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Film Study

Pitt Football Film Study: Change for a Nickel



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.

Pitt’s game against now-No. 12 UCF on Saturday is a tough one to break down from the Panthers’ perspective. UCF dominated the play, using its big-play, up-tempo offense to control the game.

For the most part, Pitt’s defense did a pretty good job of defending against it. The 45 points and 568 yards allowed were below UCF’s season average, and a good chunk of both of those totals came via two passing plays where the Panthers lost track of UCF running back Adrian Killins.

More on those in a bit, but Pitt’s defensive effort was spearheaded by a new 4-2-5 Nickel look that Pitt players and coaches complimented as mostly effective against the UCF attack.

Here’s the jist of what the Panthers did. From Pitt’s base defense, the money linebacker was removed in favor of a third cornerback. Pitt is still playing it’s typical quarters coverage with a three-man zone underneath. The strong safety flows down into the spot vacated by the third linebacker, leaving the three corners and free safety in quarters coverage.

Note that Pitt is playing a strong/free safety set up as opposed to its typical field/boundary. That’s Dennis Briggs at the top of the field in this play.


The Nickel look ended up yielding 308 passing yards on 30 attempts (10.3 yards per attempt), but that figure is skewed by the two long passes to Killins. In theory, the change from base to Nickel didn’t affect Pitt’s coverage of backs out of the backfield. Outside of those plays, Pitt gave up 168 yards on 27 attempts, a much more manageable 6.8 yards per attempt. Pitt has averaged 8.21 yards per attempt

The Nickel didn’t seem any worse off against the run, either. Pitt allowed 227 yards on 51 carries on the ground (4.5 yards per carry), which is actually better than Pitt’s season average of 4.97 yards per carry.

Of course, it’s not like the Nickel is a magic defense. UCF put pressure on the alignment by flexing out backs and tight ends to try to create mismatches on the inside. Or, just line up in five-wide as they did on this third down to isolate a wide receiver against Briggs.


Here’s the same concept, with a flexed tight end as the target instead of a slot receiver.


Pitt’s Nickel isn’t prefect, and can still be beaten, but it’s such a drastic improvement over playing base defense against three and four receiver sets that it’s hard to be too critical of anything else that happened. Pitt’s defense has finally evolved to the point that it can line up in proper personal most of the time. That may seem like a small victory, but it’s an important one.


Killins is UCF’s running back — sort of. The former track star has the kind of speed that would make many wide receivers jealous, and he has the pass catching ability to be a matchup nightmare.

It requires a ton of discipline and ability to be able to cover him in space. It should start with a re-route. Killins is a lot of things, but he isn’t big. Defenders should always use their five-yard contact zone to keep him from getting open in the first place.

That’s where Quintin Wirginis goes wrong here. Here’s too deep, probably because he’s worried about a vertical route, and Killins breaks it off and Wirginis can never catch up. Elijah Zeise, in the zone outside of Wirginis, doesn’t react to the ball quickly enough to make an impact on the play and Pitt’s pass rushers weren’t able to make UCF pay for sending the back out into a route without blocking.


Here, Seun Idowu and Jazzee Stocker both lose track of Killins as he comes out of the backfield in a crowded bunch that includes a few other players. Killins’ speed is an issue, but this is a twice-blown coverage by the Panthers.


Killins is a matchup nightmare, but passes to backs have been an issue for Pitt for quite some time, and it’s one that won’t be solved by the shift to the Nickel.


Pitt’s offense had another sub-par performance, and it came in many forms. Again, the Panthers’ made a series of critical mistakes that killed drives. Maurice Ffrench had an offensive pass interference penalty, Tyler Sear dropped a ball thrown a tad behind him over the middle, Kenny Pickett took three sacks, a poor decision by Mychale Salahuddin to take out a kick return that backed the Panthers up in field position and the list goes on and on.

For better or worse, Pitt doesn’t really have a big-play offense. They can throw the ball 10 or 20 yards downfield and they have rushing options that can break free, but for the most part, Pitt is going to operate in 5-10 yard chunks.

There’s nothing wrong with that. Five yards at a time will move the sticks just fine. But it means that it’s hard for the team to overcome negative plays.

It’s also tougher for them to come from behind, so plays like turnovers really hurt the offense. Not only do they deny a scoring opportunity, they provide one to the opposition, which puts Pitt behind, and then forces the offense into a situation it’s not very good at overcoming.

Some of that stuff, penalties, missed assignments, is tough to paint with a broad brush. For example, I doubt that Ffrench is a serial pass interferer. It was just a thing that happened in the moment that ruined a drive.

However, all season, Pickett’s decision-making in the pocket has needed improvement. Here’s his lone interception. One interception per game is not exactly a criminal offense, but this one should be. Pickett has Shocky Jacques-Louis wide open in the flat for at least 10 yards and maybe much more. Instead, he tries to force the ball down field and doesn’t see the safety coming until it’s too late.


Pitt was already a good bit behind at this point, but had just put together the kind of long drive together that they needed to keep the UCF offense off the field. For it to come away with no points was backbreaking.

Here’s another turnover, this one on downs. With Pitt way behind, the Panthers decided to go for it on 4th down in the red zone. Pickett reads the defense, then turns his head as the outside linebacker walks up to the line. He never checks the defense again before sending Qadree Ollison out in motion, leaving no one to pick up the walked-up backer. Pickett slips, but he and the line never adjusted to the blitz threat.


I believe that Pickett is a better quarterback than he’s shown so far in 2018. He has the physical tools necessary. He needs to clean up his decisions and in-game reads in a hurry if Pitt hopes to turn its 2-3 start around.

That’s all for this week. Thanks for reading.

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker
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