PITTSBURGH — Criticizing the play calling of an offensive coordinator is as much a part of football as tailgating, cheerleaders and marching bands.
That’s why, despite Pitt’s offense posting a season-high 42 points in the Panthers’ blowout of Rice on Saturday, offensive coordinator Shawn Watson was still the target of a good amount of criticism.
There were some notable flops when it came to play calls, including Max Browne’s pitch on an option play hitting Qadree Ollison in the face mask and nearly handing the Owls the football. Pitt’s running game also struggled for the second straight week, and they nearly let Rice back into the game in the third quarter when they were unable to put the Owls away with a long, sustained drive.
But there was a lot of good in the Pitt offense on Saturday, and a lot more good than bad, even against an opponent like Rice. For the second straight week, the Pitt offense went straight down the field on the opening drive of the game and scored a touchdown. Watson also made a nice adjustment to the fact that Rice was stacking the box late in the game and went to the short pass. He even did some nice things to get Browne out moving around in the pocket, with the possible exception of that ill-fated option call at the end of the first half.
Let’s actually talk about Rice for a second. Rice plays a 3-4 defense, which is unlike any team the Panthers regularly play except Virginia. Last season against Virginia, the Panthers’ jet sweep game was shut down by the Cavaliers flowing to the motion man, usually Quadree Henderson, with two players. I wrote about that last year when Pitt visited Virginia.
It’s interesting that the very first play that the Panthers called was the same play they called so often against Virginia last season. It’s really two plays in one, with the motion man taking the jet sweep or the tailback on an inside zone handoff. This time, Max Browne gave the ball to Henderson and he was swarmed on the outside.
The fact that it was the first play of the game was almost definitely part of the Panthers script. I asked Pat Narduzzi after the game how much Pitt scripts its plays and he declined to answer, but did say he was encouraged by the fact that the offense had scored on its first drive two straight weeks.
Another play from that first drive showed what would be a theme of the day for Browne’s success: moving in the pocket. Through his appearances in the first four games, Browne’s pocket presence left a lot to be desired. His mobility is limited and it seemed that he was unable to even make the most of the limited mobility he has by not being able to feel pressure coming and react properly.
When Narduzzi praised Browne’s performance, he suggested that he’d “knocked some of the rust off” after starting only three games since high school coming into the 2017 season. Whether it was rust, comfort with the offensive line or something else, Browne’s pocket presence seemed improved.
Here’s Browne stepping up in the pocket to avoid the rush and deliver a strike to Aaron Mathews to convert on third down.
Watson did some things to get Browne moving intentionally, as well. Here’s Browne on a roll-out and he and Chawntez Moss improvised a wheel route (Moss was originally just supposed to be a check-down option.)
Here’s more of Browne on the move and hitting Moss, this time with a shovel pass. Though the Panthers struggled to move the ball on the ground, these plays are passes in name only and have the same kind of effect on the game plan as a running play.
Here’s a play from the second quarter. Browne fakes a run to his left and then tosses a shovel pass to Qadree Ollison. Watch the Rice right outside linebacker, who has to respect Browne on the outside and then can’t make the tackle against Ollison.
In the second half, with the Panthers holding on to a significant lead, they tried to go back to the run to put the game away. But the Owls were loading the box up with safeties to shut it down. Here’s a couple of snuffed out Pitt runs.
With the Owls playing zone, that opened up things considerably in the underneath passing game. Pitt’s Rafael Araujo-Lopes seems to have stepped up as the in-between zones threat that Tre Tipton was expected to be before he was lost for the season to an injury. Here, he calmly collects a ball in traffic. This type of play is a perfect anecdote for a team stacking the box.
Watson made some adjustments for Browne’s lack of pocket presences and got him on the move and also adjusted the game plan when it was clear Rice was selling out to stop the run. The execution of those plays came against an inferior opponent, but it was good to see some positive things from a play-calling standpoint for Watson and Pitt.