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Maybe the Steelers’ woes were Matt Canada’s fault after all...

The Steelers offense looked reborn anew in the immediate wake of Canada’s termination.

Offensive coordinator Matt Canada of the Pittsburgh Steelers looks on in the third quarter against the Cleveland Browns at Cleveland Browns Stadium on November 19, 2023 in Cleveland, Ohio. Photo by Nick Cammett/Getty Images

The Steelers defeated the loathsome and Burrow-less Bengals on Sunday, pushing their overall record to 7-4 and further solidifying their status among that weird second or third-tier of teams that will probably sneak into the postseason but who no one regards as a legitimate contender. So what! Another version of this lede could say something like “The Steelers won a visually unappealing game in which they failed to eclipse the 20-point mark,” which is as evergreen as anything when it comes to describing the 2023 iteration of the Steelers.

Ah, but that does not quite tell the whole story about the tides that changed and paradigms that shifted (or that seemed to change or seemed to shift) in that game. Chiefly, that for the first time since 2020, the Steelers accumulated 400-plus yards of total offense. Think of all that’s unfolded since then: multiple global conflicts, ebbing and flowing COVID-19 waves caused by variants that stretch deep into the Greek alphabet, the most contentious election cycle in history, the release of the PlayStation 5, and of course — fifty-eight regular-season games for the Pittsburgh Steelers. All to bear witness to an outcome that was such a regular occurrence during the prime Ben Roethlisberger years that a mere 375-yard day would have players sitting around their lockers post-game looking crestfallen and wondering where exactly things went wrong.

Correlation does not necessarily imply causation, but the fact that the Steelers terminated their offense’s architect and then immediately moved the ball with greater ease and efficiency than they have at any point in the last three years cannot be wholly coincidental. Here, for instance, is quarterback Kenny Pickett’s passing chart from the Steelers' Week 11 loss in Cleveland:

Absolutely disgusting. It gets worse the longer you look, too. Multiple completed passes five or more yards behind the line of scrimmage, a barren moonscape of inactivity in the middle of the field, virtually nothing happening more than 10 yards downfield. Not all of this is Canada’s doing (Pickett played terribly in this game, and the Browns do boast a genuinely championship-caliber defense), but the fact that Pickett’s passing charts in Weeks 1 through 10 look very similar to this one is indicative of poorly-designed schematics.

Let’s juxtapose that with Pickett’s most recent chart from Week 12’s win over the Bengals:

A verdant mosaic. Here, we see action between the hashes and a handful of deeper completions. There are plays here that bear Matt Canada’s odious hallmarks (when I watched the play to which that dot seven yards (!!) behind the line of scrimmage corresponds in real time, I wanted to rip the door off my sister’s and my brother-in-law’s oven) but for the most part this chart reflects a level of offensive efficiency that’s remained entirely dormant to this point in the season. Post-game, head coach Mike Tomlin spoke like a man reborn anew.

“[Pickett] and I are winners today” is the kind of statement that communicates a surface-level reflection of the game’s outcome, but you don’t have to plumb the depths too extensively to realize that Tomlin was also commenting on the manner in which the Steelers won. Tomlin has always been diplomatic in ascribing fault and has never singled out Canada as the primary cause of the offense’s ineptitude; he even went as far as positioning himself as the solely responsible party in Canada’s firing (even though the implication that the decision to terminate Canada was “[his] decision and [his] decision alone” is manifestly false; if you believe that Art Rooney II didn’t play a role in making that decision, I have some NFTs to sell you). So, to cross the elusive 400-yard threshold in the immediate wake of a termination that Tomlin himself purportedly green-lighted must’ve felt at least somewhat vindicating.

Context matters, of course. The Bengals' defense is vastly inferior to the Browns outfit that gave the Steelers fits in Week 11, so it could be that the Steelers performance against Cincinnati is less a “turnaround” and more a natural corollary of playing lesser competition.

Moreover, for all the yards the Steelers amassed, they scored just a single touchdown, and the 16 points they scored were actually fewer than their overall scoring average for the season. Alas, beggars cannot be choosers, so for now, we’ll have to luxuriate in knowing that the offense might not be quite as toothless as we thought.