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Carter’s Classroom: How Steelers, Matt Canada Fix Jet Sweeps

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Pittsburgh Steelers Offensive Coordinator Matt Canada
Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Matt Canada during OTA practice at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, May 25, 2022 -- ED THOMPSON

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In his second year as offensive coordinator for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Matt Canada will feature plenty of challenges. But one wrinkle to his playbook that could bring a boost is the improvement of the jet sweep. The concept helps find ways for the Steelers to gain yards on the ground by challenging a defense’s spacing and gap integrity.

That can be a weapon for Canada to use in the Steelers’ effort to lessen the load on Najee Harris’ carries this season while still using the ground game. The Steelers’ had a distribution of 61.8 percent passing plays to 38.2 percent rushing plays in 2021. That ratio will most likely favor more rushing plays as Mitch Trubisky and Kenny Pickett adjust to the Steelers’ offense.

One way to do that without forcing more carries upon Harris will be to incorporate jet sweeps as a bigger part of the offense. Steelers receivers and tight ends took 27 carries for 187 yards and two touchdowns.

Canada watched over plenty of jet sweep reps during OTAs and minicamp, as SteelersNow.com highlighted during our coverage of those practices. But a simple increase of jet sweeps won’t be enough, as improvements will be needed for them to become a better tool for the Steelers’ offense in 2022.

Diontae Johnson’s fight for a bigger contract and Chase Claypool’s quest to prove he’s a top-three receiver will be more about their contributions in the passing game. But if the Steelers open up better opportunities for them to contribute in the run game, neither receiver would complain about increased success.

One of the biggest goals to make Canada’s jet sweeps work is to isolate specific defensive players for mismatches. But to accomplish this, defenses must have reasonable concerns about multiple threats.

This jet sweep against the Buffalo Bills exampled how the Steelers force mismatches. Watch how Claypool started on the formation on the right side of the play with Levi Wallace lined up to press him.

When Claypool came across to the left side, Wallace got caught up in the traffic while JuJu Smith-Schuster cracked down on Jordan Poyer and Pat Freiermuth blocked out Tre’Davious White to create the lane for Claypool to gain 25 yards:

That was the first jet sweep of the season. As the year continued, teams adjusted to the tape from the Steelers’ usage of jet sweeps. Watch how prepared the Los Angeles Chargers were for RayRay McCloud on this jet sweep as Troy Reeder jumped to contain McCloud’s sweep:

McCloud avoided Reeder on the play, as receivers will need to generally make at least one person miss for a jet sweep to turn into significant yards. Even though one player sniffed out the play, McCloud beat him and the rest of the offense did enough to block for a five-yard gain.

But that play is an example of how teams anticipated the Steelers’ jet sweeps as the season continued. Here’s a play when three Raiders defenders jumped all over a sweep to Claypool:

Notice how most of the defense didn’t bite on any other part of the Steelers’ offense. It’s not enough for a receiver to have pure speed and a couple of players make key blocks. If run plays with receivers were that easy, there would be no use for running backs.

A significant portion of the effectiveness for jet sweeps to work require misdirection to make the defense hesitate or misstep. But that requires the defense to consider other threats. Ben Roethlisberger was an experienced quarterback who knew the Steelers’ system better than any quarterback could last season. But his inability to make plays with his legs meant defenses never had to pay attention to him when they suspected a jet sweep-option was in play.

Watch how the Ravens didn’t consider Harris or Roethlisberger as sufficient threats on this play. Claypool had to worry about four defenders with only two blockers in front of him. There could have been better vision and a quicker cut from Claypool to get more yards, but the concept didn’t confuse the Ravens:

The opening Canada’s schematics must create don’t have to be gaping open holes. Even just a simple mismatch of a defensive lineman having to work in space against a quick and fast receiver would be sufficient.

Even with Roethlisberger, the Steelers accomplished this occasionally in 2021. Watch how the jet sweep slowed down the Seahawks defense to isolate Rasheem Green, a defensive end, in space against Johnson on his run. The space created put Johnson in a favorable position, and led to a 25-yard gain:

The mobility of Trubisky or Pickett would allow the Steelers to have a credible rushing threat at quarterback. That’s an added factor for Canada to force defenses to consider on jet sweeps. But an increase in production for the Steelers’ jet sweeps won’t simply be about a mobile quarterback. That’s just an added factor Canada must make a regular staple as a threat defenses must consider.

Notice how in all of the clips of jet sweeps from last year featured Roethlisberger starting the play from under center to hand the ball off to a receiver. That’s because the Steelers wanted to protect Roethlisberger from being in a situation where his lack of mobility might endanger him for injury or increase the chance of a mistake.

If you go back to the clips of the Steelers’ practice reps of jet sweeps during OTAs and minicamp, you’ll notice the majority of reps involved quarterbacks either in the shotgun or pistol. The depth of the new quarterbacks while taking their snaps allowed for receivers to cross in front of them.

That’s a sign that Canada looks to add multiple new variations to how the Steelers’ jet sweeps will work. It won’t become a defining part of the Steelers’ offense, but expect jet sweeps and other run plays to receivers and tight ends to be a wrinkle that might create more openings in an offense.

As Canada looks to establish a new identity for the Steelers’ offense, the more wrinkles that create big plays, the better.

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