Canada’s time may be running out
PITTSBURGH (AP) — Matt Canada has been here before.
At LSU. At Maryland. At Wisconsin and nearly every other stop during the Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator’s nomadic coaching career.
Pressure comes with the gig when you make a living sitting in “the chair” as Canada calls his seat in the coach’s box.
Still, what happened in the fourth quarter of Monday night’s game against Cleveland was new, even for someone as well-traveled as Canada.
When Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett was overrun for a 3-yard loss with just over three minutes to play, forcing a punt that gave the Browns one last possession, chants of “Fire Canada” bounced from one side of Acrisure Stadium to the other.
The outburst was brief. It was also unmistakable. And, to hear Canada tell it, understandable.
“They want us to play better,” Canada said. “There’s nothing wrong with their passion and those things … We’re not running away from it. We expect to be better. We’re going to be better. I firmly believe that.”
Time may be running out to prove it.
Two years ago, he was a first-year NFL coordinator who had to walk the fine line between implementing his system without alienating Ben Roethlisberger. The results were mixed.
Last fall he oversaw the transition from Mitch Trubisky to the then-rookie Pickett, trying to make sure he didn’t give the young franchise quarterback more than he could handle. The results were mixed.
They were not mixed during the preseason. Pickett led the first-team offense to touchdowns for all five drives he was on the field. Optimism abounded.
It took all of eight quarters of games that actually counted for the good vibes, or “mojo” as coach Mike Tomlin put it, to vanish, replaced by frustration internally and palpable anger externally. The group that looked ready to take a massive step forward in August now looks much as it has each of the past two Septembers: inconsistent and ineffective at best, overmatched at worst.
The Steelers (1-1) head to Las Vegas (1-1) on Sunday having scored exactly two offensive touchdowns through two games. And while San Francisco may have the best defense in the NFL and the Browns not too far behind, it’s the way Pittsburgh’s offense is playing that’s troubling.
Pickett is occasionally forcing throws and missing open receivers. The offensive line has been unable to open holes for running backs Najee Harris or Jaylen Warren.
Asked this week if the offense has any identity, Pickett shrugged.
“Clearly, we don’t have one,” he said.
Maybe because it’s hard to develop one when you can’t stay on the field. The Steelers have all of 24 first downs through two weeks. No team has fewer.
In the center of it all is Canada, the straw-hat wearing, sunglass-rocking, beach-house-owning self-described football junkie who is struggling to find the success he enjoyed during previous career stops, most notably at the University of Pittsburgh in 2016 when the Panthers averaged more than 40 points a game and upset both Penn State and eventual national champion Clemson.
He is well-versed in how things work. He knows the quarterbacks get all of the credit when things go well and all of the blame when they don’t, even though neither is actually true. It’s even worse for offensive coordinators, who get none of the credit and all of the blame.
Still, he insists “it’s an awesome job.”
For how much longer is uncertain. Canada has never stayed in one place more than four years. He’s currently in his fourth season with the Steelers, spending 2020 as quarterbacks coach before being promoted to offensive coordinator in 2021 when Randy Fichtner was not retained.
His weekly debriefings with reporters are littered with the same phrases over and over again. He makes it a point to never criticize a player publicly or get too detailed in what mistakes were made. He is trying to remain upbeat, repeatedly praising his players’ attitudes and energy.
“We’ve got to find (a rhythm) and we will find it,” Canada said. “I just know it’s going to happen. Just based on our players. Players get all the credit. We’re going to start playing the right way and get ourselves going and making those plays and it’s all going to take off from there.”
The earlier in games the better. The Steelers didn’t get a first down until the final two minutes of the first half in the opener. It came a little earlier against the Browns but not by much. The game script isn’t exactly going to plan. Not by a long shot. And Canada’s boss has taken notice.
“We have to anticipate schematics of those that we play against a little bit better,” Tomlin said.
The translation is simple. Adjustments need to be made sooner, not when the halftime act is warming up.
Pittsburgh has one of the youngest offenses in the league. Pickett is in his second year. So is wide receiver George Pickens. Harris and tight end Pat Freiermuth are in their third. All came from successful college programs. All won at a high level. They haven’t won at a high level yet in the NFL, and if the Steelers’ sluggish start lingers, Tomlin knows there’s a chance their confidence could get rattled.
“It can’t paralyze you,” Tomlin said. “And it certainly can’t paralyze us in terms of training them and demanding that they continue to work and position themselves to be what they’re capable of being and what we need them to be.”
What Canada needs is a step forward against the Raiders. Then another one next week against Houston. Until that happens, the questions about what is going wrong will keep coming, and so will the boos.
And a coach who has hopped from job to job, sometimes by choice, sometimes not, knows it.
“We’ve got to do everything better,” Canada said. “And until we do it, there’s nothing else to say.”