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Kyle Shanahan’s 49ers offense offers a preview of the 2022 Steelers

The Pittsburgh Steelers could be copy cats in the NFL, and that should be fine with the fan base.

NFC Wild Card Playoffs - San Francisco 49ers v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

It feels like there’s been volumes written about “Matt Canada’s offense” these past few months. If you do a Google search you find dozens of articles, with titles like “Finding Hope in Matt Canada’s Offense,” “Kenny Pickett A Seamless Fit in Matt Canada’s Offense,” and “Mason Rudolph Says Steelers Didn’t Run Matt Canada’s Offense.” It’s a virtual cottage industry of all things Canada, from ESPN to BTSC to, hell, I don’t know, maybe Teen Cosmo.

So many of these articles describe Canada’s offense as “his.” That’s interesting. Realistically, no scheme or system belongs to a single coach. Everyone has borrowed from someone else, then tweaked it to fit their needs. There are only about three offensive systems currently being run in the NFL, with most teams using some version of one of them.

There is the wide zone/boot scheme popularized by Kyle Shanahan and his coaching tree, which comprises about 13 of the teams in the league. This includes San Francisco, Green Bay, Minnesota, Miami, Atlanta, Chicago, the New York Jets and both teams in Los Angeles.

There’s the spread scheme, which matriculated up from the college ranks and incorporates elements of the Air Raid offense. Spread concepts are common in Arizona, Kansas City, Cincinnati and Washington.

Then there are the “heavy” teams, who have re-introduced fullbacks and multiple tight end sets. These offenses like power concepts and play-action passes as answers to all the sub-packages defensive coordinators started using a few years back. “Heavy” teams include Baltimore, Cleveland, Tennessee, New England, Tampa Bay and Philadelphia.

That’s it, for the most part, A few teams do their own thing, running a mash-up of these various systems with some nuances figured in. Dallas is a hybrid offense with Dak Prescott. Houston is too, although “hybrid” might be a nice way of saying they’re a hot mess. So too were the Steelers the last few seasons. They allowed Ben Roethlisberger to stand in the shotgun, catch the snap and get rid of the ball as quickly as possible. It wasn’t so much a system as a survival strategy for an aging, immobile quarterback playing behind a woeful offensive line.

That is set to change. When Canada was hired in Pittsburgh, it was expected he would have to bend his philosophy to Roethlisberger’s preferences. PFF described the Roethlisberger-Canada marriage by saying, “There might not be a more dissimilar quarterback-offensive coordinator pairing in NFL history.” Now that Roethlisberger has retired, and their marriage has dissolved, Canada is free to do his thing. Which explains the deluge of articles on the subject.

There’s just one problem: no one really seems to know what that “thing” is. We know he motions a lot. And he likes the wide zone play. And play-action. And a shifty slot receiver. And tight ends. And the occasional gadget. But is that a system? Wherever Canada went in college, he adapted his scheme to the personnel on hand. At Northern Illinois, it was the read-option game with a dual-threat quarterback. At Wisconsin, it was power runs from 22 personnel. At North Carolina State, it was a spread passing attack behind Jacoby Brissett. And at Pitt, it was the football version of the Sgt. Pepper’s album: a sophisticated, inventive and sometimes surreal experience that used smoke and mirrors to provide nuance to tried and true concepts. The Beatles had “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” Canada had this:

What, then, should Steelers fans expect the “Canada offense” to look like? By default, it won’t be a spread or heavy scheme. The Steelers are ill-suited, from a personnel standpoint, to commit to either of those. And their hybrid approach was a disaster the past few years. Therefore, it’s likely they’ll borrow from the Shanahan philosophy. This makes sense, since Canada has been doing Shanahan things as long as Shanahan has, just not at the NFL level. Canada now has most of the elements in place to make Shanahan’s wide zone, boot, and constraint scheme work — a mobile quarterback, a bell cow running back, an athletic tight end and receivers who can stretch the field. The line remains a question mark, but the upgrades the Steelers made this off-season should render it functional. That’s faint praise, perhaps. But at least it’s praise.

At first blush, modeling the offense after San Francisco’s may not make Steelers’ fans jump for joy. Few people think “Jimmy G” when they contemplate offensive juggernauts. But with Garoppolo, or perhaps in spite of him, the 49ers were one of the better units in the league last season. They finished 7th in total offense at 376 yards per game. They were 12th in passing and 7th in rushing. They were 13th in points per game, 5th in offensive DVOA and 4th in red zone scoring percentage.

To get a better idea of what San Francisco does, I’ve pulled film from their playoff win in Green Bay last January. The 49ers didn’t exactly light it up that day — they scored 13 points and gained 212 yards. Then again, it was 11 degrees in Green Bay with a wind chill below zero. Not exactly optimal conditions for an offensive explosion.

Canada’s offense already looks like San Francisco’s in several ways. Shanahan uses some sort of shift or motion on almost every play. He and Canada are kindred spirits in that sense. Both will shift from any configuration to any other configuration: tight to open sets, open to tight sets, linemen flipping sides, strength changes, jet motions, long motions, orbit motions. They will alter the entire structure of a formation in one movement, like this:

San Francisco changes from a two-tight end set with an I-formation backfield to an open set with bunch twins on one side, a slot on the other and the fullback split wide. That’s a lot for a defense to digest, before the ball is even snapped.

