For this week’s trip into the film room, I’m going to examine — once again — the play of Pitt’s secondary. This time, I’m going to go a little more in depth into how Pitt’s pass defense is supposed to work and what Pat Narduzzi means when he says scheme isn’t the issue.
First of all, let’s clear something up: Pitt plays zone almost all the time. Their base defensive set uses a coverage scheme they call “Quarters.” Other teams call it “Cover-4.” Here’s my poorly drawn diagram of what the Pitt zone looks like.
That’s a simplified version, obviously, as the larger side of the field — Pitt calls that the “field” side — has bigger zones. The more athletic players with better cover skills typically play the field side. That’s where Avonte Maddox, Terrish Webb and Seun Idowu usually start. The players that are more stout in run support and that are big enough to cover backs and tight ends in space regularly play the smaller side of the field, which Pitt calls the “boundary.” That’s usually where Mike Caprara, Jordan Whitehead and Ryan Lewis play.
So when you hear people call for Pitt to play more zone, that’s a red herring. Except for a few jailbreak-type blitzes, Pitt is in zone nearly every snap. Now, just because they’re in zone coverage doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of one-on-one play. As you can see, the corners are responsible for a great deal on the outside.
But the defense is designed so that by eliminating what they aren’t responsible for, the corners should be able — even if they aren’t top-flight cover men — to stop what they are responsible for. In man-to-man defense, the corner needs to follow his receiver all over the field. In Pitt’s scheme, that’s not the case. Slants, curls, in cuts and posts will all take the receiver into someone else’s zone — either the safety or the linebacker, depending on the depth of the route.
That means all that the corner has to deal with is screens, stops and hitches short, out routes in the middle depth, and fades, corners and go routes deep. Because all of these routes are going to be in front of or to the sideline of the cornerback, he can play inside technique — lined up slightly to the inside shoulder of the receiver — so that he’s in better position for those routes that he’s responsible for.
Here’s an example of Lewis locked in with his receiver and how the inside technique allows him to be in position to defend the fade. Unfortunately, Lewis isn’t able to make a play on the ball — something that was a theme all night for the Panthers.
This is Pitt’s coverage as it’s designed to work. Because he doesn’t have to worry about the inside cut, Lewis reacts quickly to the fade and is in perfect position to make a play on the ball. He’s in trail coverage and the ball is thrown behind the receiver. If anything, he starts out in better position to make a play on the ball than the receiver is. While Ford goes up to meet he ball in the air, Lewis runs past the ball, loses track of his man and is never close to making a play on the pass.
This was the problem with Pitt’s coverage all night. The defensive backs didn’t get their heads around fast enough to pick up the ball and when they did, they still weren’t able to make a play on it.
But as I said above, they do have help, as many have called for. It just isn’t of the traditional, over-the-top variety. That’s useful if the opposition is using speed to beat corners over the top of the coverage.
That wasn’t the case very often against Virginia Tech. Here’s a rare example from the fourth quarter, when Damar Hamlin missed a jam and got beaten deep.
That type of help can protect vulnerable cornerbacks, but it transfers the bulk of the coverage duties on the deepest routes from the corners to the safeties and transfers the bulk of the run-stopping duties from the safeties to the corners.
If Whitehead was better at covering than Lewis and Lewis was better at stopping the run, they’d be better off switching positions than changing the whole coverage scheme. Clearly, that isn’t the case, and it certainly isn’t the case on the other side, where Webb has been victimized frequently this season, as well.
So what can be done? Double-coverage is an option against some teams, but with three receivers reaching triple digits Thursday, Virginia Tech isn’t one of them. Blitzing more in an option as well, but that can lead to even bigger plays by the offense if the pass rushers to don’t get home.
Narduzzi defended his resistance to changing his scheme by saying that he had players in place to make plays. No matter what defense is called, once players are in place to make plays, someone has to make one for the defense to succeed.
It’s pretty clear that the fade is a specific weakness of Pitt’s combination of defense scheme and personnel and Virginia Tech was able to use the height of its receivers to take advantage of that. Unfortunately, unless Pitt’s corners get taller or better at making plays on the ball in the air, there isn’t a scheme that can protect them any more than they already are.