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Linsey: The Pittsburgh Steelers offense must evolve under first-year offensive coordinator Matt Canada

Nov 8, 2020; Arlington, Texas, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) throws a pass in the fourth quarter against the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Steelers have admitted, based on the moves they’ve made this offseason, that they needed a change on offense. 

Pittsburgh fired offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner and offensive line coach Shaun Sarrett, elevating Matt Canada and Adrian Klemm to replace them. Three players who started last season along the offensive line — Alejandro Villanueva, Matt Feiler and Maurkice Pouncey — either signed elsewhere this offseason or retired. The same can be said for James Conner, as the Steelers made upgrading the running back position a clear emphasis in the 2021 NFL Draft. Their first four draft selections last month came on the offensive side of the ball.  

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The Steelers’ offensive efficiency numbers over the past two seasons paint a clear picture of why that change was necessary. 

Steelers offense rank by EPA per play | 2016-2020
Season EPA per play rank
2016 7th
2017 4th
2018 5th
2019 32nd
2020 21st

The last-place finish in 2019 can be pinned largely on Ben Roethlisberger’s injury and the ensuing Mason RudolphDuck Hodges quarterback carousel. But the offense was still a far cry in 2020 from the perennial top-10 unit that it was prior to 2019 following Roethlisberger’s return. 

The question now becomes whether Canada, Klemm, Harris, second-round pick Pat Freiermuth and a re-worked offensive line can start to turn that around in 2021. 

What changes might Matt Canada’s offense bring?

If we know anything about Canada’s offenses at his various stops at the college level, it’s that he’s a fan of using pre-snap motion. 

PFF didn’t start tracking pre-snap motion at the collegiate level until 2017, but Canada’s offenses led all Power Five schools in shift/motion rate in both 2017 and 2018 before he made the jump to the NFL. LSU led the way at 46% in 2017, while his Maryland offense raised the bar up to 54% the following year — nearly 4 percentage points higher than any other school.    

Using motion isn’t going to lead to a high-flying offense on its own. However, pre-snap motion forces the defense to adjust, which can cause defenders to provide additional information or miscommunicate. No one uses it better at the NFL level than Kyle Shanahan, and the following play demonstrates the advantages it can offer. 

The motion identifies man coverage with the linebackers following the backs out of the backfield, and it clears the middle of the field for Deebo Samuel on an advantageous one-on-one matchup. 

Canada isn’t afraid to get creative with it, either. Below, he puts one of the most athletic offensive tackles in college football at the time — Brian O’Neill — in an unbalanced formation to the left, motioning wide receiver and return man Quadree Henderson across the formation to draw attention before handing it off to O’Neill on the reverse. 

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