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Glenn Thomas may be the key to unlocking Matt Canada’s offense

The newest Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coach could be the key to unlocking Matt Canada’s offense.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers Training Camp Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

(Note: Follow me on Twitter @KTSmithFFSN for the latest information on what I’m working on, as well as my new podcast The Call Sheet)

The Steelers announced the hiring of Glenn Thomas last week to serve as an offensive assistant to coordinator Matt Canada. Thomas has prior NFL experience, having worked in Atlanta from 2008-2014. He also has an extensive college background, with stops at Texas Tech, Temple, Baylor, UNLV and most recently Arizona State, where he was offensive coordinator in 2022.

There’s an optimistic view of the Thomas hiring, and also a skeptical one. The latter goes something like this: poaching a coordinator from a 3-9 program that finished in the bottom half of the Pac-12 in every meaningful metric on offense, and who hasn’t coached in the NFL for nearly a decade, won’t move the needle much. Rather than invest in a more seasoned NFL coach, whose experience could help Canada develop his much-maligned passing game, the Steelers have again chosen the cheaper option by bringing in another college coach who is unlikely to match wits against some of the league’s better defensive minds.

Oh, and as for the “Matt Canada offense” thing... please. Haven’t we heard this before?

Fair enough. But before you take to the comments to detonate the Thomas signing, and the premise of this article, at least consider the optimistic view.

Thomas should mesh well with what the Steelers want to do on offense. He is a proponent of the zone run game, which Canada used almost exclusively last season. He has a connection to line coach Pat Meyer through Matt Rhule. Thomas was Rhule’s passing game coordinator at Temple and Baylor, while Meyer coached the line and coordinated the run game for Rhule with the Carolina Panthers. Thomas should understand, then, how to mesh the passing offense with Meyer’s run game, something Canada struggled with last season. And, at Arizona State, Thomas ran an NFL-style offense that integrated plenty of heavy personnel groupings, including ample use of tight ends and H-backs. As I wrote about last week, this is the direction I believe Canada has planned for next season’s Pittsburgh offense.

A look at the film of Thomas’s time at ASU further clarifies the hire. While his offense failed to put up big numbers, it wasn’t for a lack of design. Thomas does some interesting things. In addition to the big groupings and heavy zone scheme, he incorporates lots of wide zone runs, which the Steelers never really got going last season. He moves the pocket with his quarterback, a strategy that proved beneficial with Kenny Pickett. He attacks the middle of the field in the passing game, which should be music to the ears of Steelers’ fans long frustrated by their reliance on dink-and-dunk throws to the boundaries. Tight ends are a big part of Thomas’s offense. He moves them all over the formation. He likes to use H-backs as fullbacks. He likes the Pistol formation. He likes the play-action pass. And he creates explosive plays.

For a better look at how Thomas does these things, I’ve pulled clips from ASU’s game against 11th-ranked Oklahoma State last season. I wanted to watch a game against a top-level opponent where ASU would be the underdog. Having the less talented team puts the onus on a coaching staff to scheme success. What would Thomas devise in this situation? The Sun Devils lost, 34-17. But they managed 354 yards of offense and there was a lot to like about their play designs and approach. Here are some observations, with how they might translate to the Steelers.

The wide zone scheme

The wide zone play was a huge part of ASU’s offense. The scheme relies on athletic linemen who can move laterally and stretch a defensive front. Wide zone is devised as a C-gap play that hits between the tackle and tight end. But if the tackle and tight end can pin the edge defender and cover up the alley, it will often bounce outside.

That’s what happens on this run. Thomas probably calls it here because he gets an open gap to the H-back, and he recognizes that with movement the C-gap should be clean. The H and the left tackle do a nice job sealing the C-gap defender, though, and then covering up the alley. This lets the back take the run wide, where he makes a nice gain:

On this next one, Thomas puts a creative wrinkle onto the scheme. Rather than have his H-back lead block on the play, which can provide a key for the defense, he brings him across the formation as though it’s a run the other way. Watch what this does to the low safety, who is reading the H. He follows the H across the formation and takes himself out of the run fit, giving the back a clear path up the sideline once he turns the corner:

The Steelers ran very little wide zone last season. It takes timing and reps up front to perfect, and with a new line coach in Meyer and several new players, progress was slow. They did begin to integrate it into their rushing attack later on. But, with good blocking tight ends in Pat Freiermuth and Zach Gentry and athletic tackles in Dan Moore Jr. and Chuks Okorafor, they are built to run it well. I’d anticipate with Thomas on board that it will be more of a staple next season.

