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.
When it came to breaking down the film of the Pitt-Notre Dame matchup, most Pitt fans wanted me to take a look at what’s been holding back Pitt’s passing game. Of course, this is an area we’ve covered many times before, but I dug into to get some more insight.
First, let’s establish some truisms. To throw the ball down the field, an offense needs three things: receivers that can get vertical separation, a quarterback that can make throws and reads and an offensive line that can protect long enough to let the first two things happen.
As far as I can tell, Pitt only has one-half of one of those three things. Pitt’s receivers can get separation, but it takes them a long a time or a complicated play in order to do so. Pitt’s pass blocking struggles in all obvious passing situation and on any play where Pickett is holding the ball for an extended period of time.
A lot of the ire after the game for Pitt’s loss was directed at offensive coordinator Shawn Watson, but simply put, there is no way to make this group of players consistently move the ball down the field with deep and medium passing routes. They don’t have the horses to do it, especially without top receiver Taysir Mack.
That doesn’t mean Pitt’s offense is toast. The Panthers are excellent at running the ball. They’ve used play-action, RPO and bootlegs to use their proficiency at running the ball to suck defenses in and get speed players like Rafael Araujo-Lopes and Maurice Ffrench free by running laterally away from the formation.
What they aren’t able to do is use the middle of the field, for two reasons. One, Pitt’s emphasis on the running game is drawing extra defenders to the middle of the field. That’s the whole idea of the offense, to get extra defenders flowing inside the tackle box because they’re worried about the run and then use plays like bubbles, jets, tunnels and slants to get the ball to fast players on the outside in favorable situations.
With extra defensive players flowing to the football, it simplifies the reads Pickett is being asked to make. Usually, there is an outside route combination from two receivers and all Pickett has to do is read which direction the safety is playing to know where to the throw the ball.
If both of his first two options are bracketed, there have been very few plays when he has extra time to stand in the pocket and scan the field, and even when he does, he seems antsy and quick to run instead of letting a player break open late in a route.
None of these problems are new. All season, when Pitt has been in situations where they had to pass the ball, they’ve failed to move the ball. If anything, my biggest takeaway from the film is that Pitt actually got too pass-happy to quickly. They had the time to move the ball down the field.
OK, enough me talking, let’s look at the film.
Here’s an example of the problems Pitt had in pass protection. It’s 3rd and long. Everyone knows Pitt is passing, but Notre Dame only rushes four with a quarterback spy. Pitt’s five linemen can’t block the four down rushers long enough for Pickett to let the receivers get 10 yards down the field. He has to bail, to his left, which isn’t ideal and then throws short of the sticks, and throws poorly at any rate.
It’s not just the line. Pickett often doesn’t help them much. Here, it’s second and long and Notre Dame rushes only three men. Pickett should have plenty of time to set his feet and throw, but he drifts in the pocket, right into one of the rushers, who bats the ball.
Here, Pitt clearly calls a deep pass, as Pickett takes a five-step drop even after a shotgun snap. But again, the line can’t hold on long enough to let the receivers come open.
Here, we have Pickett’s read isolated nicely for us. The route combo on the boundary is an Aaron Mathews slant and a wheel by Darrin Hall. Mathews must fight for an inside release. Assuming he gets that, Pickett’s only read is the safety. If he comes to Mathews, the pass goes to Hall, Mathews tries to catch a block and Hall is one-on-one with a linebacker in space. If the safety stays back, blitzes, or bails to the field, Mathews has the size advantage to make the slant work over his corner. This is not a complicated read or scheme. Here, Pickett nails it.
Yet here, he doesn’t get it right. The same blitz is coming, but he dumps it down when Mathews is just about to flash open.
OK, now that we’ve established what some of Pitt’s issues throughout the game were, let’s use that lens to analyze the late-game play calling. One of the big complaints was the call on 3rd and 13 from the Notre Dame 25-yard line. The call is about an 8-yard out to tight end Will Gragg with Maurice Ffrench blocking in front after clearing the zone.
Two things happen. One, the linebacker plays a very soft zone, meaning probably Gragg can’t beat him to the corner and two, Ffrench whiffs on his block. But it’s not like this play doesn’t have a chance to get the 12 yards for the first down. It’s also far less likely to be a negative play than the kind of deep drop-back that Pitt hadn’t been able to block all day anyway.
As it stood, Pitt had a 42-yard field goal. That’s within kicker Alex Kessman’s expected range. Take a 10-yard sack or a holding penalty, though, and it goes from “likely” to “dicey.” That was the kind of play Watson needed to call there and Pitt did pick up critical yards to give Kessman an even more makable field goal. He just missed it, which turned out to be one of the biggest factors in the game, but I think this was a sensible call by Watson.
Here’s a similar play after Pitt got the ball back. Again, it’s only a four-man rush and Pickett doesn’t have a clean pocket. His throw is too high for Gragg to make a play, but he was open, probably for the first down. Instead, Pitt was left with 4th and 4.
This is a situation where Pitt probably shouldn’t have been throwing the ball in the first place. Hall and Qadree Ollison had averaged 4.6 yards per carry. Just give one of them the ball twice and dance with the one that brought you. The incompletion led to Pitt attempting a fake punt on fourth down.
Pitt made the extremely questionable decision to all a fake punt using disguised backup quarterback Jeff George, Jr. It was questionable for a few reasons. One, it was a 4th and 4 near midfield and Notre Dame kept its defense on the field as it was a pretty obvious opportunity to try for a fake.
Secondly, by using George, who I’m assuming can’t punt, Pitt would have had to call a timeout to call off the fake if they got a matchup they didn’t like.
However, even against Notre Dame’s punt-safe defense, Pitt did a get a matchup they could exploit, with personal protecter Ollison able to sneak out around the right side of the formation and out into the flat.
The only issue is that Ollison got tripped on his way out, stumbled and fell. By the time he got back to his feet, the Notre Dame defenders had recovered and George had nowhere to throw the ball.
A questionable call, certainly, but one that would have probably worked if not for a random slip.
ONE THE OTHER WAY
Linebacker Elias Reynolds seemingly had very few issues filling in for Quintin Wirginis in the middle of Pitt’s defense. He had few hiccups in pass coverage and Pitt’s defense held Notre Dame’s rushing attack in check throughout. One of the few mishaps came in the first quarter, when both he and Saleem Brightwell failed to pick up the back coming out of the backfield on a pass play.
Not to worry, though, as cornerback Jason Pinnock used excellent vision and closing speed to come off his man and make an interception.