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Examining some of Matt Canada’s most interesting Steelers pass play designs

The Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator does actually have some good pass designs.

Pittsburgh Steelers Training Camp Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

With the draft and free agency behind us, and the 2023 schedule having been released, we now enter the relatively quiet period of the NFL calendar. I thought this would be a good time to pick up where I left off back in March, when I reviewed some of the common coverages used by the Steelers, and to dive deeper into their X and O’s. Today, I’m examining some of Matt Canada’s most compelling pass play designs, and what makes them particularly interesting or effective.

Canada has drawn the ire of Steelers’ fans for several years now. His offense has ranked in the bottom third of the league in most meaningful metrics over that time, and his failure to develop the passing attack has been particularly glaring. Canada has some basic Air Raid staples he likes — Hank (Curl-Flat), Mesh, Snag — but there’s not much I’d call innovative. For those who want to criticize the Steelers’ signal caller, there is plenty of meat on the bone.

Still, Canada has his moments as a play designer. When you dig through the film, you find some creative calls with answers built in for the potential problems a defense can present. He also layers some of his schemes by altering his core concepts. Canada has room to grow, for sure, but he does some things that give the offense a chance to succeed, too.

Here are a few examples as related to the passing game.

Tailback screen off of shift to bunch with reverse action

We’ll start with a concept that is technically a pass, but functions more like a run: tailback screen. The idea of tailback screen is to displace the defense with some sort of movement that will allow the quarterback to get the ball to his best runner in space with blockers out in front.

That’s precisely what Canada did in last year’s season finale against Cleveland. The design here was especially creative because the Steelers did it from 21-personnel with running back Jaylen Warren split wide to the right of the formation. Warren motioned into a bunch set, where he was a threat to run the ball on a counter or a reverse. This is something Pittsburgh did from time-to-time last season. By Week 18, the Browns were aware of it:

At the snap, Pittsburgh ran what looked like a zone play to their right. The line blocked their track, tight end Zach Gentry came across the formation to kick the backside end and Najee Harris started downhill towards the play-side A-gap. Not surprisingly, Warren ran a reverse path, and when quarterback Kenny Pickett pulled the ball from Harris, the Cleveland defense reacted immediately.

It wasn’t a reverse, though. Pickett pulled the ball again and instead dumped it to Harris. With the linebackers chasing Warren, and the corner running with receiver Gunner Olszewski as he crossed the field, the only defender in position to make a play on Harris was the rolled-up safety. He was quickly disposed of by center Mason Cole, who was blocking the “sidewalk,” or the area immediately down the line of scrimmage into the flat. Left guard Kevin Dotson helped, too, by getting a piece of the backside linebacker who came late in pursuit. Everyone else on defense was out of position, and Harris was through the chute and up the sideline:

From the end zone view, you get a better idea for how the Browns took the bait on the reverse action. I count seven players in the frame chasing Warren, and an eighth — the corner — running the opposite way with Olszewski. When a play design can eliminate eight potential tacklers from making the play, it has a great chance to succeed.

Unfortunately, this play was called back because Dotson got too far down field before the ball was released. Still, the design by Canada was creative and effective, and showed an ability to layer his plays by building out from the core. This scheme began as an inside zone run. Then Canada added a reverse off of the run action. Then he put in the screen off of the reverse. In doing so, he established tendencies he knew his opponents would study, then created ways to exploit their expected response.

Backside TE seam from 3x1 versus Robber Cover-3

The most common criticism of Canada is that he struggles to develop a downfield passing game. In both 2021 and 2022, the Steelers largely dinked-and-dunked the ball no matter who was at quarterback. Neither Ben Roethlisberger, Mitchell Trubisky nor Pickett were able to do much in the way of pushing the ball down the field. Pittsburgh ranked 30th and 28th, respectively, in yards per pass attempt in those two seasons. This seems to have prompted the team to hire Glenn Thomas this winter as an offensive assistant, presumably to help Canada improve those numbers.

While Canada bears the brunt of the responsibility for the offense’s anemic downfield attack, it hasn’t always been his fault. Sometimes the problem has been failed execution, like we saw in Week 13 last year against Atlanta.

