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.
CHANGING UP THE NICKEL
Last season, Pitt unveiled its 4-2-5 nickel defense against Syracuse as a surprise, catching the Orange off guard with the change in scheme. After shelving it for a while, the Panthers brought it back in their Week 5 loss to UCF. So this time, the Orange was ready for it.
From the very first snap, Pitt was in nickel and Syracuse came out in a four-wide receiver, trips formation. Here’s a screenshot.
So while Pitt’s extra cornerback is helping to eliminate one mismatch, the fourth wide receiver from Syracuse is just creating the same, old mismatch that Pitt always faces: a slot receiver against an off-ball safety.
IF there was any doubt that the adjustment was intentional on Syracuse’s part, they went right at Dennis Briggs on the first play.
And then the second play.
Once it’s clear what the Syracuse game plan is, Briggs starts to cheat to the line. With their deep help lessened, Pitt’s cornerbacks have to be slightly less aggressive, leaving them susceptible to a comeback.
Pitt quickly made some adjustments. The first was to pull Briggs to the sideline in favor of Jazzee Stocker, who is a better cover safety. The second is to flip the safeties, putting Damar Hamlin on the side of the field with the trips alignment. That works out a lot better for Pitt.
Next, Pitt switched the assignments of Hamlin and the nickel corner, moving the nickel back into the near slot and putting Hamlin over the intermediate receiver. That let the nickel corner play inside technique and prevent the short slants and hitches in front of the safety. If the intermediate receiver tried to run those routes, there would be too much traffic inside for Eric Dungey to find them.
Then, and the Panthers did this for multiple reasons, but the final adjustment Pitt made to combat the inside trips was to stand up a defensive lineman — or sometimes all of them. Pitt ran both a 3-3-5 with one standing and an 0-7-5 with all four linemen standing throughout the game.
What that does is disguise the underneath zone coverage. Not only does a 3-3 front disguise where the fourth rusher is coming from, it does a better job of disguising which two players are dropping into coverage. Here, Dungey thinks he has solo coverage in the slot, but Rashad Weaver drops from his end position to help out, causing Dungey to hold onto the ball eventually have to scramble.
This is why, after driving straight down the field for two touchdowns in the first quarter, Syracuse’s offense could never get back into a rhythm. Pitt never played base, but changing between the three looks of the nickel — sometimes even as a pre-snap read — kept the Orange guessing.
It paid off big time when Pitt dropped Amir Watts into covering in a zone blitz. The Panthers stood Weaver up and went into a 3-3-5 look, but rushed Weaver off the edge along with inside linebacker Elias Reynolds. Watts bailed out, helping Damarri Mathis in the slot and Dungey never saw him there, tossing the interception right into the hands of Pitt’s big tackle.
With Taysir Mack on the shelf with an undisclosed right foot/ankle injury, junior Aaron Mathews got the start and I thought played pretty well, according to my notes from the game. Then, I looked down at the box score and saw just one catch for eight yards. I felt better about my judgement when I went back and watched the tape. Mathews was a monster blocker and was a big part of Pitt’s huge day running the football.
He also nearly single-handedly created Pitt’s best pass of the game without ever touching the football. On Kenny Pickett’s bubble screen to Rafael Araujo-Lopes, Mathews not only blocks his man, but turns him and blocks him right through the corner covering Araujo-Lopes, leaving the speedy Pitt slot receiver with just the safety to beat. This is top-notch blocking, as was the norm all day from Mathews.
WILD CATS ON THE LOOSE
Pitt ran the Wildcat formation three times on Saturday, with Kenny Pickett split out and either Darrin Hall or Qadree Ollison taking a direct snap. They called the same play each time, with Maurice Ffrench making a jet sweep motion, the back faking a handoff and then taking off up field.
Ollison said after the game he couldn’t tell me if he had a read where he could give Ffrench the ball, but Hall said there was more to the formation than they showed, so I’m figuring they called this as is from the sideline, with the jet option a build-out that they have planned for the future.
With Pickett split wide, it’s 10 on 10 in the box. Ffrench’s motion takes the safety out of the middle of the field, Pitt blocks down, leaving the backside linebacker unblocked. Everyone else gets a hat on their man, so once Hall gets to the hole, there’s no one left to make a tackle. This would have been a touchdown from almost anywhere on the field.
Also, check out Conor Dintino and Alex Bookser taking guys out in the second level. Pitt’s line may be struggling in pass protection at times, but these guys are violent run blockers.
The second time Pitt ran it, they didn’t block it quite as well, but still got the yardage they needed on a critical fourth down.
Here, Hall is tackled by the last defender to prevent what would have been a game-winning touchdown in regulation.
This play in of itself isn’t unstoppable, but if Pitt is able to successfully incorporate a few more plays into this package, I think it could really be a winner for them, given how well they run block.
Speaking of run blocking, check out the lead block from fullback George Aston on Ollison’s 69-yard touchdown run in the first quarter. That’s a good-sized linebacker that Aston absolutely road-grades at the point of attack.
That’s all for this week. Thanks for reading!