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Even if it has ways to go, the Steelers’ offense is showing growth

Progress from the youngsters at last.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Indianapolis Colts Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

For a significant portion of the last two seasons, one person affiliated with the Steelers has been singled out more than others, the black sheep in a sea of black and gold: Matt Canada.

Pittsburgh’s offensive coordinator, who assumed the position before the 2021 season, has rightfully drawn perpetual criticism. The Steelers’ offense has consistently sputtered during his tenure: from failing to generate explosive plays to poor designs to a lack of discipline, the unit has been anything but well-coached.

However, there is light at the end of the tunnel.

For the last three weeks, the Steelers have strung together much more holistically sound offensive performances. No, you’re not dreaming.

Let’s begin with maybe the biggest demarcation of an offense’s success, at the end of the day: scoring.

Pittsburgh had not outdone 20 points scored in a game for the first nine contests of 2022 but finally broke through against the Bengals in Week 11, notching 30 points (albeit seven came in garbage time). Then, the Steelers aggregated 24 points against a Colts defense allowing 20.3 points per game — an encouraging output. The Steelers’ latest three-game stretch marks the first time the team has posited 20+ points in three or more consecutive matchups in over two years.

There have been predominantly two catalysts behind this offensive turnaround: taking care of the ball and running well.

Pittsburgh has zero turnovers in its each of its prior three games, a feat it has not accomplished since Weeks 10-12, 2016. A major reason behind better ball security is the play of quarterback Kenny Pickett, who had nine giveaways in his first five appearances but has been in better rhythm and command.

While the Steelers’ passing attack has not exactly been prolific — more on that in a bit — its ground game has hit unforeseen strides, at least in recent history. Pittsburgh has accumulated 95 or more rushing yards in its last five games, eclipsing the century mark in the past four. It felt as though second-year rusher Najee Harris had unlocked something with a more north-south approach, but the efforts of Jaylen Warren, Benny Snell Jr., Anthony McFarland Jr. and the entire offensive line cannot be overstated.

Would you believe it if I told you the Steelers rank sixth in the league in rushing expected points added, and 13th in rushing success rate? Given Pittsburgh’s inability to establish a legitimate run game since, effectively, 2017, this accomplishment has added contextual value.

All in all, the Steelers’ offense slots in at 21st in Football Outsiders DVOA, up from 22nd a week ago, and 22nd in Pro Football Focus grade. Given that Pittsburgh ranked 25th and 29th in those figures in 2021, respectively, better offense has indeed occurred, even if marginal.

Sure, there may finally be some form of sustained offensive momentum for Canada’s unit. But, this article is not just to bask in a unit that has been in the bottom quadrant for much of the season; rather, it’s to recognize areas for metered growth.

A focal point should be Pittsburgh’s aerial attack, which has been lackluster this season. As I mentioned earlier, the group has appeared much more in sync with improved play from Pickett, who is making quick reads and throwing relatively accurately.

At the same time, the rookie is not pushing the ball down the field: per Next Gen Stats, 22 of Pickett’s 28 attempts were under 10 air yards on Monday night. The Pitt product has just one start with north of 300 passing yards and is yet to toss multiple touchdowns in a game.

Such statistics can be viewed as more trivial compared to film assessment and advanced metrics — e.g., that Pittsburgh’s drop back EPA/play ranks 28th — but the point stands that Canada’s O is not doing measured damage through the air.

One way to possibly ameliorate any passing struggles is with better and more deliberate play calling. Although it appears that Canada has better tailored and diversified his selections in the past three games, the Steelers ranked 19th in early-down passing rate in that span, per RBSDM; likewise, for all of 2022, the team is 15th in that statistic. Comparatively, the Chiefs, Bengals and Bills sit atop the rankings, while the Seahawks, Eagles and Dolphins are also in the top 10. It’s not just coincidence that the NFL’s best offenses pass early and often to great success.

Aside from early-down pass frequency, the Steelers’ second-half offense has been extremely stagnant.

In the team’s past three games, Pittsburgh has scored 10, 10 and eight points in the third and fourth quarters compared to 10, 20 and 16 points in the first and second. This lack of scoring has been fueled by an inability to sustain drives. The Steelers have gone three-and-out to open the third quarter in their last two games; this dearth of possessing the ball has left the team’s defense susceptible to defensive lapses and tiring sequences.

With only six games remaining in 2022, the Steelers have an ever-so-faint heartbeat left to qualify for the postseason. Regardless of whether or not that goal is attainable, Mike Tomlin and Canada must utilize matchups against subpar defenses — particularly the Falcons, Panthers, Raiders and Browns — to not only maintain Pittsburgh’s bettered rushing attack, but to also obtain chunk plays through the air and in the second half.