In 2020, we started a new off season series to look at some players that were poised to have a breakout season. This is a look at those players who have been productive to this point in their careers but could be on the verge of busting out and getting more national recognition. Last year’s list included Diontae Johnson, Ray-Ray McCloud, Chukwuma Okorafor and Robert Spillane. This is a breakout candidate for the 2022 season.
Change is essential. This series has been only about players to this point but I’m making a change and going with Offensive Coordinator Matt Canada this week. He was hired in 2020 as the quarterbacks coach and spent one year in that role. In 2021 he was promoted to the offensive coordinator role and the offense frankly looked very similar to what they did in 2020 with neither result being impressive.
His coaching career began in 1994 as a Graduate Assistant at Indiana and spent time at nine different schools as primarily an offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. Prior to joining Pittsburgh, Canada had very successful offenses at many stops on the collegiate level. He led offenses in the ACC at the University of Pittsburgh and North Carolina State to become high scoring offenses. In 2016 at Pittsburgh he was a finalist for the Broyles Award given to the top assistant coach in college football. He was the only offensive finalist up against four defensive coordinators and the award went to then Clemson DC Brent Venables. At Wisconsin, he was a part of creating a top rushing program. He helped LSU have a more efficient and ball secure offense. He has run different offensive schemes and has had success.
To This Point
In his two seasons with the club the results of the offense have been difficult to dissect. In his lone season as the quarterbacks coach the Steelers led the league in pass attempts and completions. They were sixth in touchdown passes and first in fewest sacks allowed. However, they were toward the bottom in yards per attempt. They were throwing the ball quickly but too often near or behind the line of scrimmage.
You could put a lot of the success on having a future Hall of Fame quarterback. You could also put the limitations on the same quarterback near the end of his career. How much effect did Canada have on the play calling and offensive game plan? We don’t know for sure but with the same quarterback in 2021 and with him calling the plays the offense and results were similar or worse averaging just 20.2 points per game down from 26.6 in 2020.
To put it plainly, a lot went wrong. Up front the offensive line never gelled like many had hoped. They had rookie starters at center and left tackle and had six different players line up at left guard. The wide receiver group, which looked promising before the season, crumbled. Juju Smith-Schuster was injured in week five and missed the rest of the regular season. Chase Claypool did not take a step forward performing statistically similar to his rookie season but failed to make contested catches or stay on his feet while trying to make a catch. James Washington fell out of favor for whatever reason and had his fewest targets since his rookie year in 2018. Much of the offense was reliant on Diontae Johnson and two rookies, Najee Harris and Pat Freiermuth.
Ben Roethlisberger did not look like the Ben we knew and along with the offensive line issues it put a major strain on the offense. While they were still top ten in attempts, completions and interceptions they were near the bottom in yards per attempt (6.0), 20+ yard plays (41) and touchdown passes (23) while seeing the scoring average drop by over six points per game.
So again there were questions. How much did the QB change at the line of scrimmage? What limitations were put on the play calling to help the quarterback run what he was comfortable running? Is there a section of Canada’s playbook we haven’t seen yet due to personnel issues?
What Can Happen?
Choose Wisely – Regardless of who plays quarterback they will be more mobile than their predecessor. Holdover Mason Rudolph and free agent addition Mitchell Trubisky both have NFL starting experience. First round selection Kenny Pickett is considered to be the future and how quickly he absorbs the offense and gets up to speed may determine when that future begins. For the offense and Canada to have success they must choose the right quarterback to help the team right now.
Run the Rock – We have heard about it for a couple years now that the focus was to return the running game to respectability. The additions and injuries up front last year hampered the offense leading to bottom five rankings in rushing attempts, rushing yards, yards per carry and rushing touchdowns. Not good. Adding free agents Mason Cole and James Daniels along with a healthy Kevin Dotson could get them the push up front they desire.
Air Yards – 2018 was the last time the Steelers starting quarterback had a yards per attempt average over 7.0 yards. Roethlisberger’s career average was 7.6 and was not better than 6.3 in the last three years. Canada can now use more play action, bootlegs and movement of the pocket to increase the time the quarterback has to throw the ball. The intermediate and middle of the field passing game has been missing and must be improved. Adding Myles Boykin, George Pickens and Calvin Austin to the wide receiver group give them more speed and size to push the ball down field. Freiermuth in his second season and even the improved usage of Zach Gentry last season should give them plenty of options to air it out.
Canadian Map – The three previous points are important but most important is Canada finding his groove. Play calling is a combination of studying the other team’s defense, designing your offense around the opponent’s weaknesses and being able to set up and or correctly time when to call those plays. There is a rhythm to it. Being able to see a couple plays ahead or adjust on the fly. He needs to be able to map out his plan and get the offense to efficiently execute.
I have been critical of Canada and his play calling. There were too many passes behind the line of scrimmage and a rushed, sloppiness to the passing game. But I also feel he deserved to remain the OC this season due to all the reasons stated above. An aging quarterback, porous offensive line and depleted receiving corps will limit the options.
This season should give Canada his best opportunity to operate his offense. He’ll have one of the youngest offensive groups in the league to mold and develop and the will need it in a strong division. In my book, the slate is clean for Canada I’m looking forward to seeing what he will draw up. All aboard Air Canada.