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How Can Steelers Find More Big Plays on Offense in 2023?



Steelers wide receiver Diontae Johnson OC Matt Canada

The Pittsburgh Steelers are bringing back Matt Canada for a third season as offensive coordinator in 2023, but that will come with a mandate to improve the Steelers’ No. 23 overall offense from 2022.

The Steelers showed improvement in the second half of the season, particularly when it came to a drastically bettered rushing attack, featuring the dual threats of Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren and more consistent run blocking form the offensive line.

But they still didn’t possess a dynamic passing offense, and the way the Steelers scored in the second half of the season, with long, plodding drives featuring multiple third-down conversions is certainly doing things the hard way as an offense and limited their overall potential.

They also struggled to finish those long drives when they got into the red zone and defenses became more compact.

So how to fix those issues? Well, the Steelers will obviously spend the offseason attempting to upgrade their personnel. But what about schematic changes that Canada could make to improve the results, even if they don’t add significant talent.

Here’s two suggestions:

The Steelers need to find a way to better-scheme their receivers for run-after-the-catch.

It’s one thing to say the Steelers offense would be better served by throwing the ball down field more. But Pickett was not particularly good at throwing the ball deep down the field in 2022.

On the season, Pickett threw 73 passes between 10 and 20 yards downfield, completing 43.8% of them, 40th out of 41 qualifying quarterbacks. On his 47 passes of more than 20 yards in the air, he completed 38% of them, 20th in the league.

Most of the successes came to George Pickens, who established himself as a jump-ball master. But those plays down the sideline relatively easy for defenses to take away when the want to, and that’s why Pickens had five games with three or fewer targets.

The Steelers need to find a way to improve the spacing and design of their passing routes in order to maximize yards after the catch. While Pickett does not have a particularly accurate deep ball, he is extremely accurate passing short. He had a 79.1% completion percentage on balls under 10 yards, and another 5% of those attempts were dropped.

Diontae Johnson, Steven Sims and Gunner Olszewski (and you can add Calvin Austin III and Anthony Miller for 2023) are not premier deep-ball receivers, but they have well above-average speed. The Steelers too frequently ran routes that didn’t players space to run after the catch and take advantage of the strengths of their personnel.

The other thing they didn’t do enough of was play action. When the team started to improve in the run game, that was an opportunity to go to play-action to try to create some busted coverages and mismatches. Those can turn into game-breaking plays, and the Steelers had far too few of them.

Pickett ran mostly out of the shotgun his last three years of college and did very little traditional play action, so there could have been some hesitation from Canada and company to throw too much at him, too soon. But going forward, that should be a key part of the Steelers’ offensive identity.