Pitt will get safety Jordan Whitehead back from a three-game suspension next Saturday against Georgia Tech and it’s a good thing, because it was mostly safety play that was the Panthers’ downfall in the first half of the team’s 59-21 embarrassment at the hands of No. 9 Oklahoma State last weekend.
With the Panthers focused on stopping star wideout James Washington on the outside, the Cowboys used slot receivers to exploit matchup problems and assignment issues with Pitt’s safeties in an offensive outburst that saw Oklahoma State score on each of its first seven possessions.
Let’s start with the Cowboys very first passing play. Dane Jackson goes downfield in one-on-one coverage and gets beaten, but Mason Rudolph under throws the ball a bit and Jackson gets away with some pass interference to prevent a big completion. But focus instead on the slot receiver lined up to the right, Jalen McCleskey.
McCleskey is being covered by field safety Bricen Garner, who starts the play about eight yards off the line of scrimmage. McCleskey runs an out route and Garner never even comes close to being able to cover it.
Still on the first drive, Oklahoma State goes four wide, but Pitt says in its base defense. That means that Pitt is covering four receivers with two corners, two safeties and three linebackers.
McCleskey and Washington are so far to the bottom of the field that Washington and cornerback Avonte Maddox aren’t even in the picture. Garner is supposed to have underneath help from linebacker Seun Idowu, but Garner’s positioning so far to the outside of the formation makes that impossible. If Idowu would shift out to help with the receiver, Oklahoma State would have an easy gain on a handoff. That again leaves Garner, eight yards off the ball, in a one-on-one matchup with McCleskey. That, predictably, doesn’t go well.
On the second drive, Oklahoma State gets backed up and nearly gives up a safety. Facing third and long from inside their own five, the Cowboys opt for a simple handoff. It goes for 12 yards and a first down thanks to a missed tackle by Garner. Part of the problem is that he’s not eight yards down the field anymore. After being beaten twice, Garner is now so far back that it takes him several seconds to even enter the picture. It’s a missed tackle, for sure. But if he’d have been playing his normal depth, he’d have had a much better shot at it.
Not to pick on Garner, here’s boundary safety Dennis Briggs with another unenviable assignment. The Cowboys are again in four wides and the Panthers are again in their base defense. This time, Oklahoma State has a trips look with three receivers on the same side of the field. That means Maddox is responsible for the split end, Stocker the first slot receiver and Jalen Williams and Briggs the receiver to the farthest inside. Briggs starts out eleven yards off the ball and on the complete other side of the formation.
Williams gets sucked in by play action and misses on a chance to disrupt the route’s timing with some contact and Briggs make the double-whammy of not closing to the receiver quickly enough and missing the tackle, giving Oklahoma State a touchdown.
Here’s another look at Pitt’s coverage of the three-receiver side of the field. You can see that Briggs also hesitates on the play action, which is why he’s late getting to the receiver.
Here’s a third down play where Oklahoma State is again in four wides. This time, Pitt is in its “Delta” defensive package, which means they have an extra safety on the field — Jazzee Stocker.
But Pitt blitzes with six men, meaning that they’re left with legit man-to-man coverage down field with no deep help. Garner’s assignment is the slot receiver to the left. He starts the play nine yards off the ball. The play is a third and seven. The receiver runs a slant, timed perfectly because there’s no one near him at the line of scrimmage, and gains eight yards.
At this point, it might seem like I’m picking on Garner. I’m not; Mike Gundy is. If Pitt is going to leave a base defense in against three- and four-receiver sets or go to an extra safety in obvious passing downs, then a safety is going to have to cover slot receivers. Pitt doesn’t have a safety than can cover a guy like McCleskey. Whitehead might be able to, but not if he’s playing eight yards off the ball. Heck, the Steelers might not have a safety that could cover McCleskey from eight yards off the ball.
That’s the real issue here, is that Pat Narduzzi wants to keep base personnel on the field to stop the run at all costs. Oklahoma State doesn’t even want to run the ball. They’ll gladly run 50 pass plays a game. Pitt’s defensive game plan put its safeties in an impossible position. They also didn’t manage to stop the run, either.
Here’s a 3rd and 4. Briggs is eight yards off the ball. On the straight handoff, he makes the tackle — seven yards down field. The Pitt safeties were so shellshocked by what was happening the passing game that they weren’t even able to make plays stopping the run.
Here’s one more for good measure. The Cowboys have three receivers, with two to the boundary side of the field. Briggs lines up seven yards off the line, which means he is nine yards away from McCleskey. McCleskey takes a bubble screen, breaks Briggs’ tackle and goes for a big gain. Briggs has too much ground to cover to get to the player in time.
Some of these issues will be helped by the return of Whitehead. More could be helped with Garner getting more experience and possibly a player like Damar Hamlin emerging at field safety. But the reality is that Pitt’s emphasis on stopping the run will always leave them vulnerable to this type of attack.
Next week, Georgia Tech’s option will provide a different challenge, but the rest of the ACC has the ability to run plays just like Oklahoma State and many have dynamic slot receivers that can do just as much damage.