Pittsburgh’s offensive personnel and its playcalling aged right in front of everyone’s eyes last season. The Steelers were the last undefeated team in 2020 with an 11-0 record before the wheels completely fell off down the stretch. Ben Roethlisberger and his offensive line looked old and past their prime while Randy Fichtner’s offense became stale and predictable in the final two months of the season. The Steelers won just once in their final six games, which included an embarrassing 48-37 loss to the rival Browns in the AFC Wild Card Round.
The Steelers decided not to renew Fichtner’s expired contract at the end of the season after a three-year run as the team’s offensive coordinator. The Steelers stayed in-house to promote Fichtner back in 2018 after letting Todd Haley’s contract expire after a six-year run as OC in 2012-17. Pittsburgh once again looked in-house to promote Matt Canada from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator at the conclusion of Fichtner’s contract. The Steelers desperately needed to breathe new life into their offense in 2021, but they also wanted to maintain some continuity in language and concepts to accommodate Ben, who isn’t looking to learn a whole new system in what could be his final season in 2021.
About Matt Canada
Canada, 49, had been a lifer at the college level before breaking in with the Steelers last year. He spent 25 years in the college game from 1994-2018 before taking 2019 off and jumping into the NFL in 2020. He brought extensive play-calling experience with him to Pittsburgh last season. Canada has called plays for eight different teams and for 13 seasons starting at the FCS level with Butler in 1997. He eventually progressed to calling plays at Indiana (2007-10), Northern Illinois (2011), Wisconsin (2012), NC State (2013-15), Pitt (2016), LSU (2017), and Maryland (2018).
Canada did some of his best work under the toughest of circumstances as the Terrapins’ interim head coach in 2018. Maryland placed HC D.J. Durkin on administrative leave just three weeks before the start of the season following the death of offensive lineman Jordan McNair, who passed away because of a heat stroke during off-season workouts. Canada led the Terrapins to a 5-7 record but they did beat No. 23 Texas in the season opener and they dropped a 52-51 overtime heartbreaker to No. 9 Ohio State that season. Canada and the rest of the staff were relieved of their duties at the end of the 2018 season, and he decided to take a season off after a quarter-century of coaching.
It didn’t take long for Canada to get back onto his feet with a team he became familiar with during the 2016 season. The Steelers and the University of Pittsburgh share the same practice complex, and Canada showed up on the Steelers’ radar when his Panthers’ offense averaged a school-record 42 points per game with James Conner and Nathan Peterman leading the way.
The Steelers were one of the league’s easiest offenses to game plan against last season as they had a non-existent running game by the time November came around. Pittsburgh averaged 136.8 rushing yards per game through the first five weeks of the season before averaging a miserable 59.9 rushing yards per game in their final 12 contests.
Fichtner had the Steelers lining up and throwing short on seemingly every play by the end of the season. Canada’s top objective next season is to make Pittsburgh’s offense less predictable, which has always been one of his calling cards. The Steelers brought in Canada to implement more pre-snap motion and shifts last season, and he’ll be taking it a step further as the team’s new play-caller.
Pittsburgh’s offense became too stagnant last season, which shouldn’t be an issue next season. Canada’s goal at the college level was to create confusion for opposing defenses, and he accomplished that goal with motion, shifts, misdirection plays, and play-action. The Steelers desperately need to use play-action more this season after they ran a league-low 51 play-action passes out of 656 overall pass attempts. That means the Steelers threw off of play-action just 7.8% of the time, which pales in comparison to the Titans’ league-high rate of 35.9%.
The Steelers need to build a more effective rushing attack if they want to effectively use more play-action this season. Roethlisberger likes to go under center about as much as five-year-olds like to eat broccoli, which certainly hurts their rushing attack. However, Canada might be able to find some middle ground with Big Ben by using more Pistol formations, which was a staple of his offenses in college. In the Pistol, the quarterback typically lines up four yards behind the center with a single back lined up behind the quarterback. The formation allows the offense to run most of the same concepts that can be used while under center, and the downhill run action is beneficial to play-action concepts.