Moving the pocket

One of the biggest arguments for running more wide zone is how well it marries with boot pass. When the defense chases the wide zone action, they become susceptible to a quarterback pulling the ball and booting back against the grain.

Here’s a well-designed boot off of wide zone that begins with short motion. Often, this motion is used to crack a player in the box on an outside run. But here, ASU fakes the run and brings the motion man underneath the offensive linemen, who are all blocking wide zone to the left. This draws the defense with the flow, and the motion receiver slips out undetected into the opposite flat:

An added feature of this design is that the pass is completed behind the line of scrimmage. This allows the split end to the side of the boot to immediately become a blocker. He comes down inside, and while he doesn’t block anyone directly, he creates interference that the linebackers must navigate as they pursue the ball.

Thomas paired his boot action with wide zone effectively at ASU, and he did a nice job of creating designs that got the ball to his athletes in space. Pickett, meanwhile, showed he was effective on those occasions Canada moved the pocket last season, like we see here in the season finale against Cleveland:

Thomas may be able to help Canada find more creative uses for the boot scheme, and for pocket movement in general. Capitalizing on these strengths feels like a logical progression for the offense.

Play-action from inside the pocket, too

So, too, does wider use of play-action from inside the pocket. Here, in 21-personnel, from a traditional I-formation, Thomas dials up a simple in-cut to the split end off of an inside run fake. This draws the backers towards the line of scrimmage and opens a nice window for the dig route breaking behind them:

Steelers fans may painfully remember how often Tom Brady victimized Pittsburgh’s defense on these types of plays. Brady was a master of the play-fake, and would routinely use them to create space for his tight ends. The Steelers have not taken advantage of these types of plays in recent years. With Thomas in the fold, we may see more of them.

Thomas also timed his play-action calls well. He dialed up the play below immediately after the wide zone run featured above that broke for a big gain. With the run game working, Thomas anticipated an aggressive response from the defense. So, he went play-action, again targeting the linebackers, and got them to bite just enough to open a window to hit the Y-Cross concept for a touchdown:

Notice the bunch set on this play. Thomas is a big fan of these condensed formations. This puts him in sync with Canada, who uses them a great deal as well. So often in Thomas’s offense we find familiarity with what Canada does, yet wrinkles that could make it better.

Attacking the middle of the field in the passing game

Speaking of, you may have noticed that both of the play-action throws above targeted the middle of the field. This is something the Steelers have not done well in recent years. But ASU threw to the intermediate and deep middle a lot under Thomas, on both play-action and straight drop-backs.

This one is a modified post-dig concept from a condensed set. ASU ran a post route from the receiver to the top of the formation, which removed the near safety, and stretched the underneath coverage with a pair of flat routes. This created a nice window for the quarterback to hit the dig, which from this alignment was more like a deep hitch. Opening up the middle of the field and finding ways to exploit linebackers in coverage were common in ASU’s passing game:

On this one, rather than reduce the OSU defense with a condensed set, Thomas spread them out by going empty. He used the space created by the formation, and a late coverage rotation by the Cowboys, to hit a big play up the seam:

These types of coverage breakdowns are less common in the NFL. But the ability to scheme a defense to exploit the middle of the field is something Thomas does well, regardless of the level of opponent.

When you add everything up, the Thomas hiring makes sense. The Steelers wanted someone who could compliment the strengths of what Matt Canada and Pat Meyer did in 2022, like the zone run game and the gradual development of Kenny Pickett, and build on the areas where they need improvement. Thomas’s experience with the wide zone scheme, which the Steelers seem intent on using more of, and his creative play designs, particularly in the play-action and middle-of-the-field passing game, make him a good choice. His use of bunch sets, big personnel and pre-snap motions, and his association to Meyer through their shared experience with Matt Ruhle, accentuate his fit.

Speculation has already begun that Thomas could become Pittsburgh’s next offensive coordinator should Canada fail to improve. For now, though, he is in Pittsburgh to help elevate Canada’s offense, not to take it over. Given his background, he could be the key to doing just that.