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The case for firing Matt Canada, and why the Steelers won’t do it

Sunday’s contest in Week 4 of the NFL was a debacle for the Pittsburgh Steelers. The team was woeful on both offense and defense, as a young and inexperienced Houston Texans squad dealing with significant injuries on both sides of the ball out-coached, out-hustled and out-executed Pittsburgh in route to a 30-6 victory.

The Steelers were miserable across the board. The defensive line was gashed by a Houston run game that went up and down the field in the first half. Their vaunted pass rush failed to sack C.J. Stroud even once, allowing the rookie quarterback to throw for over 300 yards. The offense was especially anemic, accumulating just 54 total yards in the first half. Their six points scored dropped their season average to just 12 per game, which ranks 31st in the NFL. Pittsburgh lost several starters to injury, including quarterback Kenny Pickett, who hurt his knee late in the 3rd quarter and is unlikely to play in next weekend’s divisional showdown with Baltimore.

As my father is fond of saying, other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?

While the list of culprits for Pittsburgh’s performance is long, the attention in the aftermath turned immediately to the status of beleaguered offensive coordinator Matt Canada. The cries for Canada’s job before the Houston game were loud, as evidenced by 60,000 Steelers’ fans chanting “Fire Canada!” in unison during their home game against Cleveland in Week 2. Those cries have now reached a cacophony.

Since Canada was hired in 2020, the team has seen its points-per-game average diminish each season. The Steelers averaged 26.2 in 2020, which was Ben Roethlisberger next-to-last season. Canada replaced Randy Fichtner in 2021, and that number fell to 20.2. Last season, it dropped again to 18.1. This year, through four games, it’s at 12.

There have been plenty of attempts to absolve Canada of the blame for the futility of the offense over that time. First, it was that Roethlisberger was a bad fit for his offense, and when he had “his” quarterback in place things would improve. Last year, it was that Pickett was a rookie and the offense should get a pass as he acclimated to the NFL. This season, with a bolstered offensive line, a more experienced Pickett and an improving group of skill position players, things would be different. We would see the “real” Matt Canada offense, and it would be glorious. Heck, I made that argument once or twice myself in various articles throughout the off-season. Optimism abounded.

Well folks, it appears we have seen the real Matt Canada offense. Frankly, it stinks.

Most readers here know that I’m the head coach of a high school football team in New Jersey. I’m also our team’s play-caller. I can attest through experience that play-calling is so much harder than most people realize. It takes organization, timing, sequence and a hard-to-quantify feel for the game that the best play-callers possess. For these reasons, and for the fact I understand how competitive the coaching profession is, and how good you have to be to make it to the NFL, I am not quick to call for the firing of a coach. Sometimes, though, a team simply has to move on. This is where the Steelers now find themself with Canada.

The statistics are one thing. I could rattle off another couple of paragraphs detailing their miserable offensive rankings. More than numbers, though, it’s the way in which the team has lost faith in Canada that tells me he has to go. Pittsburgh was bad on offense early last season, too, but they improved as the year progressed and carved out a formula for success. They ran the ball well, limited their turnovers and asked Pickett to make a handful of plays a game, particularly in the 4th quarter, that would produce enough points to win. Their 7-2 record over the final nine games and Pickett’s steady improvement justified ignoring the criticism of Canada from both inside the organization and out.

That’s no longer the case. When quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, who relieved the injured Pickett in the 4th quarter on Sunday, attempted to put the blame on the players after the game by saying, “whatever play call comes in, you’ve got to execute it,” you could feel the implication of his words. If Trubisky believed the players were truly responsible, he wouldn’t have referenced the play calling. Pickett has been critical of the play calling at various times as well. The frustration of receiver George Pickens, who wears his heart on his sleeve, is increasingly evident. The players need to own up and look themselves in the mirror after Sunday’s game. But it’s hard to blame them for their frustrations.

Perhaps no play illustrated this more than the one on which Pickett was injured. On 4th-and-1 from the Houston 32-yard-line late in the 3rd quarter and the Steelers trailing 16-6, Canada lined up in a 3×1 spread set and threw a straight drop-back pass that contained no play action, no pick routes, and other than a standard checkdown by Najee Harris, nothing in the vicinity of the first down sticks. The routes were slow-developing and seemed more suited for a 3rd-and-7 play than for 4th-and-1. Pickett didn’t help himself by bailing too early from a reasonably clean pocket and running into pressure. But the design made no sense.

Criticizing play calls is low-hanging fruit. But when Canada isn’t making bizarre calls, he’s far too predictable. Opposing defenses have remarked about this on several occasions, most recently on Sunday when former Steeler and current Texans’ cornerback Steven Nelson said as much after the game. Nelson credited his 1st quarter interception to the fact the Steelers lined up in the same formation and ran the same play as they had the previous week when they hit Calvin Austin III for a 72-yard touchdown. He said he’d studied the film and knew what was coming based on how the Steelers aligned.

It shouldn’t be that easy.

Perhaps most troubling is the play of Pickett, who looks nothing like the player he was down the stretch last season, nor the one who lit up the league in a brief but stellar pre-season run. Pre-season is pre-season, but how is it possible Pickett went so quickly from being discussed as an emerging star to one some fans think should be benched in favor of Trubisky?

Player development, especially at the quarterback position, is one of the best indicators of the quality of a team’s coaching. Watching Stroud play on Sunday, I couldn’t help but be envious at the job his offensive coordinator, Bobby Slowik, was doing putting him in positions to succeed. Slowik used screens and play-action passes to slow down Pittsburgh’s pass rush. He moved the pocket at times so the rushers had to vary their aiming points. He established a run game early, which forced the Steelers to play with their base 3-4 personnel, and then threw the ball against that look. It was a tremendous game plan that took advantage of Stroud’s strengths — namely his accuracy and mobility — while mitigating the strengths of the defense.

When a coach has lost the locker room, and when opposing defenses can call out the routes that are coming based upon the predictability of the offense, and when the young signal-caller who many thought had the makings of a franchise quarterback is visibly regressing, it’s time to make a change.

The question now is, will they? I think most readers know that answer. The Steelers haven’t stripped a coordinator of his play-calling duties mid-season since Bill Cowher took them away from Ray Sherman in 1998. Sherman wasn’t fired, he was simply re-assigned and then not re-hired following the season. It’s possible the Steelers could go that route with Canada. There was some speculation that quarterbacks’ coach Mike Sullivan was calling plays from the sideline on Sunday. I haven’t heard a report that would validate this. But it’s possible. Sullivan did call plays for the New York Giants in 2016-2017 and in Tampa Bay in 2013. Elevating him to that role mid-season while also asking him to continue to develop Pickett as his quarterbacks’ coach seems like a lot, though. The firing of Canada would satisfy the masses, but would it solve the problem?

For right or wrong, the Rooney family has a particular way of doing business. Firing a coordinator who is under contract just four games into a 17-game season does not fit their M.O. That’s not to say it can’t happen. Just that, more likely than not, it won’t. Which means either Canada must figure things out, fast, or the Steelers are resigned to a miserable season on offense with an increasingly disgruntled locker room and fan base.

Stay tuned and get your popcorn ready. One way or another, there’s a reckoning on the horizon.

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