Entering the 2022 offseason, questions lingered regarding the Steelers’ coordinator positions. Would the squad elect to keep Matt Canada despite an offense that scored just 20.2 points per game and was 24th in overall EPA? Furthermore, with Keith Butler retiring, who would take over at defensive coordinator, a position Butler manned for seven years in Pittsburgh?
To the chagrin of some fans, Kevin Colbert elected to retain Canada, banking on the introduction of a new quarterback to better usher in and execute his concepts. Likewise, some were disappointed when the Steelers expectedly hired in-house, as they are wont to do, by promoting Teryl Austin to defensive coordinator on February 9.
With the calendar having already flipped to May, the 2022 NFL Draft is in the rearview mirror, as are the major transactions that each team has made. While the Steelers have been active in acquiring new players since free agency got underway in mid-March, their latest moves – particularly the draft – indicate that the team never questioned who would be its offensive and defensive coordinator.
The dust has started to settle on the Steelers’ latest draft class – in so doing, revealing a total restocking of talent, especially on the offensive side of the ball.
Everything starts at the top with the team’s principal pick, Kenny Pickett. Unquestionably, one of the facets of Pickett’s game is his immediate readiness; other quarterbacks, such as Malik Willis or Desmond Ridder, are likely to need more significant fine-tuning and thus won’t play immediately. Having been at Pitt for five years, Pickett is a polished, accurate, poised and somewhat mobile quarterback that can hastily make a difference.
Also worth noting is the structure of the offense that Pickett ran at Pitt. While Willis’ offense under Hugh Freeze at Liberty or Matt Corral’s RPO-tethered scheme at Ole Miss posed questions about NFL translations, Pickett orchestrated a system run by Mark Whipple, the Steelers’ quarterbacks coach from 2004-06 and Pitt’s offensive coordinator from 2018-21. Whipple’s offense still incorporated newer looks, such as play action on 28.6% of Pickett’s 2021 drop backs, yet it better simulated how a pro-style offense appears, allowing Pickett to create in and out of structure.
Factoring in Pickett’s preparedness and offensive experience, he meshes quite well with Matt Canada, both in terms of scheme and the Steelers giving Canada a player that can promptly carry out his ideas.
Turning to receiver, the Steelers snagged Georgia’s George Pickens in the second round. Character concerns aside, Pickens boasts terrific hands, physicality and route-running. While Pickens will primarily be used on the outside to win one-on-one battles with defensive backs, it appears that Pittsburgh drafted him with visions also lining him up in the slot. During his time in Athens, Pickens appeared in the slot during 9.6% of plays – a smaller figure, yet one that demonstrates his versatility.
Pickens also provides an edge in blocking, something which the Steelers sorely missed from their receivers last year. The second-rounder’s presence will especially be felt on runs to the outside, where he can level people.
Moreover, Calvin Austin III should be yet another gadget for Canada. With his speed in tow, 38% of Austin’s routes were at least 15 yards downfield in 2021, according to Sports Info Solutions. Pittsburgh did not enjoy much success on deeper routes run last year, whether due to Ben Roethlisberger’s inconsistent play or Chase Claypool’s inability to properly high-point a ball.
Austin should also be utilized for motion, pitches and sweeps. The Memphis product only had eight career rushes, but he averaged a gaudy 21.1 yards per attempt. The Steelers only used motion on 33% of snaps last year, which ranked 28th; maneuvering Austin around, even as a decoy, will help free running lanes for Najee Harris and generally boost offensive productivity.
Finally, fifth-round selection Connor Heyward offers Canada a chance to really run to the drawing board. Although Heyward may lean towards becoming a tight end early on, the former Michigan State Spartan evokes memories of a player that Steelers fans may rather forget: Jaylen Samuels.
While he never panned out in Pittsburgh, Samuels was the H-back at NC State with Canada calling the shots. In 2021, BTSC’s Geoffrey Benedict provided a great breakdown about Samuels’ responsibilities, which included blocking, being put in motion, running and catching passes. Heyward checks all of those boxes in spades, and the Steelers haven’t really had a player on the roster that fits that niche in Canada’s time with the team.
Turning to the other side of the ball, the Steelers emphasized improving their secondary this season, something fitting after promoting their secondary coach.
It begins with acquiring Levi Wallace, a corner who had grown into his own in Buffalo while playing on the perimeter. Also, retaining Ahkello Witherspoon grants Austin another year to work with the emerging corner, who never gave up more than 45 receiving yards in the Steelers’ final nine games of 2021, per PFF. With Wallace and Witherspoon slotted as their top two corners, Pittsburgh could still very well look to add to its CB room, especially if James Bradberry becomes available.
Speaking of continuity, Colbert allowed safety Terrell Edmunds to continue to grow under the guidance of Austin; the two have worked together since 2019, enabling Edmunds to round into form. Austin has coached Minkah Fitzpatrick and Edmunds in his time in Pittsburgh and has robust experience with both players’ skillsets and how the tandem best operates coherently.
The signing of Damontae Kazee, too, speaks to the Steelers wanting to cater to Austin’s specialty. A physical safety who can play the traditional free, in the box and in the slot, Kazee grants Austin a cheap, experienced chess piece for nickel, dime and even three-safety looks.
Coming off of a 2021 campaign in which neither the team’s offense nor defense looked overly dominant, fans of the black and gold were understandably frustrated when the Steelers maintained their two leaders of both units.
But if one thing is clear based on the Steelers’ free agency and draft periods, it’s this: Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin have full confidence in Matt Canada and Teryl Austin to succeed in 2022.