PITTSBURGH — Fifty-one days after vigorously vowing he was going to make changes from a podium inside a closet-sized press conference room in Houston, coach Mike Tomlin made a nearly unprecedented change in the history of the Pittsburgh Steelers organization when he fired offensive coordinator Matt Canada.
In the nearly two months since the 24-point loss to the Houston Texans, there were some changes, to be 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’ better offensive performances of the season. There were first-drive points, a ground game surge, and two nail-biter wins.
But by the third week of the experiment, it was clear moving from the booth to the field was a death rattle more than a breath of life. The Steelers offense flatlined with 10 points against the Cleveland Browns, and Tomlin, who has never fired a coordinator in-season, knew it was time.
“Our most recent performance was a component of it, but I just think you know when you’re there, to be blunt and short about the answer,” Tomlin said of the timing of his decision. “Again, not saying that flippantly, not taking the situation lightly at all, but just having been in the role that I’ve been in for some time, you just know when you’re there, and usually it’s a totality of a myriad of variables.”
The numbers don’t lie. Canada was the worst offensive coordinator of the Tomlin era. Of the three previous coordinators, Canada’s offenses scored the fewest points per game (17.9), the worst offensive efficiency, lowest QBR, fewest yards per passing attempt and yards per carry, and fewest yards per game. Canada posted the worst numbers in many of those metrics by a wide margin, too. Under Bruce Arians, the offense averaged 21.2 points. With Randy Fichtner, that number was 22.0, and under Todd Haley, 23.5. The total QBR under Fichtner, Haley and Arians was 61.2, while under Canada, it dropped to 44.8. And while the other three averaged 355 yards per game, Canada’s offenses averaged just 310.
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Domonique Foxworth and Jeff Saturday react to the Steelers’ decision to fire offensive coordinator Matt Canada.
With Canada as coordinator, the Steelers were outgained in 31 of their 45 games, including the 2021 AFC Wild Card loss to the Chiefs. And while the Steelers maintained a winning record in that stretch, they won just 52% of regular-season games with Canada as offensive coordinator. Fichtner won 60%, Haley won 63.5% and Arians won 68.8%.
“The biggest crux of it was results,” Tomlin said of the decision to move on from Canada. “The results speak for themselves, man. We’re in a result-oriented business. I often say football is our game, our business is winning. We weren’t winning enough and fluidly enough and that’s just the reality of it.” There are, of course, other factors contributing to those numbers beyond just the scheme and the play caller. The other coordinators had the benefit of working with likely future Hall of Fame quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, along with offensive skill players like RB Le’Veon Bell, RB Rashard Mendenhall, WR Antonio Brown, WR Hines Ward, WR Santonio Holmes, WR JuJu Smith-Schuster and TE Heath Miller.
Canada, meanwhile, had a 39-year-old Roethlisberger in the final year of his career — two years removed from a season-ending elbow injury — four games of Mitch Trubisky and a rookie from a unanimously panned quarterback class, who was thrown in the fire without regular season first-team reps when he took over for Trubisky in Week 4 of the 2022 season. There was also significant turnover and inconsistent development in skill position groups and the offensive line. Mainstays on the offensive line retired just before Roethlisberger. Smith-Schuster left. Chase Claypool was a flash-in-the-pan. Diontae Johnson caught a persistent case of the drops. Najee Harris struggled through a training camp foot injury.
Hopes were high for Canada and the offense entering the 2023 season, his first opportunity to work with an incumbent starting quarterback. Instead, after a flicker of hope in the preseason, the offense regressed. Pickett’s completion percentage, 87% in the 2023 preseason, dropped from 63% last season to 60% this season. And his QBR slid from 53.6 in 2022, to 35.7 this year.
Growing pains were expected, chronic agony was not.
“This is a result-oriented business, and to be short, the improvements were not rapid enough or consistent enough for us to proceed,” Tomlin said. “You got to score touchdowns in this business. You got to win games in this business and just the totality of it has us where we are today.”
Against the Browns, Pickett’s struggles were evident, too, when he and wide receiver Diontae Johnson miscommunicated on several routes, leading to the ball bouncing to the turf either 10 yards beyond Johnson, or 10 yards in front of him.
“There hadn’t been enough continuity in our work,” Tomlin said when asked about Pickett and Johnson. “Certainly it hadn’t developed at the rate that I would like it to. We’re still showing signs of September football in some instances, and that’s unacceptable, man. It’s late November.”
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Canada’s dismissal is as much a vote of confidence as it is a challenge to their second-year quarterback. Moving on from Canada now gives the Steelers seven extra games to distill Pickett’s problems before the fifth-year option decision comes due after the 2024 season.
Is it the quarterback? Or is it the scheme?
Roethlisberger struggled at times during his first seasons in the NFL, too. Sure, he won a Super Bowl in his second season, but his completion percentage that year was 61.7%, and he threw for just 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 to 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 nod and threw 32 touchdowns, more than double the total from the year before.
With Canada removed, the direction of Pickett’s future should crystallize in a way that’s been murky since the former first-round pick took over the starting job early in his rookie season. He might not turn into a Hall of Fame quarterback, but to this point, evaluation of his performance and development has been intertwined with Canada and his offensive scheme. Is Pickett’s plateau because he can’t read the field and doesn’t have the arm talent to make up for a lack of instincts, or is his regression a result of the positions his offensive coordinator puts him in?
The Steelers won’t have an entirely new offense on Sunday against the Bengals. Twelve weeks into the season and six weeks past their bye, it’s too late to scrap everything and start from scratch. But quarterback coach Mike Sullivan, who will take over “the bulk” of play calling duties, can pair down Pickett’s menu of plays, eliminate the horizontal play calls and empower the running backs to carry the offense and open up the play action game that’s been shown to improve Pickett’s numbers.
To this point, the Steelers have called a play action pass on 14% of dropbacks this season, the third-lowest in the NFL. Pickett’s completion percentage on play action is 77%, compared to just 58% without it. His yards per attempt are also much better when the offense uses play action, jumping from 5.9 without, to 7.2 with. His total QBR also increases 22 points — from 29 to 51 — when using play action.
With the ground game finding its identity on the backs of Jaylen Warren and Harris, Pickett’s opportunities for play action should increase. Sullivan and running backs coach Eddie Faulkner, who will also absorb offensive coordinator duties, can further help the offense by also getting more targets to wide receiver George Pickens, who is averaging a paltry three targets per game.
“I just want to see points,” Tomlin said of what he wants to see change schematically. “I want to engineer victory more fluidly and points do that.” Weeks after promising change, Tomlin and the Steelers made a big one. It might lead to different results, or if Pickett isn’t the franchise quarterback the organization envisioned him to be, it might 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 acknowledge a future beyond Sunday’s game in Cincinnati, the final seven games of the season will go a long way to determining if Canada was the former or is the latter.