This is the latest installment of the “Game Plan” series I’m working on through the reasonably quiet part of the calendar between the draft and training camp. To read the previous article in the series, see the link below.
My grandfather, Joseph Thatcher, from whom I take my middle name, was born in 1911 and passed away in 2003. He lived in North Jersey, about twenty miles outside New York City, and was a huge Giants fan. He spoke fondly of the Giants of the 1950s, who wore single-bar face masks and shook hands with fingers as crooked as question marks. Guys like Sam Huff, Jim Katcavage and Andy Robustelli. They played in an era where yards were earned by plunging the ball into a mass of bodies and where the forward pass was treated like a communist plot against the republic. My grandfather loved that sort of football. It made sense to him. He’d lived through the Great Depression, World War II and Vietnam.
Life was difficult. Buckle up, buttercup.
By the time football became the most popular sport in America in the 1970s, he was in his sixties. He was a hard man by then, molded by his life experiences and set in his ways. It was with great disdain, then, that he received the offensive revolution that changed the game around that time. The increasing importance teams placed on passing the ball was bad enough, but with it came two things he could not stomach: the shotgun formation, deployed most notably by the Dallas Cowboys, of whom he and I shared a mutual loathing; and the use of pre-snap motion, the purpose of which he could not fathom.
I remember watching a Cowboys-Giants game with him in which Dallas receiver Drew Pearson motioned about the formation like a yo-yo. At one point, Pearson went one way, then came right back and lined up where he’d started. “What the hell is he doing?” my grandfather shouted. “Just snap the damn ball!” He described the Dallas offense as “fancy pants football.” He swore it was ruining the game.
As I write this article, I can’t help but think of my grandfather. Specifically, of how much he would have disliked Matt Canada. That statement may find traction with some current Steelers’ fans. For many, Canada’s use of pre-snap movement, and his reputation as a guru in that area, seems like a whole bunch of nothing. On the other hand, football nerds like myself swear there’s a brilliance within. The pro vs. anti-Canada crowds aren’t quite the Hatfields and McCoys. But they have their differences.
Whichever side of that debate you’re on, it’s worth trying to understand the method to Canada’s madness. I won’t argue he’s the second coming of Bill Walsh, but there is value to all that movement he incorporates. Now that the Steelers have acquired players who better fit his vision, it could be the key to unlocking the potential of their 2022 offense.
Here it is, then — a deep dive into Matt Canada’s shifts and motions, and what he’s actually doing with them.
There are several reasons why an offensive coordinator moves players around before the snap. To gain leverage on a defense, for example. Or to keep receivers from being jammed at the line of scrimmage. To create deception. Sometimes they do it just to put pressure on a defense to make sound adjustments and rotations. Mostly, though, pre-snap movements are used to gain information. Think of them as fact-finding missions. A coordinator will ask himself, When I motion here, how does the defense react? There is a follow-up question, too, based on the information he receives. When they react this way, how can I counter back?
This is the reason for much of Canada’s motion. We saw some good examples in Pittsburgh’s win at Cleveland last season in Week 8. Cleveland had some injuries up front, and Canada thought the Steelers could have success running the ball. He knew, though, they weren’t good enough to simply line up and pound away, so he needed information that would help him find the best way forward.
On Pittsburgh’s first drive of the game, Canada brought Chase Claypool in motion from the right slot. He used jet motion, which calls for the snap just before the motion-man reaches the quarterback. This gave Ben Roethlisberger an option to hand the ball to Claypool on the sweep or give it to running back Najee Harris. As Claypool moved, Roethlisberger saw Cleveland’s linebackers and safeties move with him. That flow prompted him to hand the ball to Harris heading the other way:
From this angle, you can see the scheme. It’s an unbalanced formation to the side of the motion, with two tight ends outside the left tackle. Everyone from the left tackle on over blocked inside zone to their right, while the tight ends reached left to block the sweep. It was only a 3-yard gain for Harris, but it provided Canada with valuable information he would use throughout the contest.
The biggest takeaway from this play was that Cleveland planned to stop the jet sweep, or the strong-side run to the side of the sweep, by adjusting with their linebackers and safeties. This allowed Canada to use motion to get these players moving, then to exploit them on the back-side. He did so by using a steady diet of split and weak-side zone runs, and Harris finished with 91 yards rushing.
When Canada wasn’t handing off to Harris, he used motion to get the ball to his receivers in the run game. The jet sweep was not an option due to Cleveland’s rotations, so Canada ran weak-side reverses instead. Cleveland continued to bump their backers to the jet action, and Canada repeatedly found ways to exploit that tendency.
