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.
You have my apologies for this week’s entry being delayed by my travel schedule and the final Pirates homestand. This feature takes a long time and I want to do it right. I’ll be back on track next week thanks to American Airlines.
So what the heck is going on with Pitt’s offense in the second half?
That’s the question that has been posed to the me the very most since Pitt’s 38-35 loss to North Carolina last Saturday, and after a lot of scouring the tape, I don’t really have a good answer that I can put down on film.
I do have some general impressions. Pitt’s offense keeps getting put in bad field position in the second half, which is a big deal when an offense is generally operating in 5-10 yard chunks and isn’t all that capable of big play. It requires far more consistent execution to make a 12-play drive than an eight-play drive, so Pitt’s special teams penalties and Kirk Christodoulou’s punting issues are really putting the offense in a bad spot.
I’m not sure why it seems those things have cropped up more in the second half of games than the first, but they have. So when Kenny Pickett says penalties are killing them, he means it. When Pitt’s offense is already backed up and already playing against the odds, one penalty or one mistake can be all it takes to wreck a drive.
The other thing that’s happening is that Pitt has been losing in the second half in two of the three games they were actively trying to score — let’s throw Albany out because the backups played a lot — and Pitt’s offensive line has not been good at pass protecting in obvious passing circumstances.
Furthermore, it’s not like Pitt’s passing game has been clicking right along in the first half and then falls off a cliff. There have been plenty of opportunities for improvement in the first half of games, as well.
Some of it is pass protection, some of it is wide receiver play and a good portion of it is Pickett not making all the correct reads.
I’ve picked out some passing plays from throughout the game that I thought deserved a better look.
We’ll pick things up in the first quarter. Pitt has a 2nd and 10, which is a critical down for the Panthers to gain positive yardage and avoid those obvious passing situations I referred to where the offensive line has struggled.
The call is some kind of slant, drag or curl to Taysir Mack. Pickett stares him down, Mack has a bit of trouble with a jam, but is still open, there’s no pressure, and Pickett misses him by four feet. I don’t know if this is the wrong route from Mack or just a bad throw, but there’s clearly some missed execution somewhere.
Pitt’s offense hasn’t been making the connection on slants, hooks or drags much at all this year. You can tell because the production of slot man Rafael Araujo-Lopes has tanked. Those are his specialties.
Later in the first quarter, Pitt has 2nd and 2. Mack is going to run a comeback at the top of the screen and Araujo-Lopes has a drag. Araujo-Lopes gets interfered with, but Mack is open, as is outlet Darrin Hall to the short side. Pickett doesn’t throw the ball when he has his feet set, then Tyler Sear gets beat off the edge and he has to bail. Hall should probably have helped Sear with a chip there, but Pickett is looking to the field the entire time and Mack is open. He just needed to let this one rip.
In the second quarter, Pickett makes a nice completion to Maurice Ffrench on an out route, but it was an incredibly difficult catch that Ffrench came down with. Look at how open Shocky Jacques-Louis is on his drag route across the formation. Pickett made a play here, but it was harder than it needed to be.
Let’s move into the harrowing second half, where Pitt has — shocker — a third and long. North Carolina calls a really, really well executed zone blitz. They walk six up to the line, drop two, rush four, and Pitt doesn’t even come close to blocking it.
Pickett has Jacques-Louis and Will Gragg coming open across the middle, but doesn’t have time to let them get to their spots in the zone.
In the fourth quarter, on a 2nd and 2, we miss the set-up because the broadcast is late coming back, but Pickett is looking deep. It isn’t there, but Mack is wide open and at the first-down stripe. Pickett doesn’t change his eyes fast enough to the get to the check down and Pitt’s offensive line again can’t block a four-man rush for very long.
The line is what is it is. I don’t see that unit demonstrably improving at pass protection, though they have been trying Bryce Hargrove at guard. Pickett needs to have a better internal clock and get this ball to Mack, who has the running room and speed to turn a two-yard pass into a big play all by himself.
One of the primary ways North Carolina was able to move the ball down field all day long was the bubble screen.
Here’s one from the second quarter where North Carolina uses motion to create on overload situation. Pitt is in its 3-3-5 Delta heavy nickel. Damar Hamlin has the assignment of the slot receiver to the field side. The two corners and other two safeties are playing quarters.
Dazz Newsome comes in motion and no Pitt player goes with him. The assignment for the motion man needs to either fall to Quintin Wirginis or Briggs in the middle of the field. Neither react to the motion and neither flow to the ball quickly enough once it’s thrown.
Hamlin diagnoses the play correctly from the start, but is blocked by his man. Mathis doesn’t react to the throw in time and then gets blocked, Wirginis is way too late coming over to make the angle and also doesn’t see Dennis Briggs coming in late to force Newsome back inside, so Wirginis overruns the play.
Pitt has some trouble with the motion here, but this is just sloppy defensive football.
Here’s one from the third quarter where the Tar Heels faced a 3rd and 4 and easily converted. The Panthers are in their Delta package, and Dennis Briggs is walked up in his hybrid safety/linebacker role. Briggs is going to blitz off the near edge, leaving Dane Jackson with three receivers to the near side fo the field.
Jackson has help deep in the form of Hamlin deep and Quintin Wirginis to the inside. It’s 3×3 coverage, though it looks like Pitt is playing some kind of zone. Hamlin is 10 yards off the ball.
Wirginis and Jackson get blocked by their receivers, Hamlin is so far down field that he has to attempt an open-field tackle and misses it, and far-side linebacker Elijah Zeise has to run it down from behind.
The theme on the bubbles was that Pitt either giving or North Carolina was creating an overload that caused an off-ball safety or linebacker to be responsible for one of the receivers at the line.
Pitt’s safeties and linebackers were not able to react to the screen quickly enough from where they were positioned to make the tackle in a reasonable amount of time, and missed several. Pitt’s corners also did a terrible job of shedding blocks. There’s some schematic elements here, but mostly, it’s a lot of poor play by the Pitt defense.
UP THE MIDDLE
Speaking of which, I typically use this space to highlight schematic wins and losses more so than things like missed tackles and blown assignments, but I had a lot of people ask me about UNC’s long touchdown pass, when running back Michael Carter was wide open over the middle.
Carolina was in 01 personnel, with two receivers to each side of the formation and a running back. This grouping, combined with the frequency they’d been using the bubble screen, put a lot of pressure on Pitt’s defense.
The corners are responsible for the outside receivers and the safeties have the inside receivers. The outside backers have run contain on either edge and need to help the defensive backs combat bubbles screens, hitches and slants. The entire middle of the field is left to Mike linebacker Quintin Wirginis, and you can see that North Carolina audibles to this play at the line of scrimmage to take advantage of what they saw as a mismatch in Carter against Wirginis.
Now, Wirginis doesn’t have good eye discipline and loses track of his man, but this was a matchup that UNC was trying to get anyway, and it’s very possible the speedy Carter would have run right past Wirginis, even if he’d have played it better.
JET FLYIN’ SON OF A GUN
I wrote last week about how Pitt’s use of the jet sweep to the short side of the field sets up other plays. This week, the Panthers showed North Carolina what happens when a defense ignores the jet to the boundary.
Maurice Ffrench comes from the field and actually takes a forward toss instead of a handoff, but the end result is the same. No Carolina defender goes with him across the formation and Ffrench ends up with an 11-yard gain.
This is why the jet remains a staple of Pitt’s offensive game plan every week, even when it isn’t particularly effective.
That’s all for this week. Thanks for reading!