The Steelers kicked off the 2021 football season Thursday night with a 16-3 victory over the Dallas Cowboys at the annual Hall of Fame Show in Canton, Ohio.
While the result didn’t make sense, the play on the pitch didn’t. On Tuesday, I provided an overview of the contest with a focus on three areas of importance to the Steelers: Matt Canada’s debut as an offensive coordinator, the transformed offensive line play and the competition to succeed Mike. Hilton as the team’s nickel defender. This movie theater will criticize Canada and the line while a subsequent movie theater will follow the nickel competition.
The beginnings of Canada
The offense went without Ben Roethlisberger and 80% of his starting line, so it’s unfair to read too much into Canada’s game plan. However, there were a few notable aspects of his early days.
In the first set of the game, the Steelers moved the ball 29 yards in 6 plays before returning it when Mason Rudolph and Chase Claypool mis-timed a rally on a reaction sweep and fumbled. Canada has had a good training so far. He shuffled groups of staff, jumping from 11 to 12 and vice versa. He did a few shifts, a few throws, and used a few sets of packs to emphasize the edge of the Dallas defense. It was refreshing to see after the static openings often deployed by former Commander Randy Fichtner.
While fans may have been frustrated with the trial and error that ended the ride, it was a great call given how Dallas championed the “nub” look of travel (“nub” is a term that means a tight end by itself on one side of the formation with trips to the other). Check out the photo below of Claypool in motion just before the snap. There was no second-level defender on the small end of the pitch. If the trade had been executed correctly, Claypool would probably have crossed the line for a nice payoff. While poor execution doomed the game, Canada’s appeal was perfect.
In the second series, the Steelers moved the ball well again, gaining 30 yards in 6 games. Canada stayed with its group of 11, but continued to use the movement. He also kicked off the competition’s first RPO, a well-designed backstroke race that was paired with a quick exit in the Claypool limit. You can see the running action in the GIF below, with left guard BJ Finney and tight end Zach Gentry shooting while Najee Harris ran a backtrack. Before the shot, however, Rudolph had a sight reading on the corner covering Claypool. With the corner played smoothly, Rudolph took the easy shot:
This RPO was interesting because it was a pre-read, not a post-snap read. The RPOs the Steelers have led over the past two seasons under Fichtner were mostly post-snap readings, where the quarterback had to read a defenseman’s movement and make a fluid decision where to go with the football. Roethlisberger struggled mightily with these concepts. Here, however, Canada gave Rudolph a pre-engagement decision that hinged on his ability to read roster rather than movement. This may be something the Steelers worked on in training camp with the goal of creating RPOs that fall within Roethlisberger’s comfort zone.
The second disc stuck with another unforced error, this time on a third run down from Claypool. Once again, however, Canada had the Steelers in the right game against the look Dallas gave them.
In the GIF below, you can see the Cowboys in a 1 cover shell with seven defenders in the line of scrimmage threatening to blitz. Pittsburgh went to a cover batsman 1 with a tilt towards Claypool. While TV commentator Troy Aikman criticized the pitch for being far from Claypool’s body, I thought Rudolph had placed the ball in the right spot. Claypool just let him down. It was another solid call from Canada despite the poor finish.
In the 2nd quarter, an interesting X and O battle had emerged between Canada and Dallas defensive coordinator Dan Quinn. Quinn had initially responded to Canada’s jet motion by running a defender through the formation with him. But, after Canada exploited that a few times, it adapted. Quinn started pushing homework against the motion rather than running with it. This meant Dallas kept an extra player at the back of the movement. It deceived Canada on this run in the outer zone, where Kendrick Green (53rd), center, was assigned to the first support on the side of the game. After the rotation of Dallas, it is finally the lane player (31) . He was just too wide for Green to reach and he unlocked himself to drop Harris for a loss:
It was a nice fit from Quinn. But Canada, to its credit, took note. In the 3rd quarter, once Rudolph gave way to Dwayne Haskins, Canada responded with his counter-movement. By hitting the jet, Canada knew Dallas was in coverage. So he motioned to a nub travel set where the wedge was forced to wear the tight end of the limit on anything vertical. Canada cleared the corner and then brought their second tight end (Kevin Rader) from the field under the formation, where he slipped undetected into the flat for a nice gain:
It was a great game design and a great response to Quinn’s fit. He also made good use of Haskins’ mobility, as the bootleg action allowed him to clear the unblocked edge and bring the ball to his receiver in the dish.