Another tactic Canada has used to gain information on a defense is a pre-snap shift. This is a tactic Roethlisberger favored, too, because it tipped the hand of a defense but also allowed everyone to get set before the snap (unlike motion, which Roethlisberger did not like because it was fluid).
Here, in Week 5, the Steelers shifted to get Denver into a coverage they could exploit. First, they aligned in a 2x2 set with Diontae Johnson split wide to the right and Claypool wide to the left. This drew a two-high look from the Broncos:
Canada then shifted Claypool across the formation, where he lined up as a third receiver to the right. Denver bumped their weak corner over to cover the tight end, and moved their nickel with Claypool. The safeties, however, stayed in a two-high structure:
Canada wasn’t buying this. Both he and Roethlisberger knew Broncos’ coach Vic Fangio was too smart to stay two-high in this situation. Cover-2 is not especially sound against a 3x1 set because it’s vulnerable to flood routes that outnumber the defenders to the trips. These routes are common on 3rd and 8, the situation Pittsburgh was facing. So, by motioning Claypool across, Canada was betting he’d get some sort of rotation by the Broncos out of their two-high shell.
He was right. As the route developed, the safety to the trips dropped down as a robber to defend the first down marker. This meant Denver was one-on-one outside against Johnson, a match-up Roethlisberger favored:
Roethlisberger had a good pocket in which to set, and his throw was perfect:
A fair question to ask here is this: Couldn’t the Steelers have lined up in trips and gotten the same coverage? Did they need to shift to it? That’s hard to know. But the shift did one thing for certain: it took Cover-3, Denver’s best deep coverage, off the table. With nine defenders within five yards of the line of scrimmage, they could not rotate into a three-deep zone, which made them vulnerable to a shot play. Roethlisberger recognized this and took it. So, while it’s hard to say what coverage the Steelers would have gotten had they aligned in trips, by shifting they discovered what coverage they were not getting, which was just as valuable.
Not all of these pre-snap movements yield positive results, of course. Take this example from Week 15 against Tennessee. Canada began this drive by flipping right tackle Chuks Okorafor to the other side of the formation. This gave him a tackles-over look with Okorafor matched up against Bud Dupree on the left edge:
Conceptually, Canada had the right idea by shifting to gain a favorable match-up. Tennessee was prepared, however. They moved Dupree to a head-up alignment on Okorafor, then pinched him into the C-gap while bringing their safety down to set the edge. The Steelers ran a power concept at Dupree, but his penetration hampered the path of right guard Trai Turner, who was pulling on the play. That problem was compounded when no one up front could get a push. The result was a pile of bodies at the line of scrimmage, leaving Harris nowhere to run:
On the ensuing play, Canada threw this at the Titans:
It’s an elaborate-looking shift, with all four receivers changing positions and Roethlisberger moving from under center into Pistol alignment. All the Steelers really did, however, was to change the strength of the formation. They went from a 2x2 set, with tight end Zach Gentry on the right, to 2x2 with Gentry on the left. Against balanced sets like this, most defenses declare strength to the tight end. So, from an alignment and responsibility standpoint, Tennessee simply accounted for the change in strength by flipping their backers and their nickel defender. Everything else remained the same.
From there, it was just football, and on the play that followed, Tennessee won. Pittsburgh ran an RPO with double hitches to the top of the formation. Roethlisberger anticipated the blitz from the slot corner but not the rotation from the safety over top of him. So, when he pulled the ball from Harris to throw the inside hitch, it was covered, and he had to take a sack.
What was Canada trying to accomplish with this shift? Likely, he wanted some clarity on whether this was man or zone coverage to help Roethlisberger with the pass read on the RPO. Whatever the case, the information Canada gathered convinced him this was not a good look for the Steelers. He never used this shift again, nor did he return to the RPO game. This play was useful, then, because it showed Canada something to stay away from rather than something to pursue.
All of these shifts and motions paid limited dividends in 2021. That’s because the Steelers were hamstrung by a poor offensive line and a quarterback who preferred to operate from static structures so he could get a good picture of the defense. Much effort was made this offseason to improve the line and adapt the quarterback position to fit Canada’s scheme. Inevitably, if the Steelers can’t run inside zone or protect long enough to throw the ball down the field, the shifts and motions will be worth little. But, if Pittsburgh is good enough up front to execute the basics, and if the quarterback can accommodate Canada by allowing him to move the pocket and run play-action and RPOs, Canada’s pre-snap voodoo could create the edge this offense needs to make significant improvement.