PITTSBURGH — This isn’t the way Eddie Faulkner wanted to get the biggest job of his professional life.
Faulkner and Matt Canada are friends. Their wives are friends. Their families are friends. It’s a bond that goes back well over a decade, a bond that hardly ended when the Pittsburgh Steelers fired Canada as their offensive coordinator on Tuesday and replaced him with Faulkner, the energetic 46-year-old running backs coach who is well aware of how the promotion could alter the trajectory of his career.
Not that he wants to talk about it much. Yes, Faulkner is thankful and excited for the opportunity. No, he’s not thrilled it had to come at Canada‘s expense, particularly when the blame for Pittsburgh‘s offensive struggles goes far beyond someone who means so much to him.
“We feel like we let (Canada) down,” Faulkner said Thursday.
Maybe, but head coach Mike Tomlin had seen enough to feel a rare midseason move was required for a franchise that’s among the most stable in professional sports.
Tomlin selected Faulkner as the coordinator on an interim basis, with quarterbacks coach Mike Sullivan handling the play-calling duties on Sunday when Pittsburgh (6-4) visits Cincinnati (5-5).
The move makes Faulkner one of a handful of Black men currently in the position in the NFL, a job considered a primary stepping stone to becoming a head coach.
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think it was a blessing,” Faulkner said. “I totally understand it. You know what I’m saying? Like, I’m at the point in my career where I totally understand the opportunity that’s there. But at the same time, it’s not clouding what the task at hand is.”
Namely, trying to get Pittsburgh‘s 28th-ranked offense to show signs of growth. The Steelers have remained in the crowded AFC playoff race despite a unit that struggles to generate points or yards with any regularity.
Pittsburgh has survived on the strength of its defense and the ability to find a way to pull out close games in the final moments.
It’s not a formula that’s sustainable long term, and the tipping point came after a 13-10 loss to Cleveland last Sunday in which quarterback Kenny Pickett threw for just 106 yards.
By Tuesday morning, Canada‘s two-plus year tenure was over and the detail-oriented Faulkner found himself in charge of restoring some of the potency and swagger to an offense that has lacked it far too often.
The inventive Faulkner has spent five years working with Pittsburgh‘s running backs, where he’s developed a reputation for a “sure, why not?” approach to his job.
He’ll scour social media for drills he thinks might work, the former college running back at Wisconsin – with a brief stint in training camp with the Steelers in 2001 – taking great glee in challenging the group of 20-somethings at his disposal.
“He’s maybe one of the most influential coaches I’ve ever had in my life,” said second-year Steelers running back Jaylen Warren. “The way he goes about his job. The energy he brings. It can rub off on us.”
Pittsburgh‘s offense could use a jolt. Faulkner plans to be on the sideline during games so he can communicate with position groups and collaborate with Sullivan in between series.
One of his biggest tasks will be finding a way to help Pickett evolve. The second-year starter has just six touchdown passes on the season and only two since Oct. 1. Getting the ball downfield has been an issue, and Pickett has looked tentative and unsure in the pocket of late.
Faulkner understands his relationship with Pickett will shift over the next two months, but he also has no plans to change everything and start over.
“I don’t plan on doing anything crazy in the sense of ‘OK, now all of a sudden you listen to me,’” Faulker said.
The same can be said of the approach. Faulkner isn’t going to delete Canada‘s playbook from the tablets. That’s something that happens in the offseason, not during the stretch run.
“You’ve got to roll with what we’ve been doing,” he said.
They just need to do it at a higher level. The son of educators, Faulkner believes in taking a collaborative approach and using all the resources on his staff to help tweak things in search of progress. He pointed out the team has several assistants who were offensive coordinators at some point in their careers – including Faulkner, who did it for two years at Ball State in 2009-10.
Back then Faulkner thought his skill set might best be served at the collegiate level. Not so much anymore.
He’s one of the main reasons Warren has evolved from undrafted rookie free agent to the 1B in the backfield to 2021 first-round pick Najee Harris’ 1A.
The two have helped the Steelers pile up 543 yards rushing over the past three weeks. While there will be a concerted effort to make the passing game more dynamic, Pittsburgh figures to try and let Warren and Harris go to work and build out from there.
It’s an approach that fueled a 7-2 run to end the 2022 season, an approach that Canada put together and that seemed to hint at better days in 2023. That hasn’t materialized through 10 games and now Faulkner finds himself in a spotlight he is both trying to welcome and also block out at the same time.
This is a job he always wanted. Maybe it will lead to bigger things down the road. Maybe it won’t. At the moment, it doesn’t matter.
“There was really no like, ‘Oh, this could segue into this or that,’” he said. “This was all about getting ready for the Bengals, and that’s been my only focus.”
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