Blame Canada? Steelers offense regressing under coordinator

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Matt Canada stood in the warm early September sunshine and shrugged off the idea that being the offensive coordinator for the Pittsburgh Steelers carried any real sort of pressure.

“I’ve got the greatest job in the world,” Canada said at the time.

Fast forward three-plus months, and maybe not for long.

While the Steelers (7-7-1) remain very much alive in the sea of mediocrity that is the AFC, they’ve done it largely in spite of an offense that appears to be regressing as New Year’s looms.

Two weeks ago, they managed just 168 yards in a bizarre one-point win over Tennessee. On Sunday, they were sloppy and careless when it mattered in a 36-10 loss to Kansas City that sent them to their fourth loss in their past six games.

Pittsburgh failed to score a first-half touchdown for a fifth straight week — the first time that’s happened since 1940 — and didn’t produce a point until the Chiefs had built a 30-0 lead. The play-calling remains mystifying at times.

A flea-flicker on the first play of the second possession in which Ben Roethlisberger fluttered a pass that was picked off. A fourth-down toss wide to rookie running back Najee Harris that lost 3 yards. Dueling bubble screens on third-and-10, a call that resulted in a flick to Harris that gained nothing when Diontae Johson was open on the other side of the field.

Asked why his team can’t seem to find any rhythm until the second half — if it’s able to find it at all — and Roethlisberger just shrugged.

“I don’t know,” he said. “If I had an answer, I would’ve done everything we could’ve to get it fixed.”

The reality is Pittsburgh’s offensive line still isn’t getting much push in the run game and its pass protection is spotty at best. Throw in the 39-year-old Roethilsberger’s inability to get out of the way and the offense would be limited no matter who is calling the plays.

The Steelers tasked Canada with finding out creative ways to mask the offense’s many shortcomings. He’s been unable to find any sort of sustainable approach, and the team’s inability to get anything going in the first half has forced a defense ravaged by injuries and inexperience to be on the field for far too long.

Pittsburgh’s margin for error is razor-thin. The only chance the Steelers have against quality teams requires them to take care of the ball and force turnovers.

When they do neither — as they did on Sunday when they failed to produce a takeaway while handing it to the Chiefs three times — they aren’t close to meeting the standard that’s been the norm for the better part of five decades.

Canada’s best chance at earning another shot likely relies on the organization’s steadfast belief in continuity. Yet with Roethlisberger’s status beyond Jan. 9 uncertain and first-year offensive line coach Adrian Klemm reportedly bailing for the same job at Oregon, maybe it’s wise to do a full-on reboot and go in a different direction entirely on offense in 2022. Canada lasted just one year in his previous high-profile stop, parting ways with LSU after a largely nondescript season calling plays for the Tigers in 2017.

The optimism of early September has faded into the reality of late December. Canada may still believe he has the best job in the world. Whether he’s the best man for that job, however, is a question coach Mike Tomlin will have to answer far sooner than he imagined when he promoted Canada to replace Randy Fichtner 11 months ago.

WHAT’S WORKING

Nothing. Not the offense. Not the defense. Even normally reliable kicker Chris Boswell saw a 36-yard field-goal attempt drift wide left amid the swirling winds at Arrowhead Stadium.

WHAT’S NOT

Getting on a plane. The Steelers have fallen behind by 17, 38, 29 and 30 points in their past four road games. They are 2-5 away from Heinz Field in 2021 and considering their most likely chance to get into the playoffs would be as the No. 7 seed, it’s difficult to imagine any postseason appearance being anything other than a cameo.

STOCK UP

Thrust into the punting job at the last minute after starter Pressley Harvin III went home to be with his family following the death of his father, Corliss Waitman acquitted himself rather nicely while averaging 60.5 yards on his two kicks.

STOCK DOWN

Johnson is having the best season of his three-year career, but spent most of Sunday in a funk. He dropped passes and inexplicably gifted the Chiefs a turnover when he fumbled the ball without being touched.

INJURIES

Center Kendrick Green is dealing with a calf injury and veteran left guard Trai Turner has a knee problem. Outside linebacker T.J. Watt (knee, hip, ribs) clearly isn’t himself. He had just one tackle and played just 55% of the snaps to dim his chances of being a Defensive Player of the Year candidate.

KEY NUMBER

Minus-70. Pittsburgh’s point differential through 15 games. The last time the Steelers had a greater negative point-differential on the season came during a 5-11 campaign in 1988 (minus-85).

NEXT STEPS

Hope playing at Heinz Field next Monday against Cleveland goes a little bit better — OK, a lot better — than when the Browns visited 11 months ago when Cleveland drilled the Steelers in a 48-37 playoff win.

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