PITTSBURGH — Welcome to the first PSN Film Study of 2018. In this space, we’ll break down some of the big plays and tactical mismatches from each Pitt football game.
If you’re new here, I tend to build onto concepts I’ve already explained in the past at times, so if you feel like you’re missing something, the archive is a good place to check.
This week, I went back and took a closer look at Pitt’s 33-7 season-opening victory over Albany, and I was particularly interested in Pitt’s passing defense. Of all of the phases of Pitt’s game, the pass defense was probably the one that feels the worst after the win, with Albany freshman Dev Holmes tearing up the Pitt secondary for nine catches, 148 yards and a touchdown.
Pitt was conservative when it came to personnel, with cornerbacks Dane Jackson and Jason Pinnock and safety Phil Campbell sitting out altogether and safety Damar Hamlin and cornerback Phillipie Motley playing sparingly.
The Panthers were also fairly conservative when it came to scheme. They used their Delta package sparingly and never used their Nickel or another sub package I’ve heard they’re working on.
But was Pitt also conservative when it came to play calling? After taking a look at the tape, I don’t think so.
I’ve isolated two examples of the Panthers using a unique play call to disguise their coverage and they both turned out to big plays for the Pitt defense.
The first is Damar Hamlin’s first-quarter interception that took away what appeared to be an Albany scoring drive and set the Pitt offense up with excellent field position.
Here’s a screenshot of the way the Panthers lined up. It would appear they are in their base defense. Hamlin is lined up over top of the slot receiver. In base, he has underneath help from Seun Idowu, with Elijah Zeise doing the same for Dennis Briggs with the tight end on top of the field.
But the Panthers aren’t playing their base defense. The call is a double blitz from the top of the field, with the corner and outside linebacker rushing along with the four down linemen.
Pitt moves from a Cover-4 to a Cover-3, with Hamlin now responsible for the deep middle third of the field, Briggs the upper third and Phillipie Motley the bottom third. In front of them, linebackers Quintin Wirginis and Idowu are responsible for any short routes.
So when the tight end clears out Briggs and the wide receiver gets beyond Wirginis, there wouldn’t be another player back there if Pitt was still in Cover-4. But Hamlin has now gone from the near hash all the way to the other side of the far hash and the overthrown ball goes right to him.
One of the reasons I really like this call is that quarterbacks are often taught to throw to where a blitz comes from. With the Panthers rotation, Hamlin is coming from an unexpected place and he’s running to where it’s reasonable to think most quarterbacks will be looking.
Here’s another interesting defensive call, this one from the second half. The Panthers are in their Delta formation on 3rd and long, meaning Briggs has dropped down into the box like a linebacker and a been replaced by another safety high.
Pre-snap, Pitt walks every single player except for the two deep safeties up to the line, putting nine men within three yards of the ball, showing an all-out blitz. Then, Briggs and the top corner bail all the way back 10 yards down field in a very conservative look.
It appears that the Panthers are trying for a jailbreak six-man blitz and hoping that Albany quarterback Vincent Testaverde will have to make his throw before his receivers can get to the first-down markers.
But Pitt isn’t actually blitzing at all. Elijah Zeise and Seun Idowu back out of the box, leaving just the four down linemen to pass rush. The Great Danes have six blockers. But the Panthers have obliterated Albany’s pre-snap reads.
The center blocks no one after snapping the ball and expecting to be quickly met by one or both of Pitt’s linebackers. The left guard wants to pass to his right and let Quintin Wirginis come around the left tackle unblocked as the running back’s responsibility. But the left tackle picks up Wirginis, and by the time the guard reacts, Keyshon Camp has knifed the B-gap and is on his way to the quarterback.
A similar issue happens on the other side of the line, as the right guard blocks no one and Patrick Jones bull rushes the right tackle, which leaves Rashad Weaver one-on-one with the tight end. The running back does his best to cut Camp, but Testaverde is still pushed to his right by Camp’s pressure. Weaver is then able to beat his man for the sack. Pitt rushed four against six and got Camp and Weaver one-on-one with a back and a tight end. That’s a huge play-call win.
