Calvin Austin and Connor Heyward are the final pieces for Matt Canada
In the classic 1980 film “The Blues Brothers,” main characters Jake and Elwood Blues, played famously by John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd, are determined to put their old band back together to raise money to pay the taxes on the orphanage they grew up in to keep it from closing. Their “mission from God” results in an epic amount of chaos and destruction but, ultimately, accomplishes its aim.
Jake and Elwood must be role models for Matt Canada.
Canada, with the blessing of his bosses in Pittsburgh, has spent the 2022 offseason putting his own band back together. That band, the 2016 offense he coordinated at the University of Pittsburgh, is not being re-formed literally. the Steelers have not signed Nathan Peterman, who was Canada’s quarterback at Pitt, or James Conner, his tailback, or Quadree Henderson, his do-everything slot player. They have, however, assembled the pieces to mimic that 2016 unit.
That Pitt offense was perhaps the best in school history. He averaged 447 yards and 41 points per game, both school records. Its calling-card was creativity. Canada flummoxed opponents with unconventional personnel groups and formations, and his array of shifts and motions earned him a reputation as a guru of pre-snap movement. He ran simple concepts in unorthodox ways, like we see here:
That’s jet sweep to a 250-pound H-back. Canada loved heavy personnel groupings, and would sometimes load the field with multiple fullback/tight end types. He does so here, using 13 personnel to compact the defense so he can run a reverse to the speedy Henderson:
While there was a lot of smoke and mirrors to that offense, it was based on a common principle: run the football, and supplement the run with constraint plays. Connor led the way, rushing for 1,092 yards and 16 touchdowns. Henderson was the main complimentary piece and the player Canada aligned most creatively. He rushed for 631 yards on an array of jet sweeps and reverses and caught 26 passes, mostly on quick screens. The leading outside receiver was Jester Weah, a 6’3-205 pounder who had good ball skills and was effective on downfield routes, often preceded by play-action.
The use of in-line tight ends and fullbacks is what made the offense most interesting. By 2016, most coordinators treated these players as pawns. To Canada, they were more like rooks. He moved them horizontally and vertically, and used them to “capture” opponents with their blocking, pass-catching and running. George Aston, a 6’0-240 pound fullback, was his favorite in this regard. Aston had 22 rushes, caught 22 passes and totaled 15 touchdowns. Tight end Scott Orndorff was the team’s leading receiver, with 35 receptions.
Now that the dust has settled on free agency and the draft, it seems Canada intends to replicate this philosophy with the Steelers. We saw a limited version of it in 2021, but it never really took off because it lacked the personnel to make it work. Now, he has the pieces to fully embrace it. The overhaul started up front, with upgrades to the line. They will, hopefully, allow Najee Harris, whose downhill running style is reminiscent of Connor’s, to be the focus. Quarterbacks Mitchell Trubisky and Kenny Pickett are better versions of Peterman. 2nd Round draft pick George Pickens is a more dynamic version of Weah. Pat Freiermuth is Orndorff with far more athleticism.
Which brings us to the final two questions that complete the Canada puzzle. Who would be the speedy jack-of-all-trades who could play the Henderson role? And who would play George Aston, the versatile H-back who could be the rook Canada values?
Those questions have been answered.
In Round 4 of last week’s draft, Pittsburgh chose Memphis receiver Calvin Austin III. Austin is undersized at 5’8-180 but is solidly-built. He ran 4.32 at the NFL Scouting Combine in March, making him one of the fastest players in the draft. He played outside most of the time at Memphis but will likely bump inside for the Steelers, where he will fill the Henderson role and be used in a variety of ways.
Steelers’ fans may be wary of that description — cue the Dri Archer and Chris Rainey comparisons — but Austin is nothing like either of those players. Archer and Rainey were both running backs by trade whom the Steelers tried to convert into a hybrid role. Neither was big or strong enough to be a successful NFL back, nor did they run good enough routes to excel at receiver. By contrast, Austin is a proficient route-runner and accomplished receiver that the modern NFL, with its jet sweeps and read-options, can accommodate as an occasional ball-carrier.
