead view.

The corner takes the wide receiver, the linebacker to the play side is defending the sweep and covers that player. The middle linebacker is reading the pulling guard and then drops when he sees it is a pass play. He only realizes he’s blown the coverage as the back catches the ball.

Play-action passing is a weapon in the NFL, has been for a very long time. Its effectiveness proves that making defenses question what you are doing, and react a bit slower because of it, is a great benefit to an offense. Matt Canada takes play action farther than most offensive coordinators, turning complex run plays into clever passing plays that exploit your run fits.

We all know that Ben Roethlisberger hasn’t used play-action well in recent years. We all have heard how he doesn’t like to turn his back to the play. We all saw Ben Roethlisberger’s struggles in week 15 of last season when the Steelers tried to offset the injuries on their offensive line by running a lot of play action.

But last season had a drastically abbreviated offseason where Ben Roethlisberger was limited and Matt Canada was working almost entirely with the run game. And if you look at that play-action pass above, Pete Thomas has his eyes forward the entire play.

Matt Canada’s offense uses play-action a lot, and the design and execution are drastically better than what the Steelers ran under Randy Fichtner. That doesn’t mean it will succeed with the Steelers. We’ve been saying since the Steelers promoted Canada that one of the most important things would be Ben Roethlisberger’s buy-in this offseason. For his part, Ben Roethlisberger has been present and from what we are hearing, is working to learn Matt Canada’s offense.

If he can learn enough to run plays like this, out of shotgun, with his eyes forward, it will be an incredible boost to the Steelers offense in 2021.