NFL

What is wrong with the Steelers offense? Blame Canada (among others)

The game of football generally does not allow for more than moments of perfection – an acrobatic Justin Jefferson reception, a Micah Parsons dash through the line for an unchallenged sack – but the Steelers offense managed to sustain theirs through an entire preseason.

They were on the field for five possessions. They generated a touchdown each time. Quarterback Kenny Pickett compiled a passer rating of 158.3, which, according to the esoteric system adopted by the NFL in 1973, represents a perfect mark. And the Steelers won each of their three games, although that never seemed terribly important.

As of now, though, none of it really added up to much.

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The positivity and momentum generated by their August excellence has been buried by a September slump. In games that count, the Steelers have turned over the ball on twice as many possessions as they’ve scored touchdowns. They’ve produced TDs just 7 percent of the time they’ve had the ball. The Steelers defense has crossed the goal line with the ball as many times as the offense.

The Steelers needed defensive touchdowns from outside linebackers Alex Highsmith and T.J. Watt to defeat the Browns on “Monday Night Football.” In the opener a week earlier, they chose to accept the opening kickoff after winning the coin flip, lost 5 yards on their first three plays and were forced to punt, then were blown out by the 49ers in the 59 minutes and 35 seconds of football that followed.

What the heck is happening?

“We have to get our mojo back,” coach Mike Tomlin told reporters at his weekly press conference. “We have to get that mojo that we had in the preseason, where we’re playing fast and fluid and with confidence — individually and collectively. We’ve lost that, to be blunt, in the last several weeks.”

Confidence surely would help, but there might be other issues that stand in the way of that necessary belief.

Who is Matt Canada – and how’d he get Steelers’ OC job?

Matt Canada worked his way through the college coaching ranks after serving as a student assistant with the Indiana Hoosiers during his time as an undergraduate. He gained his first opportunity as an offensive coordinator in 2007 at his alma mater. He was in charge of offenses for five different Division I programs over the course of a dozen seasons, gaining the most attention when he led Pitt’s attack to finish 10th in the nation in scoring in 2016.

That was something of an anomaly, though.

Only two of his offenses finished in the top 35 in scoring: 2011 Northern Illinois and the 2016 Panthers. He had three that finished outside the top 80. The average scoring offense rank for Canada’s teams was 57th.

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Following his success at Pitt, he got a shot at a seven-figure job running the offense at LSU. But that lasted only a single season, with the Tigers placing just 76th in scoring offense and 59th in total offense and head coach Ed Orgeron later claiming he made “a mistake” hiring Canada. He took the OC job at Maryland after a “mutual” agreement to separate from LSU.

In his one year with the Terps, they did engage in a shootout-style game with Ohio State before losing, 52-51, but that team finished 63rd in total offense and 68th in scoring offense.

Only Tomlin knows how all of that added up to a job as the Steelers’ quarterbacks coach in 2020 and the opportunity to succeed Randy Fichtner as OC the following season.

Former NFL general manager Doug Whaley said this week in an interview on 93.7 The Fan that Canada is “not qualified” to be an offensive coordinator in the league, and all those numbers appear to back up that contention.

And there are numbers that indicate he’s not competent, either.

His offense has yet to produce a single 400-yard game through two full seasons and the first two games of this one; that’s with four different quarterbacks (Ben Roethlisberger, Mason Rudolph, Mitch Trubisky and Pickett) taking snaps. In that period, every other team in the NFL has done it at least three times.

The Steelers are loathe to make significant changes to their coaching staff in season — as opposed to the Ravens, say, who fired their offensive coordinator in 2012 and won the Super Bowl after installing Jim Caldwell as the replacement. But a few more games like the first two will make retaining Canada even harder to defend.

Yes, Kenny Pickett has been awful, too

Pickett was the Steelers’ first-round draft choice in 2022, the No. 20 overall pick. “It was an easy decision for us,” Tomlin said not long afterward.

Pickett played at Pitt, practicing in the same facility as the Steelers for each of his five seasons with the Panthers. His selection was popular with most, though not all, of those who follow the team closely.

To his credit, Pickett finished his rookie season with promise, directing a 7-2 finish to the season that included a number of comeback victories. He finished with only seven touchdown passes but completed 63 percent of his throws and showed significant ability to scramble away from defenders or run for gains totaling 237 yards and 23 first downs.

That player, and the one who excelled in the preseason, has been absent against significant defenses presented by the 49ers and Browns the first two weeks. One benefit of retaining Canada was Pickett would not have to learn a new scheme and new terminology so early in his career, but that hasn’t helped him progress in his second year.

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His passing accuracy is down to 60.5 percent. He has missed a number of throws, particularly on simple slant patterns. He has thrown three interceptions, and at least one other was dropped by a DB. His scrambles and designed runs have produced minus-2 yards.

The Steelers made Pickett their offensive captain this season, but early on, he’s led them nowhere.

“There’s good plays and there’s bad plays. That’s the way it’s going to go every game. There’s just too much bad popping up that we have to get off tape,” Pickett told Steelers.com. “The attitude is going to be there. People are frustrated. Nobody likes to be playing like that. From a fan base standpoint, a player standpoint – nobody wants that offense out there that we’re putting out right now. We know we have to be better. We’re going to keep pushing for that.”

How big a factor have the opposing defenses been?

When calling the Steelers’ 26-22 victory over the Browns on “Monday Night Football,” analyst Troy Aikman referred repeatedly to the challenge of playing against this Cleveland defense, which features All-Pro defensive end Myles Garrett and was led against the Steelers by the interior linemen.

Having opened against the NFL’s No. 2 defense from last season, the 49ers, the Steelers found no comfort in going against a Browns D that had shut down the Bengals and Joe Burrow in the opening game.

Through two games, the Steelers have produced fewer than 100 rushing yards total and only two touchdowns. They rank 31st in total offense and rushing offense. That they stand all the way up at No. 26 in scoring is due as much to the defense producing those two decisive scores in the Cleveland game.

They added former Eagles guard Isaac Seumalo to a line that was rebuilt in the previous offseason with two other free-agent acquisitions, but Pro Football Focus numbers assert the Steelers have zero yards before contact on average this season. They fell behind the Niners so quickly there was little choice but to set aside the running game. But against Cleveland, they were running into stacked fronts — and they struggled to get any push from their line.

The Raiders defense features an elite lineman in Maxx Crosby, but Vegas is only 23rd in total defense. It’s a long way from there to San Francisco.

“We’re not going to make knee-jerk reactions in an effort to make wholesale changes in an effort to change that outcome,” Tomlin said in his news conference. “But we do acknowledge that two is a pattern. We’ve had two outings that are not up to snuff in that regard, so it has our attention as we’re preparing for this next one.

“We’re all in this thing together. We’re not assigning blame for anyone. Obviously it starts with coaching; we’ve got to coach better. We’ve got to get these playing faster with more fluidity, and surer. And start faster.

“We realize that there are no secret formulas in that regard. It’s not a wave of a magic wand. What we have to do is continue to work, be true to ourselves and each other and honest about how we’re built, how we need to be built and the things that we need to do in an effort to extenuate our strengths and minimize our weaknesses.”

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