When considering why the Steelers selected Austin, it’s important to envision how he will fit in Canada’s system. Getting the ball to Austin quickly and allowing him to operate in space will be a priority. This play looks an awful lot like the second GIF I posted above, with Henderson running a reverse out of a condensed formation. Memphis does something similar with Austin. The defense looks to have him hemmed in around the 35 yard line, but once he sticks his foot in the ground and gets vertical, he blows past people like they’re standing still:
Another way Memphis did this was with the perimeter screen game. This is a particularly nice design, where the quarterback executes sprint-out action one way to get the defense flowing away from Austin, then pivots and throws back to him. The Steelers tried this at times last season with Ray Ray McCloud, but he did not possess Austin’s burst. Austin only needs a crack on the perimeter to hit a home run. With the big, physical blockers they have outside in Freiermuth, Pickens, Chase Claypool and Miles Boykin, the Steelers should provide Austin the space he needs:
Memphis also used Austin well in their RPO game. This is something Canada attempted to develop with Ben Roethlisberger but found little success. Trubisky and Pickett have both been trained as RPO quarterbacks and should be more comfortable with their execution.
On this one, Memphis has a zone run paired with a slant from Austin, who is split wide to the right of the formation. The quarterback is reading the play-side linebacker, who is unblocked. When he steps up with the run action, it opens a window behind him for the slant. The quarterback finds Austin there, and once the ball is in his hands, you can see how dangerous he becomes:
As for traditional routes the Steelers employ, Austin did those things well, too. Here he is running Mesh, a Pittsburgh staple, where he comes across the field from his alignment split wide to the left of the formation. Memphis actually screws up the route — they have two players settle into the high hole instead of one crossing the field opposite Austin — but it doesn’t matter. Once Austin catches the football and gets upfield, he’s off to the races:
Finally, I mentioned above that Austin was an accomplished route runner. If the Steelers do want to play him outside, as perhaps the solo receiver on the back side of a 3×1 set, where he’s likely to draw single coverage, he can do that. Watch him here, aligned to the bottom of the screen, abuse the cornerback with a wicked break on this skinny post. Austin stems the route outside to get the corner to widen, then breaks across his face in a flash. He finishes the play by making a nice catch with his hands from him before splitting the corner and safety:
If Austin will be Quadree Henderson in Canada’s offense, 6th Round pick Connor Heyward will be George Aston. The 6’0-235 pound Heyward is almost identical in size to Aston. Like Aston, Heyward can block, run and catch. Heyward is a far superior athlete to Aston, however. He is also superior to Derek Watt. Many thought the selection of Heyward was redundant considering Watt remains on the team. But Heyward is more versatile than Watt, especially as a receiver. Watt will likely find a place on the roster as a special teams ace. When Canada wants an H-back, however, Heyward should get the nod.
To give you an idea of what type of an athlete we’re talking about with Heyward, here he is at tailback:
And here he is catching a swing route out of the backfield and making a miss defender after the reception:
George Aston couldn’t do these things. Nor can Derek Watt.
What makes Heyward most attractive, though, is his potential in the H-back role, which essentially combines the duties of fullback and tight end. Heyward, aligned here off the hip of the left tackle, provides an effective receiving option in the play-action passing game, something Canada seems determined to establish after years of the Steelers struggling in that area:
On this one, Heyward comes from the left wing into the right flat. The athleticism he displays for a player at 235 pounds is eye-opening:
Oh, and he returns kickoffs, too, where he is, let’s just say, challenging to bring down:
So Heyward can run, he can catch, and he can return kicks. That’s all impressive. But the real test will depend upon how well he can block. Heyward unselfishly switched from running back to tight end for his senior season at michigan state. The Steelers have listed him on their depth chart as a tight end, too, although it’s unlikely he’ll play in-line the way Zach Gentry does. As an H-back, his blocking duties from him will involve cutting off edge players and leading on linebackers, like we see here:
In this role, Heavenward is capable. His technique from him needs work, and he needs to learn to move his feet through the whistle. But he’s a hard-nosed player and a selfless teammate, and he will do what it takes to improve.
The versatility Austin and Heyward offer Canada tremendous flexibility. Their additions complete a bold overhaul for the Steelers. When play gets under way in September, only Diontae Johnson will remain from the group that started the season on offense in 2020. In just two years, Pittsburgh has fully re-shaped the unit to accommodate Canada. This puts the onus squarely on him, as he will own their success or failure. It’s a big gamble, putting so much faith in a guy who is yet to succeed at the NFL level. But, if he can recreate anything like the success he had at Pitt in 2016, it will have been a gamble worth taking.