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Should the Steelers keep Matt Canada? It’s complicated

Exploring whether or not to retain the embattled OC reveals the decision’s many layers.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

One of the unique aspects of each NFL season is Black Monday, a fateful day in which coaches at all tiers are let go by their organizations. While frenetic, rapidly evolving and somewhat harsh, the day of reckoning arrives all the same.

Following the end of their rather encouraging 2022 season after failing to qualify for the playoffs, the Steelers must confront the stark reality of the decisions and issues that hang over the team — not just for 2023, but in the long term. At the forefront of those quagmires is the status of offensive coordinator Matt Canada.

Canada, Pittsburgh’s offensive coordinator since 2021, has been the scapegoat for the team’s offensive plagues. A somewhat mysterious yet omniscient force, Canada has long been on the hot seat in a city known for its steel-making.

If you were to have asked Steelers fans their attitudes about Canada halfway through this season, the answer would have been nearly consensus: disdain, frustration and a desire for change. Through the primary eight games of 2022, Pittsburgh sat at 2-6 and had not scored above 23 points in a single contest. To compound things, the Steelers were coming on the heels of a 2021 season in which Canada’s offense scored only 20.2 points per game.

However, a switch was flipped during Pittsburgh’s bye in Week Nine. From that point onward, Mike Tomlin’s team appeared much more sound offensively, moving the ball and posting less-pitiful scoring outputs.

If it were up to fans donning black and gold, the Canada choice would likely be an easy one: fire the OC and start afresh with a young offensive nucleus. In reality, though, the situation is not that straightforward.

As we await a decision on Canada’s future — on which Tomlin remains mum — I wanted to outline the positive and negative aspects of retaining or releasing the long-time offensive expert in an attempt to not only outline my own perspectives, but also possibly those that Tomlin, Omar Khan, Kenny Pickett and others will express behind closed doors. While Canada’s employment is as polemical as any topic associated with the Steelers, I recommend earnestly reading through the thought process below before rushing to any rash conclusions.

Why the Steelers should keep Matt Canada

To describe 2022 as a tale of two halves would not do it justice for the Steelers. In large part, the team’s 7-2 record since its bye reflects significant offensive improvement.

From Weeks 1-9, Pittsburgh ranked 28th in offensive EPA/play and 25th in success rate while amassing 15 points per game and 299 yards per game. Yet, from Weeks 10-18, the Steelers sat at fourth (yes, you read that right) in offensive EPA/play and third in success rate while scoring 20.89 points per game and collecting 344 yards/game. That is a Jekyll and Hyde impression if I’ve ever seen one (though in the right direction).

Not only did the Steelers better their scoring output by over five points per game as well as augment their yards gained by 45, but they also became — gasp — a top-five offensive in terms of efficiency. The team moved the ball with much greater success and consistency after its bye, and that can’t be ignored.

Of course, an underlying factor of the offensive revitalization was the play of the rookie Pickett. While Pickett’s surface-level stats were not NFL Honors-worthy, he, too, steadily got better. Pickett ranked 9th in EPA/play (min. 200 snaps) since the bye, a number that reflects greater composure, improvising, game-winning drives and being smarter with the football.

Speaking of that dearth of turnovers, the Steelers had 22 giveaways on the year, yet only lost the football five times in the final nine games. In fact, the team posted a presumptive franchise record in clean football by going four straight matchups without a turnover.

Hand in hand with securing the rock came a heightened focus on time of possession, a formula which tended to work for Canada’s O. The Steelers strung together much longer, rhythmic drives — including an 18-play possession in Carolina — to reduce opponent chances. This type of harmony was rarely ever seen in Canada’s offense in 2021.

Moreover, Canada was tremendous in unlocking Pittsburgh’s run game this year. The Steelers eclipsed the 2,000-yard mark as a team for the first time since 2007 powered by a two-pronged attack of Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren. Harris looked much more decisive, aggressive and overpowering as he got healthier and streamlined his running style, while Warren served as a complement with acceleration, power and clutch playmaking. Tomlin’s group broke the century mark in 11 of 17 games, its most doing so since 2016.

In addition to the emergence of the undrafted Warren, Canada found niches for players expected to contribute little on O. Derek Watt proved to be a sound option on third-and-short with veer runs up the middle; Steven Sims Jr. received touches that stretched the field on jet sweeps; and Connor Heyward flashed strong hands and blocking ability, becoming a cog by the end of the season. To carve roles for such previously unheralded athletes demonstrates a true understanding of not only need, but also personnel.

During Canada’s inaugural season at the helm, the Steelers were absolutely futile in generating explosive plays; in this case, “explosive” refers to plays of 20 yards or more. After amassing only 50 such plays in 2021, that number increased slightly to 52. In terms of “big” plays (in which runs have to only be 10+ yards), Pittsburgh posted 97 of such plays, tied for 21st.

Of course, it was not all perfect for Canada’s offense. Some of the blame, though, must be attributed to a more micro-level of execution. Quarterback play was spotty for much of 2022, especially with Mitch Trubisky under center; a recurring theme was missed throws or reads by not only Trubisky, but also Pickett, which limited output. Further, even when strikes were tossed, some players — notably Diontae Johnson, who led with eight drops — did not tend to help out his gunslinger.

What Canada’s offense accomplished in the second half of 2022 deserved to earn praise, which it certainly did. On Monday, Tomlin noted that his OC “got better”; after Week 18, Harris said that “we all believe” in Canada. While it may be more of an attempt to not rip a coordinator to the media, such words speak volumes about how Canada is perceived among the Steelers’ brain trust.

