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.
In the week leading up to his team’s game against Georgia Tech, Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi described playing against a Paul Johnson-run offense as if it were a chess match.
“You go through the first game in 2015, you look at 2016, you look at 2017, Paul Johnson, he’s a genius when it comes to offensive football,” Narduzzi said on Thursday. “He’s so good. The second year, we did a good job of stopping the dive, the keep and the pitch. So what did they do? They started motioning a receiver to get us out-flanked by numbers — they’re always looking for numbers — and they ran the toss. We couldn’t stop the toss.
“So last year, what do we do? We stopped the toss. And they found a different way to run the dive. … They felt like they had a bead on what we were doing and they got the dive going.”
No matter what Pitt does to stop one part of Johnson’s flexbone triple option game plan, he’s always had an answer to get another part of it going.
This year, however, Narduzzi put his defense on the offensive. Instead of trying to fight last year’s battle, he came out with a more creative scheme that he thought would catch Georgia Tech off guard and make it hard for the Yellow Jackets to pin down exactly what it was the Panthers were doing.
Since Narduzzi has arrived at Pitt, the Panthers have used a 4-3 defensive set, and even when they run their Nickel package, they typically bring in an extra cornerbak at the expense of a linebacker. They’ve always had four-man, even front, except for in their third-down Delta package, which is a 3-3-5 with an extra safety.
Saturday, that changed. Occasionally, the Panthers came out in a 3-4 look that they hadn’t shown in the past. The genius part of the exchange was that they did it with the exact same personnel, just by sliding one tackle over the nose, another out to end and standing up Rashad Weaver like a linebacker.
So without making a substitution, Pitt could change from one defensive front to another and disrupt the playcalling of Georgia Tech. After all, the Yellow Jackets couldn’t plan on which front they would face until the teams lined up. Weaver said Pitt cribbed the idea from some of Georgia Tech’s other opponents.
“A lot of the teams — Georgia, USF — they go in and out of that formation and it just switches it up,” he said. “In that offense, if you get a stop, they’re going to go to the next thing in their playbook. They’ve got a big playbook. … There’s so many options for them to go to. It helps. The same way they try to find something different, we had two things working for us.”
Here’s the Panthers in their 3-4 set in the first quarter. As you can see, it’s not as if the change has made Pitt’s defense indestructible. This play goes for 11 yards and a first down.
But what Georgia Tech loves to do is get a win on a play and then hammer it over and over again until a defense makes an adjustment. Pitt had that adjustment ready to fire whenever they needed it.
Here’s the exact same play call in the second half, and this time the Panthers are back in their regular 4-3 look and sniff it out quickly for a loss.
Pitt wasn’t done there, either. Here’s a play where Pitt baited Marshall into making an audible based on their defensive front. The Panthers are in their Delta set, with Patrick Jones on the nose, Weaver and Dewayne Hendrix lined up as ends. Pitt then moved middle linebacker Quintin Wirginis all the way to the outside of the formation, totally opening the center of Pitt’s defense on 3rd and 8.
Marshall makes a check at the line and decides he wants to take advantage by keeping it straight up the middle. But that was Pitt’s trap that Marshall fell into. Weaver peels off the line, Seun Idowu leaves his edge to fill into the space vacated by Wirginis and they combine to crunch Marshall for a three-yard gain.
Pitt also ran another variant, where they stayed in their 4-3 alignment, but stood both ends up, almost creating a 2-5. You’ll see that look a bit later.
All told, the Panthers did an excellent job of using multiple fronts to confuse the Georgia Tech offense, cause missed reads and prevent the Yellow Jackets from ever getting into a rhythm on offense.
PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT
When playing defense against an option team, it becomes a game of assignments. One defender is responsible for each wide receiver, one for each A-back, one for the B-back and one for the quarterback.
If someone gets beat or misses a tackle, things can get bad in a hurry, because the only way to get an extra player to the ball is to have someone shed a block. Georgia Tech makes that even tougher by using open-field cut blocks. A cut block puts a player down on the field and out of the play entirely instead of a regular block that may only engage for a few moments.
Of course, that’s not any great secret that the Yellow Jackets cut, and as a result, Pitt spent all week practicing on how to avoid a cut. Here’s safeties coach Corey Sanders giving instruction on Tuesday morning.
