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It was an encouraging debut for Matt Canada and the Steelers offensive line

The Pittsburgh Steelers and Dallas Cowboys squared off in the Hall of Fame game, and it was a good debut for the Steelers’ new play caller and the offensive line.

Pittsburgh Steelers Training Camp Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

The Steelers kicked off the 2021 football season on Thursday night with a 16-3 win over the Dallas Cowboys in the annual Hall of Fame exhibition in Canton, Ohio.

While the result is meaningless, the play on the field was not. On Tuesday, I previewed the contest by emphasizing three areas of importance for the Steelers: Matt Canada’s debut as offensive coordinator, the play of the transformed offensive line and the competition to succeed Mike Hilton as the team’s nickel defender. This film room will critique Canada and the line while a subsequent film room will track the nickel competition.

Canada’s debut

The offense performed without Ben Roethlisberger and 80% of its starting line, so it’s unfair to read too much into Canada’s game-plan. However, there were a few noteworthy aspects from his debut.

On the first series of the game, the Steelers moved the ball 29 yards in 6 plays before turning it over when Mason Rudolph and Chase Claypool mistimed an exchange on a jet sweep and fumbled. Canada had a nice drive working up to that point. He mixed personnel groups, jumping from 11 to 12 and back again. He ran some shifts, a couple of jet motions and used some bunch sets to stress the edge of the Dallas defense. It was refreshing to see after the static openings often deployed by former OC Randy Fichtner.

While fans may have been frustrated with the fumble that ended the drive, it was a great call given the way Dallas was defending the “nub” trips look (“nub” is a term that means a tight end by himself to one side of the formation with trips to the other). Look at the photo below of Claypool in motion just before the snap. There was no second level defender to the short side of the field. If the exchange had been properly executed, Claypool would have likely turned the corner for a nice gain. While poor execution doomed the play, the call by Canada was spot-on.

On the second series the Steelers moved the ball well again, gaining 30 yards on 6 plays. Canada stayed with his 11 personnel group but continued to use motion. He also broke out the first RPO of the contest, a nicely designed counter-gap run that was paired with a speed-out into the boundary from Claypool. You can see the run action in the GIF below, with left guard B.J. Finney and tight end Zach Gentry pulling while Najee Harris ran a counter track. Pre-snap, however, Rudolph had a sight-read on the corner covering Claypool. With the corner playing soft, Rudolph took the easy throw:

This RPO was interesting because it was a pre and not a post-snap read. The RPOs the Steelers ran the last two seasons under Fichtner were predominantly post-snap reads, where the quarterback had to read a defender’s movement and make a fluid decision where to go with the football. Roethlisberger struggled mightily with these concepts. Here, though, Canada gave Rudolph a pre-snap decision that relied on his ability to read alignment rather than movement. This may be something the Steelers have worked on in training camp in an effort to create RPOs that are within Roethlisberger’s comfort zone.

The second drive stalled with another unforced error, this time on a 3rd down drop from Claypool. Again, though, Canada had the Steelers in the right play against the look that Dallas gave them.

In the GIF below, you can see the Cowboys in a cover-1 shell with seven defenders at the line of scrimmage threatening to blitz. Pittsburgh went to a cover-1 beater with a slant to Claypool. While television commentator Troy Aikman criticized the throw for being away from Claypool’s body, I thought Rudolph put the ball in a good spot. Claypool simply dropped it. It was another solid call from Canada despite the poor finish.

By the 2nd quarter, an interesting X and O battle had emerged between Canada and Dallas defensive coordinator Dan Quinn. Quinn had initially responded to Canada’s jet motion by running a defender across the formation with it. But, after Canada exploited that a few times, he adjusted. Quinn began bumping assignments against the motion rather than running with it. This meant Dallas kept an extra player on the backside away from the motion. That fooled Canada on this outside zone run, where Kendrick Green (53), the center, was assigned the first backer to the play-side. After Dallas’s rotation, that ended up being the alley player (31). He was simply too wide for Green to reach and he came unblocked to drop Harris for a loss:

It was a nice adjustment by Quinn. But Canada, to his credit, took notice. In the 3rd quarter, once Rudolph had given way to Dwayne Haskins, Canada responded with his counter move. By bumping to the jet, Canada knew Dallas was in zone coverage. So, he motioned to a nub trips set where the corner was forced to carry the boundary tight end on anything vertical. Canada cleared the corner out then brought his second tight end (Kevin Rader) from the field under the formation, where he slid undetected into the flat for a nice gain:

It was a great play design and a great response to Quinn’s adjustment. It also made good use of Haskins’ mobility, as the bootleg action allowed him to clear the unblocked edge and get the ball to his receiver in the flat.

