PITTSBURGH — Welcome to the PSN Film Study. 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.
I don’t think I’ve ever looked forward to reviewing tape for a film study any less than for Pitt’s 51-6 loss to Penn State.
Not because of the final score, but because Pitt made so many mental and physical errors that I thought it was going to be tough to find meaningful ways they came up short schematically.
Never fear, I found a few. The big one I wanted to look at was why Pitt was never able to gain any traction in the downfield passing game. We heard all training camp about how players like Dontavius Butler-Jenkins, Taysir Mack and Shocky Jacques-Louis were going to open-up the deep-ball game for the Panthers.
Obviously, the conditions on Saturday night at Heinz Field were not conducive to airing it out. But Pitt only ever even attempted one deep pass, and that was intercepted when Kenny Pickett under-threw Tre Tipton.
Why? I asked that point-blank to Pat Narduzzi after the game, and this is all he could come up with:
“Kenny didn’t look like himself back there in the pocket in my opinion, but it’s something we’ll have to look at, whether the receivers have their timing, were we getting off the press, whatever it may be, were the guys in position; we’ll look at the tape and have a better idea for you on Monday as far as what it looked like.”
Well, I took a look at the tape, and here’s my conclusion. Pitt’s pass blocking was pretty suspect, Pitt’s wide receivers did not get separation in man coverage and Pickett didn’t utilize his feet to create more time to throw, he just took off and ran.
Let’s dive in.
We’ll pick things up with the second play of the game and Pitt’s first pass attempt at their own 25-yard line.
Pickett is in the shotgun, with Qadree Ollison as a sidecar. Pitt is in 12 personnel, which means there are two receivers and two tight ends, and it is a balanced formation. Penn State is in their base 4-3, but with strong safety Garrett Taylor walked way up into the box, covering Jim Medure on Pitt’s left end.
Penn State is in Cover 3, with Taylor and the three linebackers playing underneath zones and the corners and the free safety playing deep thirds. It’s a four-man rush.
Pitt sends every player out into a route, leaving five men to block four. None of the routes are deep, meaning the linebackers in the short zones are blocking Pickett’s passing lanes to the deeper receivers.
Tyler Sear flashes open in the middle of the zone, but Penn State defensive tackle Robert Windsor has beaten Pitt right guard Mike Herndon. Pickett steps up into the pocket.
But remember, the line of scrimmage is the 25. After Pickett steps up, Connor Dintino and Jimmy Morrissey have a solid tandem block on the other defensive tackle and both ends have gone upfield. Pickett still has time to make a pass. Sear is still open and Ollison is wide open in the flat on the right.
Pickett ends up running for six yards. Neither of those other outlets were likely to be big gains (Ollison had a shot), but Pickett isn’t even really looking. Once the pocket was broken, he was in full scramble mode.
Here’s the next play. Pickett again in a shotgun. This time, there’s three receivers, with twins right and tight end Will Gragg flexed off the line to left. Pickett’s reads appear to be right slot receiver Mack on a rub or Jacques-Louis dragging across the formation.
Mack is open enough and Jacques-Louis is wide open, but Herndon is beaten again, this time by end Shareef Miller, and Pickett runs. I actually think he had time to stand in and make the throw to Jacques-Louis, but he probably would have taken a hit.
When he moves to his right, Alex Bookser gets blown up by blitzing linebacker Cam Brown, Pickett slips and he’s lucky to throw it away.
Pitt’s offensive line had a hard time blocking four vs. five or five vs. five all night. Penn State only blitzed six twice, and both of those plays resulted in sacks.
Let’s fast forward to the second quarter. Penn State rushes four against Pickett on a 3rd and 12. Ollison stays in to help the line, so Pitt has six blockers and four men in routes.
It’s not a tidy pocket, but Pitt gets everyone blocked. Pickett just never really sets his feet and then bails — needing 12 yards — without a white shirt ever getting upfield of a blue one. That shouldn’t happen. He also scrambles to his left, making a throw on the run tough if not impossible. If he’s going to run out of the pocket, it should be to his right.
Here’s another one in the third quarter. It’s 3rd and 14. Pitt sends Ollison and H-back George Aston out into the flat and runs three downfield routes. Penn State rushes four.
