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Saunders: Brock Purdy Shows Why Steelers Need OC Upgrade



Steelers 49ers Brock Purdy

The Pittsburgh Steelers offense has been better in the second half of Kenny Pickett’s rookie season, as one might might expect with a first-time NFL signal caller, but that doesn’t mean Matt Canada should be comfortable in his position as the Steelers’ offensive coordinator going into this offseason.

Pickett certainly has been progressing the last few weeks before his second trip to the concussion protocol last Sunday. He’s increased his passer rating in six straight games, going from 66.2 to 66.9 to 79.7 to 85.9 to 87.5 to 90.9.

That looks impressive. And then you see what San Francisco 49ers rookie quarterback Brock Purdy has done, and suddenly, it doesn’t look that impressive anymore.

The last player taken in the 2022 NFL Draft, Purdy has played in three games and started two. His passer rating in those three games was 88.8, 134 and 117. In three games, Purdy has thrown six touchdowns and two interceptions. In 10 games, Pickett has thrown four touchdowns and eight interceptions.

I don’t think anyone thinks that Brock Purdy is a better NFL prospect than Kenny Pickett. While certainly not infallible, the entire NFL Draft process, from teams to independent evaluators, all believed that Pickett is a significantly better quarterback. Purdy’s consensus mock draft ranking as a prospect was that he wasn’t going to get drafted. Pickett was something of a surprise to be available at No. 20 overall.

Pickett also played four seasons as a starter at Pitt and is 24 years old, so it’s not as if he was drafted as a high-ceiling player with a predicted long development time. Pickett was touted as the kind of player that Purdy has been: an NFL-ready quarterback that could step in this season and make plays if necessary.

The difference is the system. Purdy is playing in one of the best and most passer-friendly offenses in the NFL under 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan. Pickett, to say the least, does not.

Canada’s system isn’t even built to be passer-friendly. It’s built to work without quarterback talent. The thing that made Canada an attractive option to next-level coaches was his ability to put winning football on the field at the collegiate level with the likes of Nate Peterman, Jacoby Brissett and Kasim Hill at quarterback. James Conner, Montee Ball and Anthony McFarland were the stars of those teams, not the passers.

The Steelers, knowing they were entering their post-Ben Roethlisberger era and possessing what they thought would be a strong defense, drafted Najee Harris in the first round and hired Canada to try to build a scheme that could win by running the ball and relying on minimal quarterback talent.

They didn’t expect to get their first pick of the 2022 quarterback class. They were probably more likely to end up with someone like Purdy than someone like Pickett.

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When Mike Tomlin made the decision to make the change from Mitch Trubisky to Pickett, he was making the rest of the 2022 season all about Pickett’s development. If the Steelers are going all in on Pickett going forward, they need to make 2023 all about taking the next step in that development.

That probably means hiring an offensive coordinator that will be better-suited to developing Pickett’s skills in the NFL. Obviously, Shanahan is not going to be available. But the Steelers have the money and the cachet to lure top quality assistant coaches, and it will be critical for Pickett’s development that they do so.

Canada has not previously had success at the NFL level. Even when he has had success at the college level, it came despite quarterback development, not because of it. His hiring has not worked out, not just because he has not been an outstanding NFL offensive coordinator, but because the fundamental nature of the job has changed.

It’s no longer about willing a less-talented Steelers offense to victory through trickery and a run game. It’s about developing the next franchise quarterback in the best possible way, and it’s clear there are options better-suited to that role than Canada is.

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