Canada ran several bootlegs with Haskins, mostly with him from under center. He ran a few more when Josh Dobbs took over at quarterback in the 4th quarter, While I don’t expect as much of this with Roethlisberger, there was a notable emphasis on play-action and pocket movement throughout the night. Some of it seems bound to work its way into the regular season game plan.

The offensive line

If I were grading the performance of the line, the only justifiable mark would be “incomplete” due to the fact that Green, the rookie center, was the lone projected starter to take the field. However, while Green was flanked by B.J. Finney and Rashaad Coward at guards and Dan Moore Jr. and Joe Haeg at tackles, the unit performed well, particularly in the run game.

Green flashed some of his trademark physicality on the second snap of the contest. Facing a 2nd and 3 from their own 32, the Steelers ran an inside zone play with some jet motion as window dressing. Green (53) did a nice job getting up to the second level, where he jolted linebacker Leighton Vander Esch (55) with a two-hand punch to the chest. Vander Esch managed to play off of the block to get a piece of running back Najee Harris but not before Harris gained six yards. It was an aggressive block by Green with a low, powerful base on contact:

Harris made a nice cut on this run through a backside seam that was opened by great blocks from two other linemen. Coward (79), the right guard, washed the one-tech DT out of the play. And Haeg (71), the right tackle, pummeled the weak side backer. New line coach Adrian Klemm has been preaching physicality all summer. That’s exactly what he got from the guys up front on the game’s initial run.

A few plays later, on a 3rd and 5 from the 43, Haeg and Coward flashed again when they deftly handled a twist stunt by the Cowboys. Watch the 3-tech DT to the top of the screen work out from Coward’s shoulder to cross the face of Haeg while the edge rusher dipped inside to attack the B-gap. Coward did a nice job passing off the 3-tech and picking up the edge while Haeg complimented him by taking over the tackle. The effective switch gave Rudolph plenty of time to throw. Rudolph hit Chase Claypool on a speed out for a 1st down:

On the second series, the Steelers executed a nice outside zone run. Haeg (71), the right tackle, and Gentry (81), the tight end, communicated well on a combo block on the edge and alley players, helping Harris turn the corner and pick up a 1st down. The communication among the line was solid all night, which was impressive considering how few live reps they’ve had together.

Speaking of Gentry, watch him on this play in the 2nd quarter. Gentry is on the inside of the bunch to the bottom of the screen, where he collapses Dallas’ end (92) to provide Harris a nice cutback lane:

Gentry looks like an entirely different player than the skinny kid the Steelers took from Michigan in the 2019 draft. His weight is up to 265 pounds, and at 6’8 he has the size to overwhelm smaller defenders. A more physical Gentry just might be the blocking tight end Steelers’ fans were clamoring for this off-season.

In the second half, the lineup was stocked with backups and likely roster cuts. Still, it was great to see the Steelers power the ball into the end zone from the 4 yard line by running it into the teeth of the defense. The push up front, and the run from big back Kalen Ballage (29), looked like a brand of football the Steelers have not featured in a while:

Conclusions

This offense will certainly look different from last year’s. There will be a host of motions, more use of 12 personnel and more play-action. But the thing that jumped out most was how Canada used the hash marks to determine his calls. He consistently ran trips when the ball was on the hash. When Dallas set their strength to the field, he attacked the boundary. And he used bunch sets to compress the defense in an effort to create space to the edge.

The interesting thing about this philosophy is that it’s much more common in high school and college than in the pros. That’s because the hash marks are closer to the sidelines at the lower levels, which gives coordinators more field to the wide side to work with. Defenses must account for the width, and those who overcompensate often get attacked into the boundary. It was interesting to see Canada employ this philosophy as an NFL play-caller.

As for the line, I don’t want to read too much into one pre-season game where 4/5 of the starting unit didn’t play, but it sure looks like they’re going to be more physical than last year. The run stats were pedestrian — 29 carries for 77 yards — but they fail to represent the aggressiveness the unit displayed. They had a different demeanor getting off of the ball. Their pad level was lower, their leg drive greater and their mindset more assertive. Players like Haeg and Coward had solid games and Gentry was a revelation. Coaching matters, and the Steelers may have found a good one in Klemm.

Finally, I don’t know about you, but I’m really excited about the offense. I think it has a chance to be VERY good.

Next up, a breakdown of the competition for the nickel spot. Stay tuned...