OC Matt Canada addressed the media early during minicamp, restating the initiative put forth by team president Art Rooney II that last year’s performance in the ground game will not be acceptable. “We have to be able to run the ball,” Canada said on Tuesday. “Mr. Rooney has sent out a very clear directive to Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin and then to me — we want to be able to run the ball when we have it.” Canada also mentioned the mindset Rooney wants the offense to have in terms of running the football. “But I think upfront, the mindset of what we’re trying to do, again the charge from Mr. Rooney, to be more physical, to run the ball, as an offensive lineman, you’re going to like that.”
Now Canada also mentioned when asked about fullback Derek Watt’s usage this upcoming season that he plans to utilize his personnel to get advantageous matchups against defenses. After looking at what Canada has done in the past with the fullback position and the skillset of Watt, I wanted to take a stab at how Watt’s usage may increase from this past season in a new-look offense.
Now Watt and Canada have had exposure to one another prior to meeting in Pittsburgh. Canada was the offensive coordinator and QB coach at Wisconsin back in the 2012 season. While at Wisconsin, Canada used Watt in a variety of different ways. Watt not only did a good job as a lead blocker for the Badgers’ renowned rushing attack, but he also was entrusted with carries from time-to-time from different alignments. See here where Watt gets the handoff on the fullback sweep to the left after the QB fakes the handoff to the running back. Sure, Watt hardly gains any yards on the play and Pittsburgh likely may not run sweeps with Watt anytime soon, but this goes to show Canada’s open-minded approach to getting everyone involved in the offensive system with misdirection.
In terms of running the football, I do think Watt offers more than what he has been utilized under ex-OC Randy Fichtner. He didn’t record any rushing attempts in the regular season for Pittsburgh but was used in the infamous fourth-down calls in the Wild Card playoff loss to the Browns. Here in the first clip, we see Watt pick up the first down by putting his head down and exploiting the hole up the middle to dive forward.
However, as Alex Kozora pointed out in this side-by-side clip when they ran another fourth-down attempt later in the game, Fichtner runs the exact same play with the same motion, in the same formation, and to the exact same spot. The defense easily picks this up and stuffs Watt to keep Pittsburgh from converting. Now, I am not suggesting that Watt should get 20+ carries on the season under Canada. Rather, I do think Canada will be able to scheme up more options in pre-snap motions and shifts to get Watt opportunities to convert rather than plowing his head forward into the line and disguising his intentions better than the old OC failed to do.
Canada has been well-documented for his use of pre-snap motion and changing things up in front of the defense to put them in a bind based on the look in front of them. He has especially done the same with his H-Backs and TEs in the passing game, having them motion along the LOS and getting them in position to get easy completions with ability to pick up YAC. Watch this play call with Canada manning Pittsburgh’s offense against Clemson, motioning the H-Back from the slot to the left side offset of the tackle. They run a simple shovel pass to the H-Back while faking the jet sweep, getting outside defenders to commit to the sweep and getting good blocking upfront for the receiver to take it up the middle for six. This could either be a fullback or a TE in this position, as the Chiefs run this concept a ton with Travis Kelce near the goal line. Either way, the likes of Watt or Pat Freiermuth make sense for similar usage on this play call should it be implemented.
Here is an aerial view of the same play call, showing the use of pre-snap motion and the jet sweep to put the defense in conflict and open up things up the middle for the score.
While not the most accomplished pass catcher out of the backfield, Derek Watt isn’t a slouch at catching the football. With Canada in 2012, he tallied 12 receptions for 150 yards, showing the ability to be a viable pass catching option. He has done the same when called upon in the league, being utilized in that role more with the Chargers when he first entered the NFL.
Here against the Broncos we see Watt take advantage of defenses not accounting for him in the passing game after the play action to #28 Melvin Gordon, leaking out into the flat and catching the check down from Philip Rivers and showing good YAC ability in open space, taking the short pass up the sideline inside the ten-yard line for a big gain. Again, this is not to say that Watt should be a key read on passing downs, but that if Canada wants to implement more play action or pass from a heavy set, Watt isn’t going to be a liability.
Now where I am the most excited to see how Canada utilizes Watt is as a blocker in the running game. As mentioned earlier, Art Rooney II has made it imperative to get the run game going and has vowed the team will never finish last in the league in rushing again. In a modern-day, pass-first league where we are seeing more spread offenses and empty formations, call me a fan of adding the fullback back into the game and pounding the ball on the ground.
While the offensive line definitely needs to improve from last season, I do believe using Watt as a lead blocker will open up more opportunities for Najee Harris and the other running backs to get to the second level and potentially create more explosive plays from there. I understand this clip is from OTAs, but Watt comes across the LOS on the snap of the ball with Harris taking the handoff on the counter run to the right.
The thought of Watt picking up a backer coming downhill and leading Najee on the chance to go one-on-one with another backer or safety in the second level is tantalizing compared to straight running up the middle over and over like we saw in Pittsburgh’s stagnant rushing attack during the last half of the 2020 season.
While Pittsburgh still figures to run some gap and power like they have traditionally done, Canada and OL Coach Adrian Klemm have hinted at implementing more zone scheme runs into the offense this season. Given the investment in athletic offensive linemen Kendrick Green and Dan Moore Jr., as well as the motion of Canada’s offense, implementing inside and outside zone concepts would be a great way to get the OL out on the move, attacking the defense to create lanes for the offense’s new featured back to exploit. During his time at Alabama, Najee Harris was used on outside zone concepts regularly in addition to gap and power runs that Pittsburgh likes to run. His ability to break tackles and be elusive with good vision for a 230-pound back can be a big asset when he can get to the second level with good blocking in front of him always seemingly falling forward.
Now imagine the likes of Derek Watt leading up the outside on the same concept in the red zone like we see here for the Chargers. A solid blocker as a fullback, the utilization of Watt on this outside zone runs could be the difference of Harris getting an eight-yard gain into getting the sideline and scoring, with Watt clearing out the last defender in the way.
Overall, analyzing the usage of the fullback/H-Back in Matt Canada’s offensive system has me excited for the prospects of Derek Watt heading into 2021. Now Pat Freiermuth may be in line to play more of the H-Back role from a receiving perspective, but Watt is capable of contributing in this area and is a more accomplished lead blocker in the run game. Should the fullback be implemented more into the offensive game plan, I definitely could see an improvement in the running game with the physical style of play Watt brings and how this, coupled with improved OL play, could really turn around Pittsburgh’s rushing offense heading into next season.
What are your thoughts on Derek Watt heading into 2021? Do you think the Matt Canada will be able to utilize him more to his strengths to help the offense and improve the run game? Or is he mainly a core special teams player in your eyes and will see only a handful of snaps in this new offensive system? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below, and thanks again for reading!