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.
One of the major tenets of the defense that Pat Narduzzi brought to Pitt with him from Michigan State is that it aligns itself based on where the ball is on the field.
Some defenses have a left and a right side. The left outside linebacker plays to the left of the middle linebacker the right outside linebacker plays to the right of the middle linebacker. What the offense does and where the ball is placed are irrelevant.
Other defenses use a strong side and a weak side. The strong side outside linebacker aligns to the strong side of the formation, typically where the tight end is. A downside here is that not all offensive sets have a strong side (think about a one-back, two-tight end alignment), which can lead to confusion.
Then there’s the approach that Pitt takes. They align based on where the ball is on the field. The side of the field where there’s more room between the football and the sideline is called the field side, and the shorter side, with less room, is called the boundary.
Pitt’s scheme is more common in college football, because the wider hash marks create a larger potential difference between the two sides.
Not only does Pitt use that system to determine where its two linebackers play (the Money linebacker plays on the boundary side, while the Star linebacker plays to the field), they also do the same with their safeties and cornerbacks. The field (free) safety (Damar Hamlin) plays to the big part of the field, while the strong (boundary) safety (Paris Ford) plays to the boundary. Boundary corner Jason Pinnock plays on Ford’s side of the ball and field corner Damarri Mathis plays on Hamlin’s side of the bar.
That is, until this season. With Mathis out for the season with an injury, Pitt has Marquis Williams filling in at field corner, but they are no longer playing strict field and boundary rules with their two cornerbacks.
Here’s some images from Pitt’s season-opening win against Austin Peay. First, here’s Pinnock in his classic boundary corner position. The ball is near the left hash mark and Pinnock is guarding the receiver to that side of the field.
Here, the ball is pretty close to the middle of the field, but Pinnock is playing next to field-side linebacker Cam Bright, meaning Pitt is considering the near side to the be the field side.
Here’s one where it’s obvious. The ball is close to the left hash mark, but Pinnock is all the way over on the far side of Pitt’s formation.
So Pitt had already shown the ability to flip-flop its corners against Austin Peay, and on the surface, that makes a lot of sense. Pinnock is 6-foot, 200 pounds. Williams is 5-foot-8, 175-pounds. Physically, there are going to be some receivers that are better matchups for each guy.
But Pitt also added something to the mix. Narduzzi and company had Pinnock follow top Orange receiver Taj Harris around the field on Saturday, regardless of which side of the field he lined up on.
Here’s Pinnock, in the boundary, covering Harris, No. 3 on the bottom of the screen.
Again, Pinnock on Harris, this time in off coverage instead of pressing.
Now, here’s Harris in the field, all by himself, and Pinnock is over there with him, leaving Williams and Ford to deal with the stacked receivers at the top of the screen.
Side note: Nice suplex here from Ford. Two years in a row a Pitt safety suplexed a Syracuse player. What are the odds?
Here’s where the move pays off for Pitt. On a free play because the defense was offside, Pinnock stays right with Harris all the way down the field sideline.
Pinnock is the more experienced of Pitt’s two corners and the more physical, so if a team has a big, talented receiver, it makes a lot of sense for him to follow that player around the field like he did with Harris.
If you remember back to when Pitt had the undersized Avonte Maddox at corner, protecting him from some of the ACC’s bigger receivers would have probably gone a long way to improving the team’s pass defense results.
The bones of the base defense have not changed since Narduzzi arrived, but he has continued to make tweaks to the principles in order to best suit it to the more pass-oriented offenses of the ACC. This appears to be another one of those changes.
Ironically, I asked Pinnock about the possibility of him doing this back in training camp, just after Mathis’ injury. Here’s what he had to say:
“I hope. I tell Duzzi every time, put me on the biggest or the best. I’ll fight for that one. But boundary requires a little bit more knowledge, so I think I’ll find myself in the boundary more this year, especially with the circumstances the way they are.”
So this move can also be seen as a credit to Williams’ understanding of the defense and ability to play both spots, as well.
ONE THAT GOT AWAY
The one time that Syracuse did connect with a big play to Harris, Narduzzi said Pinnock should have been expecting help over the top. It looks like this should have been a Cover 2 defense, instead of Pitt’s usual Cover 4 look, with Ford over the top of Pinnock and Erick Hallett covering behind the field-side trio of Bright, Hamlin and Williams. But Ford doesn’t go back with Harris. As always, it’s impossible to say what the exactly call and check were, but there’s definitely some kind of miscommunication or missed assignment on the left side of the Pitt secondary here.
Pitt doesn’t play a lot of Cover 2, but a 3rd and long is a good fit for that less-aggressive scheme. Somewhat ironic that they got beat deep doing it. That’s what the defense is designed to prevent.