The Pistol also allows Roethlisberger to do his pre-snap reading from a distance and he doesn’t have to worry about getting out from under the center with his limited mobility in his late 30s. Steelers Depot’s Alex Kozora found that the Steelers averaged 5.2 YPC on just 19 carries out of the Pistol last season (small-sample alert!) compared to 3.7 YPC on their 302 non-Pistol carries. They used the Pistol on 3.6% of their snaps last season with Canada joining the coaching staff, a rate that will surely climb this season. More diverse formations and more movement will open additional ways to attack opposing defenses. Canada got rookie Chase Claypool involved as a runner on jet sweeps at times last season, and his involvement as an offensive weapon should increase in Year Two.
The Steelers completely abandoned their running game for a short passing attack by the end of last season, which had opposing defenses playing closer and closer to the line of scrimmage. Roethlisberger needs to attack downfield more after the Steelers finished with the sixth-worst average intended air yards per pass attempt at 7.1 yards. A more effective rushing attack and more play-action could open up the entire field for this offense next season. Pittsburgh should have serious concerns about Big Ben’s diminishing arm strength at 38 years old last season, but he’ll also be another year removed from his throwing elbow surgery. Roethlisberger is actually going to have a full off-season to work on his arm strength in 2021 as opposed to rehabbing his elbow back to full health like he did last off-season.
Canada is also expected to rely more heavily on combination routes and half-field reads for his quarterback this season. Fichtner’s pass concepts often relied heavily on his receivers winning on islands against defensive backs, and he had some elite route-runners who could do it in Antonio Brown and Diontae Johnson. Big Ben has also proven to be one of the best at trusting his receivers to exploit one-on-one matchups on the perimeter. Those concepts certainly aren’t going to disappear this season, but Canada is expected to take a more proactive approach to scheme his receivers open.
Potential Fantasy Risers
Chase Claypool (WR) — Claypool is the most intriguing weapon in Canada’s arsenal. Canada got Fichtner to dip his toe into some Jet sweeps with Claypool last season — he scored two rushing TDs — and more designed carries and passes should be coming Claypool’s way in his second season. He could also be the team’s primary slot receiver if JuJu Smith-Schuster leaves in free agency.
Anthony McFarland (RB) — Canada has amazingly worked with three different backs from Pittsburgh’s 2020 roster in James Conner (Pitt 2016), Jaylen Samuels (NC State 2014-15), and McFarland (Maryland 2018) — he also coached FB Derek Watt at Wisconsin in 2012. I’m most intrigued by McFarland with Conner’s future up in the air and with Samuels proving to be a fringe 53-man roster option.
McFarland has a much better three-down skill set over Benny Snell if the Steelers don’t bring in any outside competition. McFarland is also better equipped to run out of the shotgun than Snell, who is better with his quarterback playing under center, which Big Ben hates to do. McFarland saw just 39 touches as a 21-year-old prospect last season, but Canada coaxed a monster season out of him when he was a redshirt freshman at Maryland three seasons ago. McFarland tore it up with 131/1034/4 rushing for a healthy 7.9 YPC and he added 7/73 receiving under Canada in 2018.
Potential Fantasy Fallers
Ben Roethlisberger (QB) — Don’t get it twisted: Big Ben is still running the offense in Pittsburgh. But Roethlisberger also saw the diminishing returns last season when he attempted 600+ passes for the second consecutive season when he’s been healthy. Big Ben should be more receptive to a more balanced attack with more diverse rushing concepts. I’m not expecting Roethlisberger to turn back into an under-center quarterback but we should at least see him lining up in the Pistol more often. I’m expecting less passing volume in the Steelers’ attack next season, and Big Ben will need to be more efficient to offset the dip in pass attempts.
Diontae Johnson (WR) — Diontae is the player who’s going to be hurt the most by a potential dip in passing volume after averaging 10.0 targets per game in 16 contests (playoffs included). At least it looks like JuJu Smith-Schuster could be out of the mix if he bolts to a new location during free agency. Johnson could also be hurt if Canada relies more heavily on combination routes compared to Fichtner’s propensity to let his receivers lineup and win in isolated matchups. Diontae’s route-running ability makes him one of the tougher covers in one-on-one matchups, but more combination routes could flatten out Big Ben’s target distribution a bit with more half-field reads.