LATROBE, Pa. — It was absolutely critical for Kenny Pickett to get off to the fast start that he did in the preseason opener on Friday.
Methodically picking apart the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense on the first series of the year that resulted in completing 6-of-7 passes, including a 33-yard touchdown toss to George Pickens, pretty much said the success this offense had at the end of last season wasn’t a fluke.
And that goes for offensive coordinator Matt Canada as well.
While the Pittsburgh Steelers returned to Saint Vincent College to wrap up their final few days of training camp away from their home base of the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, the buzz was all about Pickett and the offense.
The reality is that Canada had a little more hop in his step as well because of what his unit was able to do and who can blame him?
Canada spent about 10 minutes talking to the media outside the locker rooms on campus on Sunday with a subdued sense of accomplishment following a near-flawless performance by his first-team offense over the weekend in a 27-17 win at Tampa Bay.
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“It was a preseason game so you take it for what it is, I guess,” Canada said. “It felt like we had an agenda to do some things in that game. Obviously it’s game-like and how guys play under the lights matters, but there’s still an agenda: balls to this guy, certain things here and there. I thought for the most part it was good, with the ones especially. We got done what we wanted to get done.”
File this under things you love to see 🗂️
— Pittsburgh Steelers (@steelers) August 13, 2023
Canada wanted to create an environment where Pickett moved the ball around to different receivers to get as many as he could involved. He was looking for Pickett to make crisp, clean decisions and, of course, score.
Canada was able to check everything off that to-do list within the first six minutes the Steelers had the ball.
“With that small sample size of what we had with that whole group and Kenny, we achieved what we wanted to do,” Canada said. “There was nothing we did Friday night that we didn’t do last year. Execution is what we are trying to get. We had a plan of what we wanted to do and how many chances we had if we could. We were trying to do that within the framework because we didn’t know how many opportunities we were going to get … we weren’t just going force on and do something silly.”
Some may cringe at the belief that Canada alluded that it was much more of the same as what he called a year ago but it just happened to be executed on the other side of it. Canada has been buried locally and nationally as the one variable who could make this promising 2023 season fall apart even before it started.
Canada’s love of jet sweeps and motions has become the butt of many jokes and some national pundits who have played the game at a high level were never high on Canada’s ability to be an offensive coordinator.
For one, potential Hall of Fame receiver Steve Smith Sr. called Canada’s offensive “Saturday-ish” following a Saturday night game last season.
“I’m saying his play calling is Saturday and this, even though today is Saturday, is Sunday football and it isn’t going to work here. Not on this level,” Smith said. “He’s calling Saturday plays on Sunday.”
That’s definitely not a compliment.
Canada took a revamped offense — three new linemen, a new offensive line coach, a rookie receiver, a second-year running back and tight end, a high-pedigree receiver getting traded midseason, and a rookie quarterback in Pickett starting the final three months — and tried to make it work under Tomlin’s directive of being conservative.
It wasn’t pretty at times.
The Steelers gained more than 300 yards in 13 of their 17 games but scored 30 points only once and at least 20 points just eight times. In 34 games under Canada, the Steelers have scored 30 points or more only twice.
If you look back to the end of last season, the same narrative was being broadcast. Many of the players said that the second-half success was based more on executing the offense than anything else.
— Pittsburgh Steelers (@steelers) August 12, 2023
Scoring has been an issue as well.
Two years removed from the team scoring 50 touchdowns, Canada’s two-year offensive touchdown total is 61. It went down from 33 in 2021 to 28 last season, which is less than two touchdowns per game.
But when you have a 40-year-old quarterback set in his ways and a rookie who was as green as you could get when he became the starter, you can see how there would be growing pains.
The Steelers won seven of their final nine games last season after a 2-6 start and narrowly missed the AFC’s final playoff berth.
The offense was noticeably better over the second half, which almost definitely was the reason Canada was brought back for another season — which will be his last if the offense doesn’t make a significant improvement.
For the first time since Canada was promoted to offensive coordinator, the Steelers have handed him not only a talented offense but also an offense full of assets, with an offensive line that could be massively upgraded from last year’s solid unit. And, most importantly, a sense of direction.
They added an important cog in the offensive line with Isaac Seumalo at guard and Allen Robinson II as the slot receiver. Pickett, Pickens, Connor Heyward and Calvin Austin III look like they could take that second-year jump and a rebound season for Diontae Johnson is very possible.
How Canada spreads the ball to those guys will go a long way in the team’s success.
“Everybody can’t have the best game of their career every game,” Canada said. “It just doesn’t happen like that. Kenny’s job is to manage that and our guys’ job is to manage that … we have the ability to get the ball to where it is supposed to go.”
Even so, a hardcore plan seems to be in place.
It’s not going to be a Pitt 2.0 offense, a pre-snap movement offense or a jet sweep offense. He doesn’t have to work around an aging quarterback coming off elbow surgery, or a rookie first-round pick who was asked to not lose games more often than go win them.
“I think we can be really good,” Canada said. “We are going to keep quietly moving forward and doing one thing at a time but consistently getting better. We did all the things we did last year in that game with our ones but it was clean, it was sharp. execution was better and that’s the same thing we have been talking about for a long time. I am excited about where we are at and where we are going.”
But it is just one step and Canada is aware of that.
It was 10 scripted plays to start the first preseason game against a bad team not playing a lot of their defensive regulars. A similar performance Saturday against the Buffalo Bills at Acrisure Stadium when the starters could go as much as the entire first half will be much more telling than last week.
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“It is important,” Canada said. “There will be an agenda next week and we will go out and do it. All that matters is building enough to go out and be ready for the 49ers. How we attack today to get that? Saturday might be a different guy we want to feature. All of those things matter but ultimately the thing that matters is the 49ers.”
(Top photo of George Pickens: Andrew Bershaw / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
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