Brooke PriorESPN Editor9 minute reading
PITTSBURGH — Fifty-one days after vigorously vowing he would make changes from a podium in a closet-sized press conference room in Houston, coach Mike Tomlin made a nearly unprecedented change in the history of the Pittsburgh Steelers organization in launching an offense. coordinator Matt Canada.
In the nearly two months since the 24-point loss to the Houston Texans, there have been some changes, sure, but none with greater risk or greater potential reward.
Less than three weeks ago, Canada moved from the booth to the sideline to call plays, a move that precipitated two of the Steelers’ best offensive performances of the season. There were points from the first practice, a push to the ground and two hard-fought victories.
But by the third week of the experience, it was clear that going from the stand to the field was a death rattle rather than a breath of life. The Steelers’ offense stalled by 10 points against the Cleveland Browns, and Tomlin, who never fired a coordinator during the season, knew it was time.
“Our most recent performance is part of it, but I just think you know when you’re there, to be frank and short on the answer,” Tomlin said of the timing of his decision. “Again, I don’t say this flippantly, I don’t take the situation lightly, but I’m just in the role that I’ve been in for a while, you just know when you’re there, and usually it “is a totality of a myriad of variables.”
The numbers don’t lie. Canada was the worst offensive coordinator of the Tomlin era. Among the previous three coordinators, Canada’s offenses scored the fewest points per game (17.9) and had the worst offensive efficiency, lowest QBR and fewest yards per pass attempt, per carry per game . Canada also had by far the worst numbers in many of these metrics. Under Bruce Arians, the offense averaged 21.2 points. With Randy Fichtner, that number was 22.0, and under Todd Haley, it was 23.5. The total QBR under Fichtner, Haley and Arians was 61.2, while under Canada it fell to 44.8. And while the other three averaged 355 yards per game, Canada’s offenses averaged 310.
With Canada as coordinator, the Steelers have been outscored in 31 of their 45 games, including the 2021 AFC wild-card loss to the Chiefs. And even though the Steelers maintained a winning record during that stretch, they won 52% of regular season games with Canada as offensive coordinator. Fichtner won 60%, Haley 63.5% and Arians 68.8%.
“The bottom line was the results,” Tomlin said of the decision to move on. “…I often say that football is our sport, our business is winning. We didn’t win smoothly enough and that’s just the reality.”
There are, of course, other factors that contribute to these numbers beyond just the program and player. The other coordinators had the benefit of working with likely future Hall of Fame quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, as well as offensive players like running backs Le’Veon Bell and Rashard Mendenhall, receivers Antonio Brown, Hines Ward , Santonio Holmes and JuJu Smith-Schuster and tight end Heath Miller.
Canada, meanwhile, hosted Roethlisberger, 39, in the final year of his career — two years after a season-ending elbow injury — four games from quarterback Mitch Trubisky and of a rookie, Kenny Pickett, in a unanimously criticized match. quarterback class. Pickett was thrown into the fire without first-team regular season reps when he took over for Trubisky in Week 4 of the 2022 season. There has also been significant personnel turnover and inconsistent development across groups skills and in the offensive line. The pillars of the offensive line retired just before Roethlisberger. Smith-Schuster is gone. Chase Claypool was a flash in the pan. Diontae Johnson detected a persistent case of drops. Najee Harris suffered a foot injury in training camp.
Hopes were high for Canada and the offense heading into the 2023 season, its first opportunity to work with an incumbent starting quarterback. Instead, after a preseason vacillation, the offense regressed. Pickett’s completion percentage, 87% in preseason, increased from 63% last season to 60% this season. And his QBR fell from 53.6 in 2022 to 35.7 this year.
Growing pains were expected, but not chronic agony.
“The improvements have not been rapid enough or consistent enough for us to continue,” Tomlin said. “You’ve got to score touchdowns in this business. You’ve got to win games in this business and the totality of that gets us to where we are today.”
Against the Browns, Pickett’s struggles were also evident when he and receiver Diontae Johnson miscommunicated on multiple routes, resulting in the ball bouncing on the turf either 10 yards past Johnson or 10 yards in front him.
“There hasn’t been enough continuity in our work,” Tomlin said of Pickett and Johnson. “It certainly hasn’t developed at the pace that I would like. We’re still showing the signs of September football in some cases, and that’s unacceptable, man. It’s late November.”
Canada’s dismissal is as much a vote of confidence as it is a challenge for its second-year quarterback. Leaving Canada now gives the Steelers seven games to resolve Pickett’s issues before a decision on the fifth-year option is made after the 2024 season.
Is it the quarterback? Or is it the pattern?
Roethlisberger also struggled in his first few seasons in the NFL. Sure, he won a Super Bowl in his second season, but his completion percentage that year was 61.7% and he threw for 2,385 yards. He didn’t have his first 3,000-yard passing season until his third year with the Steelers, and that year he threw a career-high 23 interceptions for 18 touchdowns. But once then-offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt left, Roethlisberger showed rapid improvement. In his first season with Arians in 2007, Roethlisberger earned his first Pro Bowl nomination and threw for 32 touchdowns, more than double the previous year’s total.
Once Canada is eliminated, the direction of Pickett’s future should crystallize. He may not become a Hall of Fame quarterback, but the evaluation of his performance and development so far has been closely tied to Canada and his offensive scheme.
The Steelers won’t have a brand new offense on Sunday against the Bengals. Twelve weeks into the season and six weeks into their bye, it’s too late to abandon everything and start from scratch. But quarterbacks coach Mike Sullivan, who will handle “the bulk” of playmaking duties, can mix and match Pickett’s menu of plays, eliminate horizontal plays and allow running backs to carry the offense and open the play-action play that has been shown to improve Pickett’s numbers.
To this point, the Steelers have called a play pass on 14 percent of dropbacks this season, the third-lowest rate in the NFL. Pickett’s completion percentage on play-action is 77%, compared to 58% without it. His yards per attempt are also much better when the offense uses the play, going from 5.9 without to 7.2 with. His total QBR also increases by 22 points – from 29 to 51 – when he uses play-action.
As the ground game finds its identity on the backs of Jaylen Warren and Harris, Pickett’s play-action opportunities should increase. Sullivan and running backs coach Eddie Faulkner, who will also serve as offensive coordinator, can further help the offense by also getting more targets for wide receiver George Pickens, who averages three targets per game.
“I just want to see points,” Tomlin said of what he wants to see change schematically. “I want to set up winning in a smoother way, and that’s what points do.”
Weeks after promising a change, Tomlin and the Steelers made a big one. This could lead to different results, or if Pickett isn’t the franchise quarterback the organization envisioned, it could stay the same.
In Canada, the Steelers have found either the source of their offensive ineptitude or the scapegoat. While Tomlin doesn’t want to look ahead beyond Sunday’s game in Cincinnati, the final seven games of the season will go a long way in determining whether Canada will be first or last.