In summation, it doesn’t seem like Pitt went with totally vanilla playcalling in Randy Bates’ debut as defensive coordinator, despite conservative participation and scheme. Given the results, it’s fair to question whether that conclusion is a positive or negative for the Panthers.
Maurice Ffrench gave Pitt the best possible start to its season with a 91-yard kickoff return for a touchdown on the opening kickoff.
Ffrench is a fast player with good instincts, and he’s probably going to be a stellar kick returner for the Panthers, but this return was more about the blocking than anything special Ffrench was able to do.
Albany lines up with the ball on the left hash and four players to the left of the kicker. Pitt only has five blockers to their right of the ball. The plan for Albany is to kick it toward their left, use the sideline as an extra defender and outnumber the Panthers on the short side of the field by the first two players to the kicker’s right crossing over to the other side.
At the same time, that means they’re outnumbered on the large side of the field, so one Albany defender is going to have to get down field and make sure Ffrench doesn’t take it wide. That job will fall to the second player to the kicker’s right.
The first issue for the Great Danes is that it ends up being a high, short kick and that allowed Pitt’s two up backs on the left side of the field to react and move closer to Ffrench. Now instead of Albany outmanning Pitt, the Great Danes are a body short.
The Panthers get hats on hats, with Qadree Ollison and George Aston making big blocks at the point of attack to secure the lane. Rafael Araujo-Lopes goes through the hole to next level, while Tre Tipton tries to seal the left edge, but can’t find his man. That ended up being Albany’s only chance at this play, but Ffrench side-stepped an arm tackle. Araujo-Lopes does just enough to keep his man from getting a hand on Ffrench, and Kellen McAlone does an awesome job of realizing what was happening and sprinting up field to get a hat on the kicker. His block gave Ffrench the room he needed to accelerate and out-run the angle that No. 1 for Albany had on him.
Ffrench’s speed makes it a touchdown, but this is a nearly picture-perfect job of kick return blocking by the Panthers. It’s probably no surprise that the key blocks were set by four seniors in Araujo-Lopes, Aston, McAlone and Ollison.
In general, I didn’t focus a lot on Pitt’s line play on either side of the ball, because the Panthers possessed such an obvious physical advantage at so many spots, but one scheme jumped out at me in the first quarter that I thought showed some of new offensive line coach Dave Borbely’s influence.
On Pitt’s third drive, on a 3rd and 2 just at the edge of field goal range, Pitt called a trap, an old-school power running play. They start out in twins left, with tight end Tyler Sear to the right and Ollison and Aston in an I-formation. Then, they re-set, with right tackle Gabe Houy becoming a tight end on the left side of the formation and Sear moving into an ineligible, right tackle spot.
Albany walks a linebacker up, as Houy is unlikely to be a passing threat. It sets up a five-on-five battle.
At the snap, right guard Mike Herndon bails out of his spot in the line and pulls, setting up the trap that two Albany linebackers fall into. The rest of Pitt’s line blocks down, with Houy on the right end, Stefano Millin on the right tackle and Jimmy Morrissey on the left tackle. Sear absorbs a bull rush from the left end.
The first linebacker that fills Herndon’s hole gets caught by Connor Dintino, who had knifed forward. Aston drills the walked-up linebacker at the point of the attack on the left edge. The third backer, partially swept into Herndon’s vacated spot, recognizes the play, but is sealed as he tries to scrape down the line of scrimmage by Herndon, who has come around the formation and alongside Houy.
With the line and linebackers accounted for, Ollison is into the secondary, and there, he makes one safety miss, gets a block from Taysir Mack and is finally brought down by the far safety after a huge gain.
I don’t want to say Pitt hasn’t run traps before, but they’ve never stood out to me in a way that this one did. This was expertly blocked by all five members of the line, Sear and Aston. When I went back through the film study last year, there were at least three games where I felt the offensive line was too weak at the point of attack. Yes, it was Albany, but this was a perfectly executed play by the Panthers’ blockers, that I believe would be successful against almost any opponent.