PITTSBURGH — Pitt’s “Delta Force” gets one play to make a difference.
“Delta” is the name of the team’s third down package and the “Delta Force” refers to the two players that routinely substitute in as part of that package — linebacker Quintin Wirginis and safety Dennis Briggs.
Briggs and Wirginis come on for nose tackle Tyrique Jarrett and outside linebacker Seun Idowu to create a 3-3-5 look in the fashion of an NFL-style “Nickel” defense. The alignment gives the Panthers options as to how to rush the quarterback and how to defend the pass in long-yardage situations.
The first and most conservative option is a base, three-man rush that relies on defensive linemen Rori Blair, Ejuan Price and Shakir Soto to create pressure. This puts eight defenders in coverage, giving both cornerbacks Ryan Lewis and Avonte Maddox help over the top. The Panthers may use this more against Oklahoma State than they have in the past because wide receivers Jalen McCleskey and James Washington are both legitimate downfield options.
Pitt can also rush the three linemen and one linebacker. The four-man rush lets the Panthers play their typical pass defense behind the line, but with the added athleticism of an extra defensive back. They can also disguise which of the linebackers will be rushing, making it more difficult for the opposing offensive line to block it correctly.
That’s what happened on this fourth-quarter third and eight against Penn State. Watch how both Matt Galambos and Quintin Wirginis approach the line as if they’re going to blitz, but Galambos peels off to cover the tight end. The running back stays in to protect against another inside rusher instead of helping to block Price coming around the end. When Price beats his man, Trace McSorley is forced to step up right into the arms of Soto.
Pitt can also call a true blitz, with a five-man rush. Here, Pitt shows a bit of a different set-up with Galambos on the line, showing a rush. Mike Caprara also rushes up the middle and the offensive line correctly passes their men to pick up Caprara. This is a zone blitz, as defensive end James Folston peels off into coverage. The left tackle stays with Folston at first, and when he realizes what’s happened, there’s no time to shift the blocking to the right. With both the tight end and running back releasing, there’s no one left to pick up Wirginis, who comes on a delayed, curling rush that hides his intentions from McSorley, who doesn’t react until it’s too late.
Overall, the Panthers are keeping opposition offenses to 40 percent success on third downs this season, but Pat Narduzzi still feels they can get better.
“You’re never satisfied,” he said. “We can get a lot better. We made some plays and we missed some plays. Give [Penn State’s] offense credit; they made some plays. We want to be better.”
That 40 percent mark has them tied for 73rd in the FBS. They’ll get the opportunity to improve that figure against Oklahoma State, whose 60/40 pass preference means that there will likely be many opportunities for Pitt’s package defense.
“A lot of 11 personnel (one back, one tight end and three receivers) and a lot of speed match-ups,” Briggs said of Oklahoma State, but pointed out that it’s not exactly unique amongst Pitt’s opponents this season. “There’s going to be a lot of teams on the schedule where I could definitely be used a lot.”
Briggs is in his second season on the “Delta” unit and he and Wirginis have taken to the one-and-done mentality of the position.
“We talk about that all the time,” he said. “We’re one and done. We’re that type of defense, to come in and try to get the job done. Whether we get it done or not, we’re off the field in one play, so it’s like we may as well get our all in on that one play.”
Postgame, Narduzzi singled out Wirginis’ sack that held the Nittany Lions to a field goal as a big part of the win, and Wirginis said it was a “good time to make a big play.”
“[Mike Caprara] said [before the play] to me, ‘You have to be ready. This might be a big play for you,’” Wirginis recalled. “It’s easy making big plays when you have guys like Ejuan and all those other guys out there making lanes for you. All I had to do is make the tackle.”
While that certainly is the PC answer from Wirginis, in this case it’s correct. The threat of the speed rush off the end and the disguised nature of the blitz caused a missed assignment that left Wirginis unblocked.
It’s a great example of the way Narduzzi and defensive coordinator Josh Conklin have melded their defensive ideals with personnel and skill sets of players that predate their tenure at Pitt.