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 allowed 358 passing yards to Boston College quarterback Phil Jurkovec on Saturday, the latest case of the Panthers’ secondary bleeding yardage against an offense not noted for a high-powered nature.
The Eagles feature speedy receiver Zay Flowers and versatile tight end Hunter Long, and that’s about it when it comes to prime pass-catching targets.
Physically, Pitt’s defenders were up to the task. Only on Flowers’ long touchdown pass early in the second half, when Jason Pinnock slipped, was Pitt badly beaten.
So how did the Eagles have so many players running free in the Pitt secondary? An absolute clinical breakdown of Pitt’s defensive scheme that put pressure on the decision points in Pitt’s zones over and over again.
Even the time that Pinnock was beaten, Boston College was taking advantage of Pitt’s scheme. Pinnock’s stumble occurs off camera, but we can learn a lot about why he was beaten based on the release.
Flowers is lined up in an extremely tight split, which makes life difficult on Pitt’s cornerbacks. Pitt plays quarters zone, which means that in theory, the cornerbacks are responsible for the outside quarter of the field. In practice, that means a lot of 1-on-1 coverage with a wide receiver without any vertical help.
But it also usually means that Pitt’s corners have short-distance help on inside routes in the form of an outside linebacker, and also can use the sideline as an extra defender.
A corner tasked with 1-on-1 coverage can turn the odds in their favor by using inside technique and forcing the receiver to the sideline, knowing that if they’re beaten on a quick, inside route, there’s help to be had.
With Flowers lined up so far to the inside of the formation, there’s no hope for Pinnock to use that technique. He tries to jam Flowers at the line, but mostly misses, and then it’s off to the races. When Pinnock stumbles, he never recovers.
In this play from earlier in the game, Boston College is once again lined up with those tight splits and Flowers is on the near sideline, matched up with Marquis Williams. This time, Pitt is blitzing and has Damar Hamlin playing center field in what appears to be a Cover 3 look. In that scheme, each outside corner has one third of the field and Hamlin has the middle. The problem is that both outside corners hand their receivers to Hamlin. Flowers comes all the way across the field into the far gap between Pinnock and Hamlin and is wide open.
Here’s another scheme to confound the Pitt zone. Boston College lines up three receivers to the field, with Long in the middle and Flowers on the inside. That puts both of them against linebackers, and both likely mismatches, with SirVocea Dennis having to go a long way to get to Long and Chase Pine, who is wholly incapable of covering Flowers down the field at any rate, also far off his man at the snap.
Pine leaves Flowers for Hamlin, who is playing over the top in a Cover 2 look here, but Hamlin is drawn in by Long, leaving the receiver wide open over the top. Luckily for Pitt, Flowers dropped this one.
Here, Pitt is blitzing Hamlin and trying to replace him in the middle of the field with linebacker Brandon George. The six-man blitz doesn’t get home quite in time and George, inexperienced in coverage, falls back far beyond the line to gain on this 3rd and 12, allowing the BC receiver to slip open in front of him.
Once again, Flowers is lined up in the slot in this example from the fourth quarter. That puts Hamlin over top of him as a nickel corner in Pitt’s Delta look, with a Cover 2 shell behind him. But Hamlin is lined up four yards off the ball and well to the inside of Flowers for this 3rd and 7. From there, he had no chance of stopping Flowers’ out cut. With Paris Ford over the top behind him, Pitt should have had Hamlin in a more aggressive posture at the line to prevent Flowers from getting this quick gain on third down.
In overtime, it’s more of the same. Here’s Flowers, once again in a tight split. Pinnock gets a good jam on him at the line, but can’t stay in phase down field and Flowers works his way open.
At first, this looks like Pinnock getting beaten, but it’s not. Remember when I talked about inside technique and forcing a receiver to the sideline? Pinnock is doing the opposite here, because Pitt is in Cover 2 and he’s expecting safety Erick Hallett to be able to help on the inside. When Pinnock loses Flowers to the outside, he puts his head down and runs hard for the corner because he doesn’t think he can let him go that way and thinks Hallett will be able to help in the middle of the field.
But Hallett is responsible for that whole half of the field, which also features Long in a 1-on-1 mismatch with George. Hallett sees that George might need help and bails outside the numbers, leaving the middle of the field wide open when Flowers cuts back.
Boston College did not physically dominate Pitt’s secondary, they mentally dominated it by picking apart the scheme, taking away some of its structural advantages and and causing decision-making pressure that led to the obvious targets of BC’s passing game still being able to get open.