'We need more splash': Can the Steelers offense find big plays?

PITTSBURGH -- Like a traveling preacher at a tent revival, Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Matt Canada stood in front of the Pittsburgh media Thursday morning and delivered a fervent, fast-talking message meant to convince his congregation as much as himself that they can all be saved.

In this case, though, it’s the Steelers offense -- not souls -- that he believes can be salvaged despite low marks across the board.

“I'll continue to say it and tell it: This gonna be a tremendous offense,” Canada said. “We got great talent. We gotta get balls down the field to ‘em. We gotta block a little better. We gotta get our run game. Our run game efficiency is coming, but it's not enough, right? … We gotta get a few more of those bigger plays. Last week we had a couple, so we're gonna keep working at it. We haven't found it yet. We haven't found the execution.”

For over 13 minutes Thursday morning, Canada was as candid as he’s been in his rocky two season tenure as the Steelers offensive coordinator. The offense he masterminds has produced the second-lowest scoring output in the NFL entering Sunday's date with the Philadelphia Eagles -- 15.3 points per game -- better than only the Denver Broncos. And the Steelers are averaging a league-low 4.8 yards per play -- the same mark they finished with in the 2021 season with Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback.

The scheme, partially built around pre-snap motion and short, methodical plays around the line of scrimmage in an effort to win the time of possession battle, has been as sturdy as a house of cards in a hurricane. Failed deep shots and penalties at the most inopportune times frequently put the Steelers behind the sticks and knock them off schedule, reducing the drive to a field goal or a punt.

Through seven games, the Steelers (2-5) are averaging 5.07 yards per play on first down -- 27th in the NFL. In the past three games, the Steelers offense has only scored touchdowns on 33.3% of their red zone trips.

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But despite an uninspiring start, Canada and his players believe there are ways to change the trajectory of the offense without scrapping the entire scheme.

“We’re close,” running back Najee Harris said. “We’re really close. We're extremely close. We have all the talent; we just need to fix some sh--.”

Chief among what must be fixed is not only adding more chunk plays but executing the ones called.

In the aftermath of the Steelers’ 16-10 loss to the Miami Dolphins, third-year receiver Chase Claypool lingered at his locker and implored the offense to add more vertical passes.

“We need more splash,” he said. “We need bigger plays. We need to go down the field a little bit. Sometimes, the defense prevents that, but [we] just gotta go down the field.

“... It's a little harder to score when it's like a 10-to-15 play drive because everything has to go right. If you're nickel-and-diming, you get five yards a play, which is fine for time of possession, but like, sometimes we just want to go score now.”

Claypool lamented the lack of deep passing, and he pointed to that as one way to get more juice in the offense.

“I just think we need more ‘go’ balls,” Claypool said after the Miami loss. “We’ve got playmakers that haven't had a go ball all year. George [Pickens] needs more, [Diontae Johnson] needs more. I'm not saying that's on the playcalling, I'm just saying we need to try to find a way to scheme it up.”

As the offensive coordinator, Canada is the face of the offensive dysfunction and an easy scapegoat, but the reality is that the problems in the Steelers offense extend far beyond the playcaller.

Claypool has officially run just three go routes all season, according to ESPN Stats & Information's tracking, one each in Week 1, 3 and 5, and he wasn’t targeted on any of them. But he's also been given opportunities to make splash plays. In quarterback Kenny Pickett’s regular-season debut, he targeted Claypool on his very first attempt: a deep bomb over the middle that traveled more than 40 yards in the air. But instead of connecting for an exclamation point, Claypool couldn’t corral Pickett's pass and it was intercepted.

Claypool is far from the only offensive skill player to miss on a big play. Both Claypool and Johnson have two drops this season, according to Next Gen Stats, and there’s been a miscommunication between Pickett and his receivers a handful of times.

“Third play of the [Dolphins] game, we’ve got Diontae matched up on the guy we wanted to, it’s press coverage and we had a communication issue, and you can’t have those at that time,” Canada said. “The fifth play of the game, we’ve got Chase matched up on the guy we wanted to, and they were still challenging us before they saw how fast our guys could run by them, right?

“He got tangled up and it goes from a big play for us to maybe a pass interference to all of the sudden it’s an interception. That’s what happens. That’s the reality. But yeah, I think we’ve just got to get it done. We’ve got to find a way to get it done.”

As a team, the Steelers run vertical routes a league-high 32.2% of the time. But often, the offense doesn’t utilize those downfield playmakers. And when the Steelers do target those vertical routes, they’re not having much success. Together, Mitch Trubisky and Pickett have a 13.8 raw QBR when targeting vertical routes -- the second-worst mark in the league above Arizona’s 9.5.

“I don’t have a great answer,” Canada said. “I would say I think as I continue to try to give Kenny confidence in that, if you think about the situation that we’re in, Mitch was our No. 1 all through camp, Diontae was in for a while and got hurt, Chase got hurt, Pat [Freiermuth] got hurt, but all those reps when they did go were with Mitch. Now Kenny is going and you’re starting to see those connections start to come.”

To coach Mike Tomlin, there’s not just one culprit preventing the Steelers from executing more splash plays down the field.

“You run go balls and vertical routes all the time,” Tomlin said. “Sometimes, you have to clear out underneath routes. Sometimes, it’s for critical one-on-one matchups which may not occur because of schematics. Sometimes, guys don’t physically win those one-on-one matchups. Sometimes, rush becomes a factor. The variables are many when you’re talking about that.”

And, there are some signs the Steelers could be moving toward having more splash and more offensive consistency on Sundays.

Against the Dolphins, Pickett connected with Freiermuth for a 21-yard gain on fourth-and-6 with a risky pass over the middle. He trusted Freiermuth to make the play, and the second-year tight end did exactly that.

“We want to go down the field more,” Johnson said. “I believe that we’re going to go down the field more this week, and hopefully the rest of the season, because we got the guys that can make the plays down the field.

“We just gotta throw it up and give us a chance.”

Each week, the Steelers have been closer to a more complete offense, to finding an identity. Though Pickett has thrown seven interceptions to two touchdowns, there are tangible signs of improvement as Pickett gets more time in the offense and training camp injuries finally resolve for players like Harris.

Eventually, Canada said, it will come together. But without a track record to back it up, he and the offense -- and everyone else -- will have to rely on blind faith.

"Do I think our office is gonna be really good? I really, really do,” Canada said. “Are we there now? No. Is it good enough? No. And we all are aware of that, and all you can do is just keep fighting and keep pushing and wait for the dam to break."