Canada sees plenty to build on with Steelers offense

History has a way of repeating itself.

And that is one big reason the Steelers are so optimistic regarding second-year quarterback Kenny Pickett. They've seen other quarterbacks given starting experience as rookies take a big leap in their second season.

"I think if you look at rookies and talk about picks and those things, other really, really talented players who have gone on to have tremendous careers, their rookie season might not have been great," third-year offensive coordinator Matt Canada said. "You look at having a winning season, there's a lot to build upon. That by no means is good enough. We have to score more points. We have to be more explosive. We have to make those plays. But I think the history is real. There is a jump, a certain expectation, a fair expectation that a player who started games at any spot to be better as we go. Experience, the reason those guys get better is because they see it and the game gets slower."

Pickett appeared in 13 games, starting 12, for the Steelers as a rookie in 2022 after they selected him with the 20th pick in the draft, making him the first quarterback taken in the draft.

There were ups and downs to be sure after he replaced Mitch Trubisky as the starter in a Week 4 loss to the Jets. Pickett threw three interceptions in his first game – though not all were his fault. And things didn't really start slowing down for him until after a Week 9 bye.

But the pre-bye numbers and post-bye numbers are one of the big reasons there's so much optimism.

In four starts prior to the bye, Pickett threw for 842 yards with two touchdowns and five interceptions as the Steelers went 1-3 in those games, losing at Buffalo, Miami and Philadelphia.

Take a look at the Steelers training and preparing for the 2023 season at Saint Vincent College

After the bye, he started and finished seven games, throwing for 1,442 yards with five touchdown passes and just one interception while engineering four game-winning drives and three fourth-quarter comebacks. The game-winning drives and fourth-quarter comebacks were the most in the league following Week 9 and helped the Steelers to a 6-1 record in those games.

"The goal is to win the game, right?" Canada said. "Rookie quarterbacks, Kenny got thrown into the fire. He had some turnovers. Then, he starts taking care of the ball. There's a balance there to make sure you're making the defense pay if they're giving us opportunities. There's also being too aggressive, reckless or whatever.

"I think you learn that as you play. Kenny is super smart. You should expect a second-year player who has had all of this experience to do that. It's our other guys, as well. GP (George Pickens) is a second-year player. Connor (Heyward) is a second-year player. Jaylen (Warren) is a second-year player. We have some other guys who are young, as well. Calvin (Austin) is a second-year player. We've got some weapons. That next step should show up on tape and show up on Sundays."

The offense was incredibly young last season. In addition to the first-year players Canada referenced, running back Najee Harris, tight end Pat Freiermuth and left tackle Dan Moore Jr. were second-year players. Center Mason Cole and right guard James Daniels were both new to the team.

But in addition to Pickett's second-half turnaround, the offense started clicking better in the second half, as well. 

Only the Chiefs ended the 2022 season with more 10-plus-play drives than the Steelers. After being at the bottom of the NFL in time of possession in the first half of the season, the Steelers finished the season sixth, holding the ball over 31 minutes per game.

The Steelers also finished the season 7th in third-down percentage. But their third-down percentage was better than 54 percent in the second half of the season. Buffalo led the league for the season at 50.3 percent.

They rushed for 146.2 yards per game in the second half, establishing a physical identity up front.

The next step is to turn those positive numbers into more points. The Steelers tied for 23rd in red zone scoring percentage last season and were at the bottom of the league in explosive plays.

Getting better at those things was a big point of emphasis in the offseason and will continue to be throughout training camp.

"I feel like I'm in a good spot. We had a good spring," Pickett said. "I feel like I took control of the offense and the system and kind of ran the show how I like to do it, which is a familiar feeling. It's good when you're the quarterback to be in command of the system. I feel like I can build on that in camp."

But it's not just the quarterback. Everyone needs to be better in those situations.

"It's multiple things," Canada said. "We obviously studied that, and that was my (emphasis). It's no secret. We had critical mistakes down there, and that's when they're magnified. If it's third down in the red zone, that's a huge play, and you can't have a mistake, missed assignment, poor footwork or whatever. It's not all him. It would be completely wrong to say it was all on Kenny being a rookie. We talk about second-year players taking that jump to a third-year player, first to a second, more experience up front, on and on. But we have to execute those plays. We can't say, 'Oh, there it was.' We have got to execute it."

The Steelers have a belief that will happen.

"We had a vision of what we wanted the roster to look like this year and how we were going to win football games," general manager Omar Khan said. "I can say every week in this league brings a different challenge, and you have to win football games every week in a different way. Sometimes we're going to hopefully win scoring. You might win scoring 12 points. Sometimes you might need to score 40 points. I'm confident we can win either way."

Canada knows the onus is on his unit to make that happen.

But he welcomes the challenge.

"Numbers are great. We use them when they're good," Canada said. "But all that matters is winning in the game that you're playing at the time. At the end of the year, if you play that way, you're ranked here or wherever. We have to score more points. We have to make some games that were close that we won not so close. We had games where we had multiple turnovers. We've got to be better.

• Dale Lolley is co-host of "SNR Drive" on Steelers Nation Radio. Subscribe to the podcast here: Apple Podcast | iHeart Podcast

"All that matters is winning. When you get into a game, this is the situation. We're going to do this to make sure we win. We're not out there saying, 'Let's make sure we score two more.' That's not how you build a championship team. That's not how this organization is built. I completely agree with (Khan) that based on the game we're in, if we need to go fast, we can. … It depends on how the game is going. If the game is a tight one, it's the risk versus the reward. That's something we have to do."

But the Steelers do feel like they aren't starting from scratch this year as they were a year ago with so many new faces on offense.

Though head coach Mike Tomlin was quick to say he doesn't expect one season to carry over to the next, the Steelers do believe they found a winning formula in the second half of last season. Control the ball offensively and play strong defense and the wins will come.

Canada feels good about his side of the ball doing its part.

"I think every year is always different. You come into it and there's a real confidence among our players, our offensive unit," Canada said. "We do know exactly where we are, what we're doing. We're not rookies here and there. There were a lot of moving parts. We don't have those now. So, we do have an expectation of what guys are good at, what they're not, what guys have done and we need to get to the next part of that. Whether it's the route tree or blocking schemes up front, I think the building blocks are there. But every year is different. I don't know if we can say it's going to exactly be the same. We just want to win. However we find a way to win, we'll find a way to win."

It comes down to players such as Pickett, Pickens and others taking a step forward as players.

There's a lot of pressure on Pickett to perform. But Canada feels the young quarterback is more than capable of handling that.

And as Pickett said, he feels he's in a better place this year than he was a year ago at this time.

"He came in last year and Mitch was the starter," Canada said. "Obviously, there was that quarterback change, and he was a rookie and he didn't get those reps in camp. So there was a real solid reason why Kenny feels that way. 

"He's more involved. He's the starter now. Those conversations are taking place with him. A year ago, through the spring, we were talking, but he was just learning the offense and Mitch was playing a lot of ball and was more privy to that. It's where he's at. He's more comfortable. He can see things and suggest things, which he always could do, but he's more comfortable because he understands it better and can see things. He's not worried about what to do. Now, it's how to do it at a high level."

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