Offensive coordinator Matt Canada of the Pittsburgh Steelers has a reputation for featuring one of the most simplistic offensive approaches in the NFL. Steelers tight end Pat Freiermuth didn’t do much to dispel that reputation on January 30.
While appearing as a guest on a live show of Ben Roethlisberger’s Footbahlin’ Podcast, Freiermuth said to his former quarterback that the Steelers offense didn’t feature any hot routes during the 2022 season.
When NFL quarterbacks anticipate a blitz, he will often signal to one or more of his receivers to run a hot route, which is typically a predetermined short route such as a slant or screen pass. These are called hot routes because the quarterback will need to deliver the ball quickly (or hot) to avoid the defensive rush.
Not having any hot routes last season reveals a couple different things about the Steelers offense. None of them are good.
Freiermuth Reveals Steelers Offense Had No Hot Routes
What started as a joke ended up revealing an unfortunate truth about the Steelers 2022 offense.
Roethlisberger was having some fun with his former tight end, jokingly asking him uncomfortable questions early on during their interview. With a smirk on his face, “Big Ben” asked Freiermuth how different was it playing with rookie Kenny Pickett as opposed to him.
Roethlisberger told the tight end that he was joking, but Freiermuth went ahead and answered the question anyway.
“I tell Kenny this all the time. It’s so different because we didn’t have hots,” Freiermuth said. “With you, how many times did we have a concept and you looked at [WR Diontae Johnson] and you just give him a signal, and it’d be a 12-yard completion. We didn’t have that this year.
“Instead of looking at you the whole time, we were looking at the coverages. Like, I know what I’m supposed to do. It was almost too slow at first because you weren’t anticipating. With [Ben], you could see Cover Zero, and you’d give us a Ram or something like that.
“That was probably the most different between the two.”
Freiermuth and Roethlisberger then both agreed that Pickett will learn how to call hot routes. That could be one of many things that helps the Steelers offense take another step in 2023.
But this question remains — why didn’t the Steelers install hot routes for Pickett as a rookie? How come veteran Mitch Trubisky didn’t use them either?
Roethlisberger took 38 sacks during his final season in 2021. The Steelers offense had the same number of sacks with Trubisky and Pickett behind center during 2022 despite both of those signal callers having a lot more mobility than “Big Ben” in his final season.
Analytical data also suggests the offensive line was better last season than 2021.
Steelers quarterbacks not having the ability to check to another route based on the defensive alignment could have played a role in the number of sacks allowed in Canada’s offense this past fall.
Reaction to Freiermuth’s Offensive Reveal
Steelers analyst Alex Kozora of Steelers Depot argued that the lack of hot routes in the Pittsburgh offense was an effort to limit miscommunications that could lead to costly mistakes such as turnovers. A conservative, taking care of the ball approach helped the Steelers go 7-2 down the stretch.
But the lack of hot routes also limited the offense.
“To a degree, the simplified offense was expected, transitioning from a face of the franchise like Roethlisberger to a newcomer in Trubisky and rookie in Pickett,” Kozora wrote. “Still, a lack of hots and checks in the offense got this group into trouble quite a bit, especially in empty sets and empty protection.”
It would have been one thing if Pickett wasn’t ready to run a pro-style offense with hot routes. But that’s not necessarily what the organization advertised with the Pitt quarterback when they drafted him in the first round.
“So, the Steelers apparently went with Kenny Pickett because he was the most pro-ready QB in the 2022 class,” football editor Daniel Valente of The Score wrote in a post on Twitter. “Then they gave him an offense that was so simple it didn’t even have hot routes.”
As Kozora argued, a simpler approach should have been expected in the first season with Roethlisberger. But again, it limited the potential upside of the offense.
Canada can’t allow that to happen in 2023 for the Steelers to be true contenders in the AFC.