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Saunders: Steelers Offseason Offensive Focus Puts Pressure on Matt Canada

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The 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers did not have what anyone would call a dominant offense in its first season with Matt Canada as offensive coordinator.

The team finished tied for 28th in the NFL with a 4.8 yards per play average. They were 21st in scoring, 15th in passing and 29th in rushing. About the only thing they were really good at was holding onto the ball, as the Steelers finished tied for eighth in turnover percentage.

That wasn’t what was promised when the Steelers chose to move on from Randy Fichtner and replace him with Canada for the 2021 season. Canada ran a dynamic offense at college stops in Maryland, Pitt and NC State that showed promise of having success in the NFL, given its piecemeal adoption over the years by other NFL squads, notably the Kansas City Chiefs.

In fact, the 2021 Steelers offense could be hardly considered dynamic in any fashion. The Steelers struggled mightily to run the ball, but did not break out exotic run packages. The team barely went under center, sticking to the shotgun where quarterback Ben Roethlisberger felt most comfortable, and largely worked short and to the sides of the field, eschewing the middle and not taking many deep shots.

Part of that could have been an attempt to mollify Roethlisberger, who did not ever seem to want to embrace those parts of Canada’s offense. Backup quarterback Mason Rudolph said in March that the team did not run most of Canada’s offense because of Roethlisberger. The Steelers also had issues along the offensive line, where they had four new starters, two of which were rookies.

As the team readies for the on-field portion of the 2022 offseason, it seems clear that Canada will not have those excuses in 2022.

The Steelers went out and got former Chicago Bears quarterback Mitch Trubisky in free agency and then added Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett with their first round pick, providing Canada with two signal callers that are mobile enough to move the pocket and can be rushing threats of their own. 

The team shored up the offensive line in free agency, re-signing Chukwuma Okorafor and bringing in James Daniels and Mason Cole on free agent deals on the inside. First-year starters a year ago, Dan Moore Jr., Kevin Dotson and Kendrick Green all return, giving the team six legitimate options for five spots entering camp.

In the 2022 NFL Draft, it was more weapons for Canada and company. Second-round pick George Pickens will offset the loss of JuJu Smith-Schuster as a tough, physical receiver, while fourth-rounder Calvin Austin III is a speed demon that seems tailor-made for Canada’s scheme.

Even sixth-round pick Connor Heyward is a pass-catching H-back that can be a boon to a creative offensive play caller like Canada that is willing to put multiple people in motion and disguise things from defenses.

Three of the Steelers’ top four free agent signings by average annual value came on offense. The Steelers’ top four draft picks came on offense. Fixing that unit and re-making its image after Roethlisberger’s retirement has clearly been the focus of the last offseason for Kevin Colbert as Steelers general manager.

That also means that if the offense doesn’t work — or at least look like it could work — in 2022, that Canada will be out of excuses. The personnel will be there this time around.

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