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Saunders: If Steelers Bring Matt Canada Back, There’s an Important Next Step



Steelers OC Matt Canada

The longer the Pittsburgh Steelers go without announcing a change at the offensive coordinator position, the more it looks like they won’t make one, and will go into the 2023 season with Matt Canada in place as offensive coordinator.

Despite a report on Tuesday by Mark Kaboly of The Athletic that said the Steelers’ post-season process had been slowed by a personal matter for head coach Mike Tomlin, most around the league continue to believe that the Steelers will keep their second-year OC around for second shot at leading the offense with Kenny Pickett, George Pickens and company.

That will likely be met as unwelcome news from Steelers nation, which has been attempting to run Canada out of town since before he got the job. But there is one scenario that could make a Canada return much more palatable.

The Steelers finished the 2022 regular season ranked 26th in the NFL in points, 23rd in yards, 24th in passing yards, 16th in rushing yards and 27th in yards per play. Most of those rankings came near or below Canada’s first season in 2021.

Statistically, none of that is good. But there are reasons to keep Canada.

Those rankings not only reference Canada, but also what Canada was working with: an offensive line that with no premium talents, a workhorse running back that started the season injured and a rookie quarterback that threw way too many interceptions at the start of his tenure.

The unit grew together and improved throughout the season, as head coach Mike Tomlin noted in his post-season remarks.

“Largely, I thought he got better in the ways that we got better, and so it was encouraging,” Tomlin said.

The players have supported Canada publicly, some of them dramatically so, like Najee Harris after the end of the season.

RELATED: ‘We Believe in Matt Canada’: Najee Harris Gives Impassioned Defense of Steelers Offensive Coordinator

Keeping Canada in place will allow Pickett to smoothly transition from his first season to his second season in the NFL, without the disruption of learning a new — and likely more complicated — offensive scheme.

So how to maintain the pros of positive development and ease of transition while working on some of Canada’s negatives? What are his negatives, anyway?

Most of Canada’s scheme is full of the kind of common-ground things that almost any other offensive coordinator would do, too. His use of shifts, at-snap motions and jet sweeps, once somewhat revolutionary, are barely at league average now, and for the most part, they work.

RELATED: Why do Steelers fans hate jet sweeps? They work.

At its heart, Canada’s offense is a running offense, and most of the valid critiques of it come from the passing concepts. Too frequently, the Steelers had too few players in viable routes, too many players without proper spacing, and had too many passes with little or no upside.

That also jives with perhaps Canada’s biggest flaw in his resume: he lacks experience developing elite quarterbacks. The best quarterback Canada had ever coached before Pickett was probably Jacoby Brissett, and he did that in the ACC. 

With respect to Brissett — who had a strong season — the Steelers have hopes that Pickett will turn out a good bit better. But Canada hasn’t done that, so it’s hard to have faith in his ability to do so.

To minimize those weaknesses, the Steelers should go out and add to their coaching staff someone that has done both of those things already at the NFL level.

Much like when the team brought in a former coordinator in Teryl Austin and then a former head coach in Brian Flores to help the defensive coordinator as a senior defensive assistant, the Steelers should bring in a coach that can provide the quarterback development experience and passing game bona fides that Canada lacks.

A good place to start would be with Byron Leftwich. Unless he’s able to find another coordinator job, what better place for the former Steelers quarterback to revive his stock than under his former head coach in Mike Tomlin, and with a promising young rookie to develop?

The Buccaneers finished No. 1, No. 2, No. 1, and No. 2 in the NFL in passing in Leftwich’s four years as offensive coordinator. Yes, some of that was due to having Tom Brady at quarterback, but not all of it. Bruce Arians has always run solid passing schemes, and Leftwich studied under him for years as a young coach.

It doesn’t have to be Leftwich to fill that role. But the concept of adding to the staff instead of firing a coach is a paradigm that has worked well for the Steelers in the recent past and could be a way to get the best of both worlds out of keeping Canada, fixing the passing game and getting the most out of Kenny Pickett for the future.