Pittsburgh Steelers quarterbacks coach Matt Canada was promoted to offensive coordinator, replacing Randy Fichtner after a three-year run.
For as tempting as it may be to fill the rest of this space with jokes about maple syrup and other fun references to north of the border, consider yourself spared from this point forward.
The 49-year-old has extensive history calling plays at the collegiate level, dating back to 1997 at Butler. He has coached running backs (Northern Illinois (1998-2000) and was even the interim head coach for Maryland in 2018. Predominantly, Canada coached quarterbacks and was an OC at eight schools.
The 2021 Steelers will look much different than last year’s version. In all likelihood, though, the offensive system may not be radically changed. Canada was the 2020 quarterbacks coach, which was his only season in the NFL as a coach.
Canada is known for his creativity and radical presnap shifts. Another aspect of his play designs and calling is masking the same play with multiple looks. For example, he may see a matchup to exploit, such as a wide receiver screen, and dress up the presnap look multiple ways to attack the same weakness from very different formations.
The Steelers will work on emphasizing the running game in 2021 after a disastrous effort last season. Running back Anthony McFarland Jr. played under Canada at Maryland, and with impending free agents likely to exit, there’s an interesting opportunity for the 2020 rookie.
There will be certain aspects of Canada’s pro-style spread preferences that won’t apply to Ben Roethlisberger, assuming the quarterback returns for the 2021 season. General manager Kevin Colbert indirectly addressed this situation, transcribed via SteelersDepot.com:
“Coach and I talked about that, because I’ve asked coach Tomlin, with Matt taking over, will we be looking at different players differently? Coach is always going to talk about what we have and how we can adapt what they do to what we currently have.
Maybe as we move into the future, further down the road, and we’re deciding on a wide receiver type or a running back type or a quarterback type or an offensive lineman type, we may shift as we evolve and learn what coach Canada’s offense is about,” Colbert said.
Being flexible and adaptive right out of the gates will be what fantasy footballers observe from Canada’s offense, regardless of what happens at quarterback. In college, Canada coached a spread system with QB Chandler Harnish, went on to Wisconsin to implement a power-running system, and then tutored Jacoby Brissett into a quality spread quarterback.
The gist of Canada’s system — whenever we see it in full view — is to play fast and prevent players from having to think too much on the fly. Overcomplicating things isn’t his style, even though the presnap movement looks ridiculous at times. There’s a method to the madness, and it’s to tip off the quarterback about the defensive scheme, as well as make the opponent constantly guess.
Expect something that sort of resembles Sean McVay’s system after the snap with all of the jet sweeps and misdirections to get a defense to mentally lean toward a certain outcome.
Prior to the hiking the ball, Canada and McVay’s offenses are much different. McVay runs the same formation multiple times and forces defenders to guess which play comes next out of a look he has shown them several times.
The concept remains the same: constant manipulation of the defense’s attention, ultimately in order to attack with fundamental plays at their core.
First of all, Big Ben’s contract is an issue. He’s willing to restructure and has said money is not an object to him. This situation is extremely fluid and could change by the time this sentence is finished being typed.
The Steelers will investigate all options, but financially, restructuring Roethlisberger and adding one year to his existing deal is the smartest approach for handling the salary cap (the reduced figure this year hamstrings Pittsburgh). Cutting Roethlisberger will save $19 million in cap space but also eat up $22.25 mill in dead money.
James Conner — a Canada running back at Pitt — is set to hit the open market. There’s little chance at this point he returns, but never say never. Look for the tandem of McFarland and Snell to shoulder the load.
At receiver, JuJu Smith-Schuster is a free agent in March, and there’s almost no chance he renews with the Steelers. The offense found a gem in rookie Chase Claypool last year, and Diontae Johnson could be poised for another step forward in his game.
Starters left guard Matt Feiler and left tackle Alejandro Villanueva are free agents, too, and it remains unclear if either will be back. Center Maurkice Pouncey retired following the 2020 season, and that’s probably not a bad thing given his slumping play.
Pittsburgh is currently $6 million over a projected $185 million cap.
Fantasy football takeaway
Everything hinges on Big Ben’s situation. The Steelers have Mason Rudolph and Dwayne Haskins behind him on contract. Rudolph is a mildly better fit for the offense than a 39-year-old Roethlisberger, but Haskins doesn’t mesh.
McFarland’s utilization and corresponding fantasy worth will be hyped throughout the offseason. Keep tabs on news surrounding his expected touch share and how he fares in eventual on-field practices, COVID-19 willing. He could emerge in this offense as a regular fantasy contributor.
Both Johnson and Claypool will be surefire fantasy starters if Big Ben returns. In the event Rudolph or another guy is starting, each receiver’s ceiling is rather limited.
Tight ends were a staple of Canada’s system in college, and Eric Ebron could be a focal point of this offense in 2021. Multiple tight ends are common in Canada’s designs. Another boost for Ebron is longtime NFL tight end and mentor Alfredo Roberts was recently tabbed as the new tight ends coach. While Ebron’s durability limitations make him a risky fantasy option, there’s considerable potential here to find a value buy late in drafts.
A bunch of things will change as the coming months unfold, of course. The Steelers had a quality teacher in Fichtner who struggled as a designer and in-game playcaller (rewatch the first half of the playoff loss to Cleveland). Canada’s history shows he’s an exceptional architect of plays … we’ll see how he fares with when to call what in his first year as an NFL OC.