Matt Canada will return to the Steelers in 2023, but the implications of that decision go far beyond just one year. After 2022 left the Steelers’ offense as one of the more mediocre units in the league, Canada will earn a third year with the team as he tries to right the ship.
Before we go any further into the logic behind the decision and what it could leave as implications, let me just throw some stats out there for you. The offense was 26th in points per game after registering just 18.1 points per game. Pittsburgh got 30 points only once during its second matchup against Cincinnati. The Steelers ended up with just 97 explosive plays on the season, which qualifies as 10 or more yard runs and 20 or more yard passes. That ranked 21st in the NFL.
Moreover, they only had 44 passing plays of 20 or more yards, tying them for 24th in the NFL with the Cleveland Browns. Needless to say, those are not stats that paint a sterling representation of the 2022 Steelers offense. However, when looking at many of the second-half adjustments, the argument for Canada to return forms.
Perhaps the most compelling stat is points per drive. The Steelers finished 23rd in the NFL in points per drive. Every single team below them either fired their offensive coordinator or head coach. The circumstances in the other cities lack a young quarterback, and that will be a key consideration further into this article.
Last thing ill say regarding Matt Canada:
PIT finished 23rd in points per drive. Let’s recap who was worse:
NE: fired OC
ARI: Fired HC/play caller
TB: fired OC
TEN: fired OC
WAS: fired OC
NYJ: fired OC
DEN: fired HC/play caller
HOU: fired everyone
IND: fired HC/play caller
— Derrick (@Steelers_DB) January 18, 2023
In the second half, the Steelers averaged over 20 points per game, their third down conversion rate shot up by over 20 percent, and the rushing yards per game doubled. In addition to that, keeping Canada does not shake up the cupboard on Kenny Pickett. In all considerations of this move, Pickett had to be the first thought. And for young quarterbacks, stability is a proven factor to help their growth.
Still, Canada has yet to prove his acumen at doing that. He did not work with Pickett at Pitt, and Jacoby Brissett was the best quarterback that he had worked with prior to that. Could that be solved by bringing in a senior offensive assistant like Byron Leftwich? It is a fair argument to make that someone who has worked with quarterbacks closely and that can cultivate Pickett in his second year could be the move to smooth all things out.
Where things continue to get concerning for Canada are on two fronts. For one, the red zone offense never truly improved. Pittsburgh scored a touchdown in the red zone on 52% of their trips there, ranking 22nd in the NFL. That is actually a step back from 2021.
Then, there is the lack of play action in what is a rushing-based offense. Pickett only ran play-action on 17.1% of his dropbacks, and he was pretty good at it when he did it. But he had an average depth of target of just 6 yards on those play-action throws, largely due to an extreme amount of rollouts to the flat being called. For Canada, the play-action game should be the crux to work his jet sweep game and make Pickett all the more comfortable by attacking the middle of the field. That, in turn, creates chunk plays.
The middle of the field is the most fertile area of the field. In his passing game concepts, Canada opts to stray away from the popular high-low concepts that could create those big plays over the middle of the field. Instead, many of the explosive plays are sideline go balls that are thrown in the direction of George Pickens. That is great, but the scheme does not help Pickett make easy, open throws routinely enough through the air. So, yet again, could a tweak from someone outside the organization be what they need?
I am higher on the scheme itself than most people will be, as long as the Steelers run more of the multiple personnel, the simplified version they did in the second half of the season. That allowed Pittsburgh to match personnel groupings offensively and run forward a zone-heavy approach in the rushing attack. It was a vanilla offense, but vanilla can work. Football is not always rocket science.
But far too often, the passing play calls for an abundance of five to seven-yard routes, giving Pickett a one-level read. The deeper the game became, the more the Steelers let Pickett open up the playbook, and with multiple-level reads, he seemed to execute them well. So, what is with the conservative play sequencing from Canada if these more effective plays that give Pickett more options work?
That is truly the question I am left having from the 2022 season. Canada made an adjustment in the run game that worked. But the passing game stayed stagnant, and it risks Pickett’s development becoming stagnant if the training wheels are not taken off him. The simple idea of those multiple-level reads is that it gives Pickett more outlets to work with in structure, anyways. This one-level, often short throws, work directly into Pickett’s worst habit, which is leaving the pocket too early. He can make magic happen, but if he wants to take the next leap, working in structure is the key.
Matt Canada is not the worst coordinator in the NFL like many believe him to be. But as a play sequencer in the passing game, he does not profile as the right offensive coordinator to help Pickett take the leap he must take in year two. That play sequencing is ultimately what makes Canada a disappointing offensive coordinator and can cap the Steelers’ offense as a stagnant offense that can not get over the top.
Pickett improved over the 2022 season in large ways related to rookie quarterback development. He started to see defenses a little better, and as such, turned the ball over less. Pickett got comfortable with game speed and started to make plays out of structure. His clutch gene fully activated and climbed the Steelers to wins. But an offseason of development for a young quarterback? That is a different task.
Pittsburgh’s offense in 2023 profiles to be what Canada has been thus far in his tenure with the Steelers, and that is largely mediocre. But what about Pittsburgh’s quarterback in Pickett? Given the profile of Canada’s offense in Pittsburgh, without change, it could cap him and hinder his development, too.
And that’s the real kicker on this entire move.