To achieve relative continuity in a unit with inconsistency and inexperience — including among coaches — is nothing to scoff at, but Canada did just that by the final whistle of 2022. While Mike Sullivan may more directly oversee the progression of Pickett or Eddie Faulker with Harris/Warren, this is Canada’s collective responsibility. There was substantive growth made in Year One of a Pickett-led O, leaving optimism for Year Two and beyond if the main pieces remain in place. That very well may include Canada.

Why the Steelers should not keep Matt Canada

For as smoothly as the Steelers moved downfield over the back half of the season, taking a step back reveals the overall struggles of Canada’s offense. On the season, Pittsburgh ranked 18th in offensive DVOA, 14th in EPA/play, 14th in success rate, T-25th in points per game and 23rd in yards per game. Those aren’t exactly long-term numbers to hang your hat on, especially when your first year was just as meager.

Despite possessing legitimate talent in Pickett, Harris, Pat Freiermuth, George Pickens, Johnson and Warren, the bottom line is this: Canada’s offense did little to make the most of its star power.

A scoring output of 18.1 points per game with an accurate, poised, mobile quarterback and a litany of playmaking skill players is incomprehensibly bad. Sure, Chris Boswell’s struggles didn’t help, but that reflects an underlying lack of touchdown production.

What was the root of such few trips to the end zone? Pittsburgh tended to stunt nearly its every drive in opponent territory and especially in the red zone due to penalties, poor calls and overall subpar execution. In spite of actually moving downfield with intention in Weeks 10-18, this deep-seated issue was never really resolved.

To put it frankly, the Steelers’ offense primarily looked at its best when it absolutely needed to in crunch time — an indictment of what occurred before the game-winning drive. Yes, it is a net positive that the O was clutch, but it should never take until the 58-minute mark of a contest to suddenly awaken and pick up chunk plays.

Pickett’s game-winning drives were marvels to behold, but when analyzing them more intricately, one facet stands out above the rest: that it was Pickett making plays out of structure, throwing on the move and redirecting receivers. In other terms, Canada’s initially called plays were futile, leaving Pickett to make magic on his own. Ben Roethlisberger was forced to do much of the same in crunch time in 2021, with some joking that he had become the de facto OC.

While Canada did display growth as a play-caller in 2022 — notably by relying on Pickett and his interior offensive line in short-yardage situations — his designs still left quite a bit to be desired.

For one, the number of targets thrown to Pickens and Freiermuth was disproportionately low relative to their sheer game-breaking talent. This lack of sustained production primarily stemmed from poor route concepts. Pickens became a deep-ball specialist, consistently stretching the field on go routes, while Freiermuth often found himself on curls. Whether through in-breaking routes (e.g., digs, crossers) or even screens, those two stars were simply not utilized enough.

Moreover, situational calls were a recurring problem. In particular, on third-and-short, Canada did not create conflict with defenders or change patterns. This snap on third-and-three against the Ravens is quite telling; watch the bottom of the screen as the Baltimore defenders anticipate what’s coming.

This repetitive play-calling also reared its ugly head in the run game. Sure, the Steelers established a ground identity of sorts, but the team leaned heavily on split zone. The play did seem to work more often than not, but implementing more counters and draws could have better kept defenses on their toes.

Regarding more advanced designs, Canada scarcely mixed in play action, RPOs or screens. Per NFL Pro, Pickett attempted only 64 passes involving play action, which ranked 31st; likewise, Pickett threw just 24 times on RPOs. As for the screen game, Pickett ran only 28 of such plays; by the end of the year, it was evident that Pittsburgh was so poor at screens that they were just neglected from the game plan. All three of these concepts have become staples in the modern NFL that strategically attack defenses, yet they were not as prevalent as they should have been with Canada.

At a more meta level, the question must be asked: how much time does Canada deserve to prove his worth as an offensive coordinator for this team? Having already posted two disappointing seasons, Canada has not shown the ability to lead a high-powered NFL offense that produces on a down-by-down, let alone game-by-game, basis.

More externally, there is appeal in out-of-building candidates, such as Kliff Kingsbury, Frank Reich or Georgia’s Todd Monken; other options could include Dolphins passing game coordinator Darrell Bevell or Eagles passing game coordinator Kevin Patullo. Given that the last two Pittsburgh OCs have been internal promotions, acquiring a fresher visionary may be tough to resist.

Final Thoughts

In some ways, it’s a good dilemma that the Steelers face with Canada. After all, if the offense had continued its wayward performance in the final weeks of 2022, there wouldn’t be much controversy at all.

2022 should be considered an overachievement for Pittsburgh, and that especially applies to the team’s offense. Being able to maintain much of this past year’s unit with tweaks — especially along the left side of the offensive line and at slot receiver — should catalyze even better play and production in 2023.

The Steelers’ offense still presented a litany of qualms by the end of the year, but better red zone play and reads feels somewhat fixable in 2023. At the end of the day, Pittsburgh a) moved the ball well, b) controlled the clock and c) did not turn the ball over, three pillars that the team has been in desperate need of for quite some time.

It’s also paramount to consider reducing turnover for Pickett’s environment as he enters Year Two. Sure, Justin Fields and Trevor Lawrence showed substantial growth with new OCs in their second years, but Pickett also posted better rookie campaigns than either. To have to learn foreign terminology and mesh with an outside offensive mind can be easier said than done.

Thus, I actually think the Steelers should keep Matt Canada for next season, but there must be strict guidelines in place. Canada needs to demonstrate dedication to better circumstantial calls, improved designs for Pickens/Freiermuth and more inclusion of play action/RPOs/screens, among other elements.

Though I feel retaining Canada is best, Tomlin and Khan cannot be afraid of firing the OC in such a scenario if tangible progress does not appear in 2023. If anything, the lack of continued improvement may have already done Canada in.