As the ends come up field, Pickett steps up into the pocket. None of the three downfield options have any separation, but both backs are basically uncovered. Instead, Pickett pulls the ball down and runs ahead for two yards.
It doesn’t seem like Pickett is doing a good job of finding his check downs and it seems like he was both too quick to leave the pocket and too determined to run with the ball once he did. It also seems like the offensive line is having a lot of trouble with Penn State’s defensive front.
But also, nobody is ever open down field. Pickett is ignoring those guys in the flat because he’s waiting for somebody to come open down the field and nobody ever does.
Here’s the interception. Four-man rush and Pitt blocks it well this time. Pickett has all day. He takes a shot at Tipton, who is well-covered, and he under-throws it a little bit.
But let’s look at what Pickett was working with down field. At release, you can see three of his five receivers. Rafael Araujo-Lopes is the most open of the three, but none look like they’re going to able to achieve significant gains.
The other downfield option looks just as covered as Tipton.
It doesn’t seem that at any point, any of Pitt’s wide receivers got any separation. Pitt’s pass blocking wasn’t good enough, Pickett was too quick to bail from the pocket and the receivers couldn’t get open. That’s how a team ends up passing for 55 yards. Speaking of which, the four times Pickett was sacked cost Pitt 31 yards. So the passing game netted the Panthers a measly 24 yards. Yuck.
Penn State slot receiver KJ Hamler took a jet sweep 32 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter. How could Pitt’s defense be so cleanly beaten by a play so frequently used by Pitt’s offense? It happened because Penn State made Pitt make a choice.
The Lions came out in 11 personnel, with one tight end to the boundary and three three receivers to the field side.
As usual, Pitt stayed in its base defense, meaning the Panthers had a choice to make. If they kept their cornerbacks on opposite sides of the field, the boundary corner would be covering Penn State’s tight end and the star linebacker would be covering Penn State’s innermost slot receiver.
Instead, the Panthers flipped their corners over, so that both lined up to the wide side of the field. That gave field safety Damar Hamlin the assignment of Hamler, with underneath help from Seun Idowu. Down at the boundary, strong safety Dennis Briggs has the tight end and money linebacker Elijah Zeise will take running back Miles Sanders.
That means that Briggs is responsible for setting the edge if it’s a near-side running play, but he’s eight yards off the ball. With no deep threats around him, it seems like Briggs should have moved up, or Zeise should have gotten outside the tight end to provide contain.
When Hamler starts in motion, Hamlin recognized the play immediately and starts to flow toward opposite side of the field. Middle linebacker Quintin Wirginis has to respect Trace McSorley’s ability to pull the ball back, so he charges upfield.
Briggs is able to set the edge, but it takes him too long to engage Sanders. There’s a point where Hamler could go inside or outside of Briggs and you can see Hamlin hesitate as he crosses the near hash, waiting for Hamler to commit.
Briggs drives outside his blocker, forcing Hamler inside, but Hamlin’s hesitation has already cost him, as Hamler is able to work outside of him and on to paydirt.
Hamlin misses the tackle, but Pitt was beaten schematically by not having Zeise or Briggs available to set the edge in a timely fashion on a rushing play after flipping the corner over.
ONE THE OTHER WAY
Anyone that reads this space regularly will recall my feelings about Pitt’s propensity for playing base defense against multiple wide receiver sets. Narduzzi’s usual answer to me is that it makes teams vulnerable against the run.
Here’s the best example ever of Pitt taking advantage of that. Pitt comes out in a three-receiver shotgun set on 3rd and 10. Penn State responds by bringing in a 3-3-5 sub package.
But the Lions walk up Micah Parsons so it’s more effectively a 4-2-5. Essentially, it’s a Nickel defense. Furthermore, the near side linebacker is shaded outside of tight end Sear.
Pitt runs a similar counter-trap to the one I highlighted last week, with Herndon and Sear pulling. Herndon kicks out the end, left tackle Stefano Millin and Sear have the linebackers trapped and free safety Ayron Moore, eight yards high, is the only unblocked player on the left side of Pitt’s formation.
A perfect call and perfect execution for the Panthers that does a great job of illustrating the dangers of going to sub package defense.
That’s all for this week. Thanks for stopping by.