Watching the first drive of the playoff game between the Bills and Chiefs gave me a bad case of deja-vu. All the plays seemed eerily familiar.
First off a little flip to the flat for a nice gain. Weird to see Devin Singletary only have one defender on him on the play, Najee usually has two waiting for him there. The second play they run out of a formation we saw a lot in Pittsburgh, two tight ends to the right, two receivers to the left, and they run a little play action to the right to open up a shallow cross coming back the other way.
The receiver even dropped the ball. I couldn’t believe it, they stole the Steelers offense, “Dropping shallow crosses is what we do, find your own thing Buffalo.” I yelled at the TV.
The next play the Bills line up in the same formation, same play action fake, but this time throw a wide receiver screen to the other side. At this point I’m checking to see if the Bills somehow abducted Matt Canada to be their offensive coordinator for this game. They follow that with a seven yard out route on 3rd and 9. It’s like they aren’t even trying to hide what they are doing. Did they steal our opening drive script from week one? Did they invent a machine to read Matt Canada’s mind to steal his offense?
But on 4th and two my Twilight Zone style alternate reality experience took a detour. First off they went for it on 4th and 2, that’s not Steelers. And the play call? A QB off-tackle run for a first down. That’s not something the Steelers would, or even could do. They’d need a really mobile quarterback to pull off a play like that, and as much as I love everything Ben Roethlisberger has done for the Steelers in his career, 39 year-old Ben Roethlisberger was not really mobile. With reality restored, I could continue watching the game without worry, or so I thought.
After a few normal NFL plays that are in every playbook, the Bills line up in 11 personnel and it’s a jet sweep. I’m getting sucked back in. Then they score a TD on this play:
I remember that play. The Steelers used it quite a bit, you can see the tight end coming from the backside. On this play penetration takes that away, and the flip to the running back works. But check out the Steelers running that same concept in week 3.
You can see Najee Harris out in the flat with two blockers in front. The Bengals focus on Harris and the Steelers offensive line executes well and it’s a touchdown for Pat Freiermuth. Watch Ben Roethlisberger, his first read is Harris, but Roethlisberger sees the defense run to Harris and flips it to Freiermuth.
This was the opening drive for the Bills. the Bills led the NFL in scoring on their first drive with a score on 13 of their 19 opening drives, a 68.4% scoring percentage. The Steelers ended their season tied for 6th worst with only 5 scores in 18 game starting drives. (27.8%)
How in the world are these two teams running the same offense?
I don’t have time to get too far into it here, but Matt Canada also set up his plays well, that TD to Freiermuth was set up by the same play being ran earlier with different personnel, check it out:
The motion by Najee Harris slows the reaction of the linebackers, and JuJu Smith-Schuster gains 4 yards on first down.
When the Steelers came back out with a similar look, but with Najee Harris out in the flat with Zach Gentry next to him the Bengals reacted to that threat and it opened up Freiermuth’s route to a score.
When we talk about scheme versus execution, this is what we are talking about. The Steelers running the same plays just don’t have the success the Bills do.
The reason isn’t hard to show either. The Bills TD play wouldn’t even happen there except their QB converted a 4th down with his speed earlier in the drive. The defense is slower to jump the screens and short routes because the Bills offense is a dangerous deep throwing team. The Steelers were not. That is a combination of Ben Roethlisberger’s age, the offensive line, the receivers, all kinds of things. But those factors combined added to the difficulty of gaining yards on shorter routes and run plays.
The offensive line hasn’t helped either. The Steelers have not had great line depth the last two years, and they have had key injuries. I’m not going to go into the litany of injured lineman in 2020, but in 2021 that injury was Kevin Dotson. His replacements were not good, until John Leglue came in and played decently. Before Leglue came in the run game had fell off a cliff from 126.2 rushing yards a game in Dotson’s last 5 games to 66.4 rushing yards a game the next 5 weeks.
The passing game struggled as well with Dotson out and the pocket less secure for the Steelers QB. It stands out that those 5 games where the line was looking better involved the only times in the 2021 season that the Steelers defense gave up 20 or more points and won a game. The Steelers were 2-0 when giving up 20+ points in that 5-game stretch, 0-8 the rest of the season.
And while Leglue helped the line solidify, the lack of mobility from Leglue and center J.C. Hassenauer caused the Steelers to have to simplify the offense a good bit and go away from some of the parts of Canada’s offense that were working.
I know I’ll get accused of making excuses for a Steelers offense that was terrible, and yeah, you can call it that. But sometimes excuses are valid. Matt Canada was brought in as the quarterback coach to prepare Mason Rudolph and Dewayne Haskins for the Steelers post-Ben Roethlsiberger offense. He took over a year early because Fichtner was awful, and we got a season with a quarterback and offensive coordinator that didn’t fit each other. All while the offensive line is in the middle of a major rebuild.
This team is likely keeping Matt Canada for 2022, and I support that, because as bad as the offense was this season, it makes sense that it didn’t work. And Canada’s offense can work. It isn’t “too college” for the NFL, it’s the same schemes used in Buffalo, and the Kansas City Chiefs are even more “college” on offense than the Bills or Steelers. That scheme just didn’t fit a lot of the players on the roster. Mike Tomlin talking about a mobile quarterback makes sense, just watch the Bills offense and you will see why. The Bills run their quarterback more than I like, but you can see how much value his mobility adds to their offense. They also need to continue transforming the offensive line into one that fits the system.
That’s not to say Canada is definitely the right guy, just that we haven’t seen if he is or not. Kevin Smith did a great job breaking down what we need to see from Canada going forward, but even in that article the question of how much was Canada, how much was the line/QB is prevalent
The Steelers can go into next season with the receivers, tight ends, running back, they have if they want, but the Steelers need to make smart additions to the offensive line, find a quarterback that fits Matt Canada’s offense, and give his offense a real shot. Because the offensive design works, the Chiefs and Bills have both showed that pretty clearly. Even if Matt Canada isn’t the right guy, the offense is the right offense, and players that fit it will allow the Steelers to look for a new coordinator that can run the same scheme.