Leading up to the decision from the Pittsburgh Steelers to retain offensive coordinator Matt Canada for another season, it really was no question that the embattled play-caller was going to return for a third season in his role, just based on the progress the offense made in the second half of the season, and the growth quarterback Kenny Pickett showed late in his rookie season.
What is a question though, at least according to ESPN’s Brooke Pryor, is the amount of changes — if any — that Canada will make to his offense after another lackluster season overall, at least from a scoring perspective.
One change Pryor hopes to see made is the inclusion of hot routes to help Pickett and the offense deal with pressure.
“That has to be the hope, right? Known as an innovative playcaller in his college coaching career, Canada’s 2022 offense ranked 21st in explosive plays (20-plus-yard receptions, 10-plus-yard rushes) and had a league-low 12 passing touchdowns (29 TDs total),” Pryor writes regarding her offseason question for the Steelers for ESPN.com Wednesday as part of a look at all 32 teams. “Part of the issue, as Pittsburgh tight end Pat Freiermuth said recently on Ben Roethlisberger’s podcast, was the elimination of hot routes. Though rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett showed dramatic improvement in the second half of the season, he didn’t have the freedom to use nonverbal cues at the line of scrimmage to make checks to his receivers. Instead, pass-catchers read the coverage in front of them and ran their routes. Will Canada open up the playbook and give Pickett more freedom to make plays?”
It was an extremely simple offense in 2022 under Canada with new quarterbacks Mitch Trubisky and Pickett taking over for Ben Roethlisberger. That, for the most part, was largely expected as the Steelers went through a transition and aimed to avoid miscommunications, mistakes, and turning the football over, hurting the chances of winning.
The Steelers oversimplified though, removing hot routes from the system, as tight end Pat Freiermuth revealed on the Ben Roethlisberger’s Footbahlin’ podcast, noting the offense lacked the checks they had under Roethlisberger.
Hot routes are a staple of offenses in football at any level. They are the best way to beat the blitz, changing a single route in the formation on the fly at the line of scrimmage in order to get the ball out quickly. Typically, that’s done when the offense doesn’t have the right protection to defend a blitz or potential blitz look. If an offense has five to protect and the defense is threatening to bring six, the ball has to come out “hot,” meaning it must be thrown immediately.
The Steelers took that out of the offense entirely last season, taking away a key pre-snap responsibility from Pickett as they eased him into the system and the role as the starting quarterback.
It backfired in a major way for the Steelers as they had issues against the blitz all season failed to come up with proper receiver hots/adjustments to counter these blitz looks, leading to negative outcomes, most notably when Pickett was concussed in Week 14’s loss to the Baltimore Ravens at Acrisure Stadium.
Of course, the lack of hot routes wasn’t the biggest factor in the offense struggling in 2021, but it was a microcosm of the issues with the Steelers’ scheme under Canada. It was far too simple and relatively easy to defend. If the Steelers want to take that next step forward in 2023, Canada has to have more trust in his young signal caller at the line of scrimmage to make checks, trust his eyes and put the offense in the best possible situation to succeed snap-to-snap.
There has to be more freedom, and the playbook must be opened up more. There’s no excuses in 2023. It’s make or break for Canada and his offense.