Canada has run several bootlegs with Haskins, mostly with him from the center. He ran a little harder when Josh Dobbs took over in the 4th quarterback. While I wouldn’t expect as much of that with Roethlisberger, the focus was on play and pocket movement throughout the night. Some of it seems destined to find its way into the regular season game plan.
The offensive line
If I rated the performance of the line, the only justifiable rating would be “incomplete” due to the fact that Green, the rookie center, was the only starter projected to take the field. However, as Green was flanked by BJ Finney and Rashaad Coward on guards and Dan Moore Jr. and Joe Haeg on tackles, the unit performed well, especially in the running game.
Green showed some of his signature physique in the second shot of the contest. Facing a 2nd and 3rd on their own 32s, the Steelers executed an inside zone play with a throwing motion like window dressing. Green (53) did a good job reaching second tier, where he rocked linebacker Leighton Vander Esch (55) with a two-handed punch to the chest. Vander Esch managed to get out of the block to get a piece from running back Najee Harris, but not before Harris gained six yards. It was an aggressive block from Green with a low base and powerful on contact:
Harris made a nice cut on this run through a back seam that was cut open by large blocks from two other linemen. Coward (79), the right guard, knocked the TD out of a technology from the game. And Haeg (71), the right tackle, pummeled the weak support from the side. New line coach Adrian Klemm has been preaching physique all summer. That’s exactly what he got from the guys up front in the first inning of the game.
A few plays later, on a 3rd and 5 of 43, Haeg and Coward flashed again when they deftly handled a Cowboys twist. Watch the DT 3-tech at the top of the screen train from Coward’s shoulder to cross Haeg’s face as the on-board rusher dives in to attack the B-gap. Coward did a good job passing the 3-tech and taking the lead while Haeg complimented him on taking over the tackle. The efficient switch gave Rudolph plenty of time to throw. Rudolph hit Chase Claypool over speed for a 1st down:
In the second heat, the Steelers had a great run out of the zone. Haeg (71), the right tackle, and Gentry (81), the tight end, communicated well on a combo block on the rim and lane players, helping Harris take the turn and land a 1st down. Communication between the line was solid all night, which was impressive considering how few live reps they had together.
Speaking of Gentry, watch him on this play in the 2nd quarter. Gentry is inside the pack at the bottom of the screen, where he crumbles at the Dallas end (92) to give Harris a nice cut lane:
Gentry looks like a totally different player than the skinny kid the Steelers took from Michigan in the 2019 Draft. His weight can reach 265 pounds and at 6’8 he’s got the size to overwhelm little defensemen. A more physical Gentry may just be the tight blocking end that Steelers fans have been asking for this offseason.
In the second half, the lineup was filled with backups and likely cuts to the list. Still, it was great to see the Steelers propel the ball into the end zone from the 4-yard line, sending it into the teeth of the defense. Big-back Kalen Ballage (29 )’s push up front and run looked like a brand of football the Steelers hadn’t featured in a while:
This offense will certainly be different from last year. There will be tons of movement, more 12-person use and more gameplay action. But what jumped out the most is how Canada has used sharps to determine its calls. He regularly made trips when the ball was on the hash. When Dallas put his strength into the field, he attacked the border. And he used sets of groups to compress the defense in an attempt to create space to the edge.
The interesting thing about this philosophy is that it is much more common in high school and college than among the pros. This is because the hash marks are closer to the sidelines at the lower levels, giving the coordinators more scope on the wide side to work with. Defenses have to consider width, and those who overcompensate are often attacked in the limit. It was interesting to see Canada using this philosophy as an NFL player.
As for the line, I don’t want to read too much in a preseason game where 4/5 of the starting unit hasn’t played, but it does look like they’re going to be more physical than the last year. The running stats were pedestrian – 29 runs for 77 yards – but they do not represent the aggressiveness displayed by the unit. They had a different behavior coming off the ball. Their cushion level was lower, their leg training more important and their state of mind more assertive. Players like Haeg and Coward have had solid games and Gentry has been a revelation. Practice matters, and the Steelers may have found a good one in Klemm.
I mean, I don’t know about you, but I’m really turned on by the offense. I think he has a chance to be VERY good.
Next, a breakdown of the competition for the nickel spot. Stay tuned…