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Matt Canada’s Steelers Offense, Part 1: The Inside Zone

Looking at different plays Matt Canada will bring back for the 2022 season.

Cleveland Browns v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

I wanted to take some time this offseason to dig into some of the things the Matt Canada offense looks to do. We are going to start with some basics with the interior run game.

Matt Canada’s offense relies heavily on being able to run between the tackles. Many college and NFL offenses do, because if you can force defenses to focus on your interior run game it opens up everything you want to do, from outside runs to play-action to QB runs, everything gets easier when you can run up the middle successfully. For evidence I invite you to go watch some of the 2004 Steelers offense, when a dominant interior run game set up rookie Ben Roethlisberger for a fantastic season. That team, with Roethlisberger starting, was undefeated until the Patriots shut down the Steelers interior run game and the entire offense fell apart.

Matt Canada runs a very different offense than that team did, but his offense relies heavily on establishing the interior run game. One of the run schemes the Steelers used a lot in 2021 is inside zone.

To be clear, I’m not running a coaching clinic. I’m not here to dig into nuances of blocking. I’m going to lump several different plays into the category of inside zone. Feel free to get more in-depth than I am in the comment section. This series is intentionally not going that direction. We’re covering basics here.

Steelers vs. Bengals, second quarter, 5:34

Zone runs have one basic thing in common, and that is combo blocks. If you look at the interior defensive linemen, you can see the Steelers offensive line double team them, and then work one player off of each block to get to a linebacker. Reaching the linebacker is frequently referred to as second level block. The goal of the combo block is for one lineman to set up the block for his teammate, then get off the block, reach the second level and take care of the linebacker they are responsible for.

One key to the different inside zone schemes is there isn’t a single designed run lane the back must run through. If you look at Kevin Dotson, you can see he is trying to reach the linebacker. That doesn’t make sense if this run is designed to go up the middle. The blocking is designed to get Najee Harris a gap between Dotson and Dan Moore Jr. But you can also see the linebacker head to that gap, and with Trai Turner winning the backside and Kendrick Green getting good push on the play side (play side is the direction Najee is running to start) the run lane is right up the middle.

Steelers vs. Browns, first quarter, 10:07

This is almost the exact same blocking, and like most of the times the Steelers ran it, Najee Harris ends up taking it through the “A” gap (between center and guard). By the end of the season the Steelers were relying on J.C. Hassenauer and John Leglue, and Matt Canada admitted the Steelers ran these interior zone runs a lot because it was one of the few run plays they could execute reliably.

One of the reasons they could run it well is the excellent work Najee Harris puts into these runs. Watch how Harris doesn’t run at gaps, but instead runs at his lineman. To start the play he heads right for Hassenauer’s outer foot, he’s running right at the combo block, and the linebacker, seeing Leglue trying to get off his block heads to that gap. Harris sees that, and cuts back, running right at the combo block from Trai Turner and Chukwuma Okorafor. As Turner reaches the linebacker Harris puts his head down and runs right off Turner’s hip.

His purposeful running sets up Leglue and Turner to get to the linebackers as they have to move toward their blockers to move toward Harris.

This type of run is just one of the blocking schemes the Steelers used, but it was one of the most common and it is foundational to Matt Canada’s offense. This play was a strong one for both Trai Turner and Kevin Dotson, you can see Turner dominate in both of these runs. Inside zone-based runs are great for bullies like Turner and Dotson.

Be sure to stay tuned to BTSC for more in-depth analysis and film rooms on Matta Canada’s Pittsburgh Steelers offense.