On this play in the first half, Pitt has shifted into its 3-4 front, with Shane Roy as a zero-technique over the center, Hendrix playing one end, Amir Watts the other end and Weaver stood up as an outside linebacker. The three down linemen and two outside backers are going to get blocked by the five Georgia Tech offensive linemen.
Outside, each corner takes a wide receiver, each safety gets an A-back and Wirginis and Idowu have the quarterback and B-back. Wirginis has to respect the dive, so he moves toward B-back Jordan Mason, while Idowu flows toward TaQuon Marshall. Qua Searcy, the A-back from the top of the screen, motions to the field side of the formation, creating an overload situation.
Weaver swims past his block and heads toward Marshall, forcing a pitch, but the Georgia Tech left tackle picks up Idowu, maintaining their numbers advantage. The wide receiver runs off Phillipie Motley, meaning field safety Damar Hamlin is the last Pitt player on this side of the field and he has Searcy and a lead blocker to deal with. Wirginis and Dennis Briggs, who is the player responsible for Searcy, would eventually be able to come over to make the play, but probably not until after about a 10-yard gain.
That’s where the block avoidance that the Pitt coaches taught comes into play. Hamlin is able to give ground, avoid the cut block, and the make the tackle, probably saving his team five yards and a first down in the process.
With Pitt ahead, 21-0, Georgia Tech was putting together a nice little drive toward the end of the first half before the Yellow Jackets were faced with a 3rd and 9 ad Pitt’s 32-yard line. It was a perfect opportunity for Georgia Tech to use their propensity to go for it on 4th down to their advantage and take nominal gains on both plays.
Pitt is in its 4-3 look with both ends stood up, and the Panthers end up with a sack by Wirginis for a big loss to force a punt. At first glance, it appears that Wirginis comes on a delayed blitz straight up the middle, but that’s not really the whole story.
Wirginis’ assignment on the play is the B-back, which stays into block. But backs can always flash open for a screen or head out into a pattern after blocking or chipping for a moment, so Wirginis holds his ground at the line of scrimmage.
Watts, lined up at defensive tackle here, beats his offensive lineman with a swim move and heads up field, where he’s picked up by the B-back. With his assignment now dealing with trying to block 290 pounds of defensive lineman, Wirginis is free to pursue the quarterback, and he quickly reacts, changes his path and takes down Marshall for the sack.
Watts doesn’t get a tick on the stat sheet for this one, but it was his play to shed his blocker and engage the B-back that freed Wirginis to rush the passer.
In my Friday Football Show, I highlighted Georgia Tech’s zero-technique nose tackle, Kyle Cerge-Henderson, as a player to watch in his one-on-one matchup with Pitt center Jimmy Morrissey.
A quick look at the stat sheet should tell you all you need to know about that one. Cerge-Henderson had no sacks and no tackles for a loss. In fact, he had no tackles whatsoever. Not even an assist. That’s a butt-kicking in an important battle for Morrissey, and though he often got help from a guard, his play was a big part of Pitt’s ability to run the ball successfully.
Watch Morrissey on Darrin Hall’s first-half touchdown. Cerge-Henderson isn’t in the game, as junior Brandon Adams (No. 90) has subbed in. Morrissey has help from right guard Mike Herndon, but doesn’t need it, as he drives Adams backward, letting Herndon seal the linebacker to create the cut-back lane Hall uses to score.
I’ve written extensively about Pitt’s trap blocking, specifically the counter-trap, over the last two weeks. Pitt called up that play for Qadree Ollison’s 31-yard touchdown run in the first half, and man, do they block it well. Herndon pulls perfectly, George Aston is dominant at the point of attack and Stefano Millin seals the hole.
But this one comes with a new wrinkle, though. Maurice Ffrench comes in motion, mimicking the action of Pitt’s inside zone/jet sweep combo. Georgia Tech safety No. 36 follows Ffrench, and is all the way out to the numbers on the boundary side of the field when Ollison gets the ball. By the time he gets back to the center of the field, all he can manage is an arm tackle attempt against the big back.
So when people ask why Pitt runs the jet sweep to the sort side of the field, the answer is that it’s to let defenses overload the short side to stop it, and open plays up on other side of the field.
Pitt’s proficiency with blocking this play, along with their inside and outside zones, has really created a new dynamic as far as their ability to run the ball, and is a big reason for Ollison’s success thus far this season.
That’s all for this week. Thanks for stopping by!