Matt Canada joined the Steelers coaching staff in 2020, and he had input into a run game that had James Conner and Benny Snell Jr. at running back, an aging and pass-blocking focused offensive line, Eric Ebron and Vance McDonald at tight end, a 38-year old pocket passer with Hall of Fame credentials and a decent group of receivers.
Matt Canada’s offense is largely a run-first offense using a lot of inside and outside zone concepts, an offense that relies on versatile tight ends, a smart running back with good vision, mobile and strong run blocking linemen and a quarterback who can run a lot of run pass option (RPO) plays and execute play-action well.
Not hard to see how poorly those two paragraphs line up in terms of talent needed and the talent the Steelers had in 2020. In 2021 the Steelers added a fantastic running back with great vision who runs smart and decisively in Najee Harris, a great blocking and receiving tight end in Pat Freiermuth, a big powerful run blocking tackle in Dan Moore Jr. and an athletic center from a zone-heavy system in Kendrick Green.
Green’s struggles, the loss of Kevin Dotson and the regression of Ben Roethlisberger hurt the offense, but we saw more of Matt Canada’s offense, in the run and the passing game. It didn’t work the best, but it also didn’t fit the quarterback, and the offensive line was in shambles for much of the season.
The design was there, even if a reduced COVID salary cap did make it more of a pipe dream than a realistic strategy. If Green had been NFL ready in Year 1, and the rest of the line stayed healthy, the run game could have taken the pressure off of Roethlisberger to be the offense. Roethlisberger, for his part, did a fantastic job learning to run play action and RPO’s at the age of 39. It wasn’t great, but he was an old dog learning new tricks and he pulled it off much better than I would have thought possible.
This offseason the Steelers are doubling down on giving Matt Canada the pieces to fully implement his offense. This commitment began well before free agency, as it tipped off with the hiring of Pat Meyer to be the Steelers offensive line coach. Pat Meyer wasn’t the coach Steeler fans wanted, especially with Mike Munchak on the market, but while Munchak has a more prestigious career and a history of incredible success with the Steelers organization, his team’s run games haven’t been what the Steelers want to run in Canada’s offense.
So, instead of just signing the coach with the better record of success and the prestigious name, the Steelers chose scheme fit.
Similarly many Steelers fans and “insiders” had the Steelers linked to pursuing Tampa Bay Buccaneers center Ryan Jensen. Jensen and the Buccaneers run outside zone concepts that Matt Canada uses, they don’t use them as much and that isn’t Jensen’s strength. Instead, the Steelers big signing on the offensive line was James Daniels, whose Chicago Bears ran outside zone roughly twice as often as the Buccaneers did, and Daniels was one of the best, if not the best, outside zone blocking guards available in free agency.
The same can be said of Mason Cole, who has played both center and guard, and who played for Minnesota last season, one of the top outside zone run teams in the NFL. Before going to Minnesota, Cole was the starting center for the Arizona Cardinals who ran a heavy outside zone offense, using a mobile quarterback and lateral movement in the run game to set up their downfield passing attack.
And that brings us to the quarterback position. Mitchell Trubisky is a mobile quarterback, but not a true running quarterback, as he looks to scramble and throw downfield rather than just take off most of the time. That will make him a good fit in Matt Canada’s offense, that doesn’t use the quarterback as a main runner, but does rely on the quarterback to be mobile and be able to run when called for.
Mitchell Trubisky isn’t the best quarterback available, he has some real flaws he hasn’t been able to sort out so far in his career, but he fits the scheme better than other more polished quarterbacks.
I think it is clear the Steelers came into this offseason with a focus on finding players who fit what Matt Canada wants to do on offense and the resources to make it happen. Only a few days into the extended free agency period and they have taken serious steps to make that focus a reality.
Now all that is left is for Matt Canada to get his offensive players on the same page and ready to show the best version of his offense they can. Because if the offense isn’t any better in 2022 than it was in 2020 and 2021, there won’t be excuses this year.