Often, these pre-snap movements result in mismatches. Here, Shanahan puts his All-Pro tight end, George Kittle, out wide. Kittle initially draws a corner in coverage with linebacker help inside and a safety over the top. Then, Shanahan shifts his running back to outflank Kittle. The corner walks out and the safety loosens up, leaving Kittle isolated in the slot against a linebacker:

From there, it’s easy pickings:

When defenses put smaller, quicker players on Kittle, the result is often the same. Here he is, lined up in the right slot, working the same route against a safety:

Canada did similar things with Pat Freiermuth last season. Freiermuth increasingly played in the slot as his game matured, where he was too athletic for linebackers and too big for safeties:

That’s the same concept San Francisco used above, meaning Freiermuth showed as a rookie he could run some of Kittle’s route tree. With a year under his belt, Freiermuth’s production could skyrocket this season, as Canada finds ways to maximize his mismatch potential.

Aa far as mismatches go, Shanahan is not opposed to thinking outside the box to create them. Here, he uses Pro Bowl tackle Trent Williams as a fullback to get a great kick out block on a short yardage play. Williams wipes out Green Bay’s force defender, opening a lane to convert a 3rd down:

Steelers fans should expect this type of creativity from Canada now that he’s free to run the offense at his discretion.

Another similarity between the two is how Shanahan layers his plays to create complexity. Rarely is a play as simple as it looks on the surface. Often, there are options packaged into the play, or actions within the scheme that set up other plays. We see this below, where, after some shifts and motions, the 49ers run a split-zone concept. Split-zone means the line is blocking one way but there are other players blocking opposite. This muddies the read for the linebackers and prevents them from coming downhill at the snap:

Here, the line blocks left while the fullback and tight end go right. Watch the fullback, though. He’s not really blocking. He’s running a flat route. His movement creates a cross-read for the backers but also allows Shanahan to study how Green Bay defends the back side. The alley player takes the fullback, which suggests the boot pass off of this run action will be covered. Had the alley pursued the run, it’s likely Shanahan would have come back with boot. This is how his system works — he is constantly probing the defense for weaknesses that set up play-action opportunities.

Canada did a lot of this as a college coordinator, most notably at Wisconsin, where his power runs were a nice compliment to the play-action game. The Steelers have not run the football well the last few seasons, but studies have shown a great rushing attack is not necessary for effective play-action.

Shanahan likes fullbacks in his offense, too. He has a good one in Kyle Juszczyk. You can see in these clips how Juszczyk moves about the formation. Shanahan uses him to get an extra blocker at the point of attack, where Juszczyk is excellent. He’s a solid receiver out of the backfield, too. And, when Shanahan picks the right spot, Juszczyk can be an effective runner as well:

Canada will probably use a fullback more often than he did with Roethlisberger, who preferred three receiver sets. The Steelers have two players — Derek Watt and Conner Heyward — who could play the Juszczyk role, with Heyward being an interesting candidate due to his versatility as a runner, blocker and pass catcher.

Shanahan’s most important piece, though, is Deebo Samuel. Samuel plays running back, H-back, wide receiver, even the occasional Wildcat quarterback. When Shanahan needs a play, he doesn’t turn to the playbook. He turns to Samuel. Sometimes, it’s as simple as whipping the ball to the perimeter and letting Samuel do his thing:

Other times, it’s more intricate, like this option route. Here, Samuel comes out of the backfield and reads the leverage of the alley player. The alley widens, so Samuel bends his route inside to the open grass. It’s an impossible route to cover, given how good Samuel is in space:

If the Steelers are looking for their own version of Samuel, Najee Harris is their man. Harris is an elite running back who proved last season to be a versatile receiving threat as well. Canada increasingly shifted him out of the backfield as the season progressed, lining him up in the slot and even out wide at times. He will never run a full receiver’s route tree, but he’s as diverse as a 244-pound back can be. The Pittsburgh offense will run through Harris this season, and Canada would be wise to get him the ball any way he can.

Finally, the San Francisco model is especially good for Pittsburgh when considering the quarterbacks. Trubisky and Garoppolo are basically mirror images of each other. Both are 6’2 and around 220 pounds. Both are mobile and most effective throwing on the move or outside the pocket. Even their statistics are similar. In 63 career games, Garoppolo has 11,852 yards passing, 71 touchdowns, 38 interceptions and a 67.7 completion percentage. In 57 games, Trubisky has 10,652 yards, 64 touchdowns, 38 interceptions and a 64.1 completion percentage.

While Garoppolo’s numbers are slightly better, he’s had the advantage of being coached by Bill Belichick in New England and Shanahan in San Francisco. Trubisky, meanwhile, labored under a dysfunctional regime in Chicago. It’s a wonder his numbers are even close.

Garoppolo and Trubisky also have enough weaknesses to essentially be place-holders with their respective teams. Both struggle with read progressions from inside the pocket and are prone to bad decisions when pressured. Neither is seen as a championship quarterback, which has prompted both franchises to spend 1st Round draft picks on players with higher upsides — Trey Lance and Kenny Pickett. Lance could win the starting job in San Francisco this summer. Pickett may have to wait a year, if that.

For 2022, though, the Steelers could do worse than to take their cues from Shanahan. They should operate a motion-heavy offense centered on the inside and outside zone running of Harris, the boot and play-action passing game, the diverse skills of Freiermuth and a receiving corps with big play potential. That’s the “Matt Canada offense” I anticipate, and I can’t wait to see it.