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Film Study

Film Study: Breaking Down Pitt’s Running Game



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 running game entered Saturday’s opener against Austin Peay as a five-headed monster, with no one really sure which of the scholarships backs would emerge as the clear favorite to lead the way this season. On the Panthers’ Week 1 depth chart, redshirt junior Todd Sibley, Jr., sophomore Vincent Davis, redshirt freshman Daniel Carter and freshman Israel Abanikanda were listed as co-backups behind senior starter A.J. Davis.

That’s how things played out on the field, as well, with the five backs splitting 29 carries and only Vincent Davis getting more than five. He got more work than the others against Austin Peay’s backups in the abbreviated second half, so the number of carries alone doesn’t do much to evaluate how Pitt’s five backs fared in their first work of 2020.

So let’s take a look at the film, and see what it tells us. First things first, I only bothered to look at the first half, because what is done against Austin Peay’s second-team defense cannot possibility give any kind of real evaluation. Second, as I was breaking down the film, I noticed a family of plays that caught my eye that I think provides a good basis for evaluation, so most of what I’m going to look at comes out of the same set.

That set is a shotgun, with one back in a sidecar alignment and 11 personnel, meaning there are three wide receivers and a tight end in addition to the lone back. The defining characteristic of this series of plays is that the back is offset to the opposite side of the formation from where the play is going, giving it a RPO potential.

Here’s the first time we see it, on what I’m calling a cross sweep. Let me know in the comments if you’re an X’s and O’s buff with a better name for this play.

Note the mesh between Pickett and A.J. Davis and the fake RPO action from Pickett. There is a possibility for him to pull the ball out and turn this into a passing play, whether as a true run-pass option or as a designed play.

The next thing to point out is the unbalanced line. Tight end Kyi Wright (28) is on the end of the line in an ineligible position on the left, with left tackle Carter Warren (77) playing tight end on the right. An interesting wrinkle, but not really what I’m focused on here.

Thirdly, watch the guards pull. Warren blocks down from the edge, and the play is clearly designed to have Jake Kradel (53) and Bryce Hargrove (71) lead the way around the corner. This will change in later iterations of the play.

Davis shows nice patience waiting for Hargrove to get clear and then a good burst around the edge. I’d like to see less hesitation when he gets to the free linebacker, but that’s a minor quibble. A good run all around.

Here’s exactly the same play, out of the exact same formation, with basically the same results. Davis does a nice job of being more decisive against the unblocked safety here.

Here’s the second play out of this formation, though this time we have a balanced line. This play still has the familiar mesh action, with the back crossing in front of the quarterback, but here, it’s a straight zone run without the pull.

A.J. Davis does a great job of seeing the seam developing behind right guard Kradel and attacking it quickly, while still setting up the defenders. Look at how badly the boundary safety is fooled when he cuts up and in. Davis just needed Wright to stay engaged with his man and this could have been a huge gain as Kradel has his linebacker blocked all the way out of the screen by the end of the rep.

Here it is again. Same formation, same play, better results. Just strong vision and strong between-the-tackles running from Davis.

The same play and this time it’s Daniel Carter running. A bit of a different situation at the goal line, but I love how much speed Carter builds up before he gets to the line here. By just plunging straight ahead, he is giving up the possibility of a big gain, but trading it by making it take a colossal effort to stop the big man short of the line. Very good short-yardage running from Carter.

Here it is once more from Vincent Davis. Pitt’s line does not do as good of a job blocking this play, and the free defender on the right limits the amount of patience Davis can use here. He shows nice burst to get up to the line and make a positive play, though.

Now here’s the big wrinkle. Same zone run, but this time, Pickett pulls the ball out of the mesh and keeps it himself for a touchdown around the right side. I love this series of plays by Mark Whipple. It’s simple to execute for the line, the backs and Pickett, but it provides enough room for creativity to be able to keep defenses off guard.

Those plays don’t shed a ton of light on the tailback situation, with only one example for Carter and Vincent Davis, but I liked Carter’s goal line approach and A.J. Davis seemed to have the best vision of the bunch. I think Carter might have a short-yardage job carved out, while A.J. and Vincent Davis will probably continue to split time as the primary ballcarriers.


Abanikanda’s best contributions of the day both came on draw plays run out of the same formation and personnel set as above. A draw is a good way to use his speed in space, but they also require excellent vision. He’s not able to set up Jimmy Morrissey’s block here on the first one, though it is still a nice gain.

In his second crack at the same play, he does much better, seeing the gap between Hargrove’s middle linebacker and the unblocked outside linebacker and hitting it with enough speed to shoot the narrow crack.

Pitt is obviously going to run out of a lot of different offensive formations and personnel groupings, but the amount of work they put into this one tells me it’s probably one we should expect to see a lot this year. Abanikanda seems like a solid change-of-pace option with the potential to break a long one with his speed.


In France, obviously.

But for this segment, I’m talking about All-American Pitt safety Paris Ford. Pitt’s second-team defense probably could have shut out Austin Peay, so there isn’t really a ton to break down here, but I thought it was interesting how Randy Bates moved Ford around on the opening drive.

Here, Ford is all the way up at the line of scrimmage, showing blitz, which he does, and gets a tackle for a loss to set up a third and long.

On the very next play, Pitt is in its Delta defense, with Erick Hallett on as the extra defensive back. But he’s not playing the Delta role. Damar Hamlin is walked up to the line on the slot receiver as the Delta back. Hamlin passes his man to Hallett, who is playing boundary safety, where Ford usually lines up. Ford is playing a deep center as the field safety and when he sees Jeremiah Oatsvall’s underthrown pass, he cuts off the route and makes and easy interception.

Ford is a guy that every offense is going to be watching for this season. On back-to-back plays he went from making a tackle for loss with deep backfield penetration to an interception 25 yards off the ball. That’s going to make it awfully tough for quarterbacks to keep track of where he is on the field.

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker
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Clark Martineau
3 years ago

Thanks for the breakdown. Pitt looking good!

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