Player Comments Show Steeler Fans' Beef is With the Wrong Coach

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Each week after a Pittsburgh Steelers loss, social media in Pittsburgh lights up with comments blaming head coach Mike Tomlin.  Most fans are just frustrated and looking to point fingers.  Typically, a good place to start is at the top.  In the case of the 2021 Steelers, however, I'm placing blame elsewhere, and a particular player's comments from yesterday are incidentally backing me up.
Steelers’ wide receiver Diontae Johnson made an innocent comment to the media yesterday.  He said that when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is running a no-huddle offense that he’s playing much more comfortable, calling what he sees, and adjusting to what he wants.  He also implied that Ben is calling more plays while running no-huddle than offensive coordinator Matt Canada.  Those that watched Sunday afternoon’s win against the Baltimore Ravens know that, not only did the Steelers run the no-huddle often, but the no-huddle was very effective for the Steelers offense. 

As often happens in sports, the player didn’t fully realize what he or she was exposing about the team and its dynamics.  Every word is broken down or taken out of context to try to spin a narrative out of it.  However, in this case, I do not think it is being taken out of context.  While many Steeler fans are calling for Mike Tomlin’s head,  Johnson said exactly how I feel about Matt Canada.  His input is having more of a negative impact on this team than a positive one.

Offensive Struggles 

The Steelers offense has performed poorly this season.  They have scored 20 points or less in half of their games, and have only scored over 30 points once.  The under 20 point games include one where the Steelers opted to have backup QB Mason Rudolph throw the ball 50 times against the Detroit Lions' 2nd worst rushing defense in the league, resulting in a 16-16 tie against the then winless Lions.  

The Steelers have also been held to just 10 points in three games, all against division opponents.  Even in Sunday’s win over the Ravens, where the offense looked better, it was the defense that carried the team to victory.

Statistically, the Steelers in the lower half of the league in nearly every single offensive category.  They are also near the bottom in rushing yards per game despite drafting a running back in the 1st round of the draft this past offseason.  The Steelers also lead the league in pass plays on 4th down that are not even close to the line to gain.  I made that last stat up, but if you’ve watched the Steelers this year, you’d believe this to be true.

While this team isn’t built to score a ton of points, with its soon-to-be retired quarterback, patchwork offensive line, and injured Juju Smith-Schuster, the offensive play calling has been frustrating.  Also, I don’t expect this team to be built much different in the near future.  There are only so many rookie offensive linemen in a single draft that can make an impact in their first year or two.  If the Steelers had several 1st round draft picks in the next draft, maybe the line sees a grand improvement in 2022. 

They’ll also likely be inserting short-term solutions at quarterback for the next few seasons until they have the opportunity to draft the next franchise QB.  That can take time, especially if they suffer several failed attempts like the Chicago Bears or the New York Jets.

So all this points to years of struggle if the same offensive coordinator is given the reigns.  Johnson's comments tell me everything I need to know about Matt Canada.  When Ben is given the ability to call plays, he is doing so much more effectively than the guy hired to do it.

Red Flags  

I don’t have a football mind like I do a baseball one.  When I watch football, the granularity at which I can analyze a single play is not strong.  I’m mostly about the eye-ball test in football.  With baseball, I have an eye for the details and understand at a granular level the strategy.  So I’d like to make a baseball comparison to further describe my interpretation of Johnson’s comments.

When the Pirates traded for Chris Archer, pitching coach Ray Searage tried to change a bunch of things he was doing as soon as he entered the organization.  This didn’t work for Archer.  He struggled mightily and had very little success with the Pirates.  However, part-way through Archer’s tenure, he did have a stretch of great pitching.  According to Archer, he stopped listening to any advice and, “just was pitching without thinking.” 

I saw this as a huge red flag of Searage that a pitcher ignoring the advice of the coach had led to dramatic improvement.  I see this Steeler situation as very similar.  Any time Ben runs the no-huddle he is taking less play calls from Canada.  It is clear to me, using the eye-ball test, that the no-huddle offense has been more effective for the team.  It's always concerning when a coach having less impact improves the situation.  

To round out the metaphor, Ray Searage was fired just one full season after all of this went down with Archer.  If it was up to me, Canada would be facing the same fate.

A Held Grudge

Perhaps I still have a bias against Canada.  He had a great season with Pitt in 2016 and used that success to immediately leave after one season and take a job with LSU.  He was terrible there and was let go after one season.  When he was hired on as the Steelers quarterbacks coach, I still held a resentment toward him for leaving Pitt high and dry.  

However, I know I’m not the only one feeling he is wrong for the job as Twitter is filled with memes of Todd Haley asking, “Do you miss me yet?”  I do, and I think it's time for Steeler fans to lay off of head coach Mike Tomlin and start directing any anger toward the real culprit: offensive coordinator Matt Canada.