The play below featured a backside seam to tight end Pat Freiermuth from a 3x1 formation against Robber coverage. You can see in this pre-snap image that Atlanta looked to be aligned in Cover-2, with two high safeties and the corners as flat/carry defenders. There was a nickel player in the alley to the trips, a backer playing hook/curl, and five defenders at the line of scrimmage:

The five potential rushers signaled the Falcons would likely move at the snap. Either someone would drop from the line to play the other hook-curl zone, or Atlanta would bring all five and rotate the coverage. This alerted Pickett to key the safeties and put the onus on Canada to call a route with answers to multiple possible movements from Atlanta.

Canada had such a play on tap. To the trips side, the Steelers ran a Cover-2 beater with a version of the Snag concept. The inside receiver (George Pickens) ran a corner route, while the #2 and #3 receivers ran double in-cuts. If Pickett read both safeties drop deep, as in traditional Cover-2, he would throw to Pickens since the near safety would have a lot of ground to cover to reach him. But if the safeties rotated to cover-1 or cover-3, Freiermuth would be the target.

At the snap, Pickett quickly diagnosed the safety rotation. He saw the safety to the trips side cheat towards the middle of the field, while the safety to Freiermuth came down as the robber. With the corner to Freiermuth playing with outside leverage, Pickett knew there would be a window between the deep safety and corner to locate his throw. He planted and released just as Freiermuth, who initially attacked the corner’s leverage to widen him, broke back inside. The window was open. With an accurate throw, this was a touchdown:

Pickett, though, missed high and wide. You can see from the end zone view how he led Freiermuth a bit too much. You can also see that while the window into which he was throwing wasn’t huge, it was big enough by NFL standards to complete the pass. Pickett did everything right here from a mental standpoint. Next year, with his rookie season behind him, he’ll be expected to master the physical part, too.

Kudos to Canada, though, for crafting a play-design that had answers for multiple actions by Atlanta. Against Cover-2, Pickens would have been a good option to the corner. Against a cover-1 or cover-3 rotation, Freiermuth was schemed open. And with six in protection, the Steelers gave Pickett plenty of time to read the coverage and deliver his throw.

“Redskin” from a condensed 2x2 set

I don’t know what Canada calls this last play, but I first learned out of it when studying a Joe Gibbs playbook years ago. Gibbs ran a switch-verticals concept with his outside receivers — Gary Clark and Ricky Sanders — that saw them each attack the corner of the end zone opposite of their alignment. The two would cross paths near the middle of the field then keep climbing towards the far pylons. It was a great route against a single-high safety because it put him in a bind as to which route to address. It forced the corners to be disciplined, too, by not running with the near vertical so they could grab the opposite one when it reached their zone. Gibbs called the play “Redskin,” which wasn’t very creative, but he ran it to great success.

Canada dialed up something similar in Week 11 against Cincinnati. The play started from a tight 2x2 set, which was important for two reasons. First, it reduced the width of the outside receivers, meaning they’d have less ground to cover as they crossed the field. And second, it put the inside receivers close to the tackles, where they’d be able to provide a chip in protection before leaking into the pattern. This was important because the deeper routes took time to develop, and the Steelers would need max protection to allow it:

In the clip below, you see Pickens, to the right, and Diontae Johnson, to the left, cross the field as they climbed. Both players had sight adjustments on the route. If they could get over top of the opposite corner, they would keep their angle deep. But if the corner was too high, they would flatten towards the sideline. Pickett’s job was to read the safety and throw opposite, which he did once he saw the safety jump Johnson. The corner who was running with Johnson passed him to the safety, but not in time to redirect to cover Pickens. Pickens smartly flattened his route, and Pickett delivered a nice throw for a big gain:

From this view, you can see the full slide protection of the line, with Najee Harris play-faking then leaking out the back side. Myles Boykin (13) did a great job of washing down the edge before releasing into the flat, and though Cincinnati got late pressure on Pickett, he managed to stand in and deliver a strike:

This was a nice call against single-high coverage by Canada, and the formation created the necessary protection to allow the deep routes to develop. Designs like this provide hope that the Steelers, with an improved line and a more seasoned Pickett, can evolve their passing game in 2023.

Stay tuned for another installment of this series next week, when we look at some of Canada’s best run designs.