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Steelers Offense in Focus: Matt Canada’s passing game didn’t work, but was it his fault?

As early as week one of the 2020 NFL season, the Pittsburgh Steelers were running some of Matt Canada’s passing plays.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers Minicamp Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Steelers run game fell apart in the middle of the season as teams figured out the Steelers weren’t a threat to pass when they used jet motion. Largely because they didn’t throw much on those plays, but also because when the Steelers did use jet motion and pass the ball, they didn’t have success.

Week 1, second quarter, 10:02. JuJu Smith-Schuster is the receiver in motion at the snap, Vance McDonald is the tight end on the line of scrimmage.

A few things to look at on this play. First look at the tight ends to the bottom of the screen. Vance McDonald is an in-line tight end, and Eric Ebron is just outside and behind him. Ebron is an H-back, technically he could be called a wingback here, but the way Canada uses the position, we’ll lump it in with H-back.

Second look at the linebackers and defensive line, they all react to the double run threat of the jet sweep motion (it’s not a true jet motion but it’s close enough) and the run fake to the right. The only one who doesn’t bite is the defensive end to the top of the screen, and he is smart enough to pick up Eric Ebron coming across the formation and into the flat.

Now let’s get to the meat of the play. The receiver to the top of the screen goes outside to start, gets into the end zone and comes back toward the middle. That route requires all the cornerback’s attention, but it also warrants help from the safety to that side if you can’t want that cut into the middle of the end zone to be a touchdown. Add that threat to the linebackers reacting to the run fake, and you get a lot of wide open grass between the linebackers and the safety. Into that space Canada sends Vance McDonald. You can see how wide open McDonald is, and you can even see Ben Roethlisberger looking at McDonald.

Sadly, you can also see McDonald run straight to the safety. Instead of running his route right into the space the entire play is designed to create, he runs his route to the defender, and Roethlisberger throws the ball away.

I love the reads involved in this play. First Ben Roethlisberger reads the defensive end, because if the end is coming to him Eric Ebron is open for a quick dump off in space. If the end is worrying about Ebron (either blocking or covering) then he reads the deep safety, and that will tell him if he has Vance McDonald open in the middle or a shot to the end zone to Diontae Johnson.

A complex play for the defense to figure out, with a simple progression of reads for the quarterback. With plays that well designed, the Steelers would go back to the well again a few weeks later with a slightly different attack out of a similar design.

Week 5, third quarter, 11:21.

Have to show the pre-snap motion here. That’s not something you see every day in the NFL, that’s college stuff. Doesn’t matter, it does the job. The defense is moving and thinking, and that’s just the first step.

Look at the motion, the tight end coming across the formation, the double run threat to the right side of the offense, it’s the same disguise, and although the routes change a bit, it’s a similar attack. The edge defender to the top of the screen crashes inside to defend the run and engages McDonald. Roethlisberger moves off that read, but watch McDonald, he slips out to the middle and is an option for a dump off if other things fail.

Because the play is on the right hashmarks the Steelers run an out route with James Washington to the top of the screen instead of the in route they ran with Diontae Johnson in the play above. JuJu Smith-Schuster comes from the bottom of the screen into the middle of the field, but the Eagles defense is quick recovering from the run fake and has that covered. The ball goes to James Washington, and that’s where my favorite part of the play is going on.

The motion man on this play was the outside receiver. James Washington is second from the top before the motion. The stack formation for the receivers has Washington’s man backed off to avoid a pick route, and when the motion occurs, that defender moves just slightly to the middle of the field. Washington is running an out route into the end zone against a corner with inside leverage. That’s a win for the offense, and the execution from James Washington leads to a pass interference call because the defender is in a tough spot trying to defend that out route.

There were multiple problems that stopped the Steelers from utilizing these plays more frequently, part of it can be seen by watching otherwise stellar offensive guard Kevin Dotson struggle with his block on this play. The Steelers offseason didn’t really allow for the kind of work this offense needs to operate smoothly, and little mistakes from any number of players will wreck a play. Even well executed plays aren’t always successful, when players are running routes wrong, or struggling with an assignment that is unfamiliar to them, success is even harder to find.

The hope for 2021 and Canada’s offense is in a full camp where players learn to execute this offense at a high level. Having enough time to implement more than one or two passing concepts off jet motion should be a big help. With people commenting that the Steelers are running a lot of motion in practices, we should expect more of these plays in the upcoming season.