The Steelers take the field against an actual opponent for the first time in 2021 on Thursday when they travel to Canton, Ohio to participate in the Hall of Fame exhibition against the Dallas Cowboys. With the season-opener still five weeks away, some may perceive it as a meaningless affair. To the coaches and players, however, it bears great importance. Roster spots and depth charts need clarifying, personnel packages must be determined, new players must be integrated into the lineup and strategic approaches must be refined. It’s a big night for the team, if not for the fans.
What areas should the Steelers address in that contest? What are some things they are working on now, at training camp, upon which the exhibition should shed some light? Here are three aspects that deserve emphasis:
Matt Canada’s debut
While Ben Roethlisberger is unlikely to play in the exhibition opener, it will still be an important evening for new offensive coordinator Matt Canada. Granted, Canada won’t show much this early in the pre-season, and with Mason Rudolph, Dwayne Haskins and Josh Dobbs piloting a lineup stocked with backups and likely roster cuts, his package will be limited. But this will be Canada’s maiden voyage as an NFL coordinator. His desire to make a strong first impression will be great.
What are some things Canada might emphasize? A logical area in which to begin is organization. There is nothing that speaks more poorly of a coordinator that the failure to organize well. The logistics of getting players on and off the field in a timely fashion, of organizing personnel packages, of knowing when to use them and what to do with them is a huge part of a coordinator’s preparation. This can be especially challenging in an exhibition contest where large numbers of inexperienced players will participate. Canada will want his substitutions to be seamless and the communication between him and whomever is at quarterback to be clear. Delay of game penalties, time-outs in the middle of a drive and confusion getting players on and off the field will suggest struggles with organization. Regardless of his play-calling, Canada will want to show he has command of the structural components a coordinator must master.
When he does call plays, he will have another set of calculations to consider. What, for example, will be his play-calling goal? Will he work strictly off of a script he wants the team to execute? Will he tailor his play-calls to the abilities of whichever quarterback is at the helm? Will he focus on a few plays he sees as staples of the offense? Or, given the fact there has been enough talk about running the football this off-season to conduct a symposium, will he hammer away with the run? While moving the football and scoring points is always important, it will be more essential for Canada to define which areas of offense he wants to evaluate and to develop his game-plan accordingly.
Success for Matt Canada on Thursday, then, will be more about execution than results.
The offensive line
No position group in Pittsburgh is likely to receive as much scrutiny this season as the offensive line. The Steelers will have different starters at all five positions than the group that lined up for their playoff game against Cleveland last January. Additionally, they have a new line coach in Adrian Klemm and are coming off of a 2020 campaign that saw them rank last in the league in rushing. How quickly they are able to pull together under Klemm’s tutelage, and how much progress they can make from last year’s performance, will be crucial to the team’s success.
What should we look for from the offensive line against Dallas? Personnel is an obvious consideration. The starting five appears set, with Chuks Okorafor at left tackle, Kevin Dotson at left guard, Trai Turner at right guard and Zach Banner at right tackle. When the Steelers released their first depth chart last week, J.C. Hassenauer was listed as the starting center with rookie Kendrick Green as his backup. Hassenauer has missed reps with a knee injury in camp, however, and Green’s ascension to the starter’s role seems imminent.
Injuries have been a theme with the line so far in training camp. In addition to Hassenauer, Turner, Banner, Okorafor and top reserve B.J. Finney have all missed practice time with various ailments. With so much change up front, reality suggests it’s going to take time for the unit to come together. The best way to make progress is to get the starters as many live reps together as possible. Unfortunately, with the presence of the injury bug, that may be easier said than done.
Whomever starts against Dallas, focus should be given to the technique they employ. Last year, under coach Shaun Sarrett, the Steelers emphasized position-blocking. This means they were in two-point stances that afforded lateral movement and looked to put their bodies between the defender and the ball-carrier. Often, they took the defender where he wanted to go and let the running backs read their movement to find seams and cuts. It was an ineffective philosophy that prompted some pundits to label the Steelers “soft” up front.
Klemm has stressed a different approach. He has vowed to return the linemen to three-point stances where they can get off the ball faster, play lower and win leverage on defenders. He has talked about “vertical displacement,” which is coach-speak for moving defenders off of the ball. Rather than block reactively to the movement of the defense, Klemm wants the line to impose its will and dictate conditions in the trenches.
Another focal point will be the blocking scheme. While the Steelers are expected to be a heavy inside and outside zone team under Canada, it will be interesting to see how much gap scheme they use. Gap schemes, which include sweeps, traps, counters and power runs, tend to be more physical in nature than zone schemes since they require less combo blocks from linemen and are more about vertical than horizontal movement. If the Steelers want to test the physicality of their linemen, a heavy dose of gap runs would be one way to do it.
The nickel role
A third point of emphasis against Dallas should be the evaluation of their slot/nickel player. Identifying the heir to Mike Hilton in that role remains the biggest unanswered question on defense. While Hilton is by no means irreplaceable, he did log over 2,300 snaps the past four seasons largely at a position for which the Steelers have no clear-cut replacement. Identifying one as soon as possible should be an immediate priority,
Second-year player Antoine Brooks was listed as the starter on the initial depth chart. While I like Brooks, and I wrote a preview of him after he was drafted suggesting he might be a good candidate to play in the slot, he got virtually no experience last season, logging only 29 defensive snaps and dressing for just four games. Brooks may indeed become Hilton’s heir but he is far from a sure thing.
Free agent signee Arthur Maulet was listed behind Brooks on the initial depth chart. Maulet was described by BTSC’s Geoffrey Benedict as an under-rated acquisition this off-season whose field awareness and quick reaction time could make him a good fit for the nickel role. Maulet is a cast-off from a woeful Jets defense, however, which suggests he is far from a sure thing as well.
Then there are the glowing reports about corner James Pierre that have been emanating from training camp. If Pierre can secure an outside position, Cam Sutton could kick inside to play the Hilton role. That remains a big “if,” however, as Pierre is as unproven as Brooks and Maulet and Sutton is not an ideal tackler for the nickel role.
Given the need to heavily evaluate the nickel position, the Steelers should play as much sub-package defense as possible against Dallas. While there may be times where a 2-4-5 or 3-3-5 look isn’t the best to combat a certain personnel group from the Cowboys, the value of creating ideal matchups in this contest is not as important as evaluating personnel. Brooks, Maulet and Pierre cannot be evaluated if they’re standing on the sideline.
While the scoreboard will be on, the result against Dallas won’t matter. What will matter is that Matt Canada has an efficient start to his career as offensive coordinator, that the offensive line builds continuity while demonstrating a physical mindset and that the staff gets a long look at the leading candidates to fill the nickel role. These are the three issues I’ll be tracking in the Dallas game and will follow up on with a film room immediately thereafter. If the Steelers are successful in these areas (while avoiding any serious injuries), it will be a great start to the 2021 season.