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 has had trouble running the ball through this season and most of last season.
That isn’t exactly news, though it became a somewhat more pressing matter with the Panthers managing just 22 rushing yards as a team in Sunday’s 31-19 loss to Miami.
Those 22 yards came on 26 attempts, or about 36% of Pitt’s offensive snaps. While that’s already a fairly extreme run-pass imbalance, the math is pretty clear that Pitt should be running the ball even less.
Even with backup quarterback Joey Yellen throwing the ball, Pitt averaged 6.02 yards per pass attempt. When factoring in his sacks, it came out to 5.08 yards per drop back for Yellen, and 1.92 yards per rushing attempt for everyone else.
It doesn’t take one of Pitt’s mathematicians from Thackeray Hall to figure that the Panthers are much, much, better off when they throw the ball than when they run it.
There are problems with that idea. Incomplete passes stop the clock, adding possessions to a game — not a great idea for an offense struggling to score points. Becoming predictable is never good for an offense, even when it’s predictably doing what a team is best at.
But there are ways that Pitt can conservatively move the ball down the field without relying on a running game. Pitt is generally already aware of those methods, and has implemented them with varying degrees of success.
Here’s what Pitt can go do to move the ball without a running game, and why it hasn’t worked so far.
Anyone that has watched a New England Patriots game over the years can describe how frustrating it can be to watch a team dink and dunk its way down the field with seemingly un-coverable short passes.
The Panthers did a good bit of that against Hurricanes, particularly in the first drive of the game.
The first play of the game was an old Pitt standby, a jet sweep, and that does well to get the Miami defense flowing to the sidelines. DJ Turner turns the corner and goes for a nice gain.
Here’s a bubble screen to Shocky Jacques-Louis. It’s nearly impossible to stop this play from gaining positive yardage.
On some plays that involve the quarterback holding onto the ball slightly longer, here’s a drag route to Jacques-Louis.
And here’s Todd Sibley, Jr. coming free out of the backfield into the flat.
After all of that action to the sidelines, when Pitt finally did call an up-the-middle run, it actually worked out pretty well, with Sibley going through a huge hole.
It’s possible to run an offense like this all time, with the vast majority of the plays being short passes and runs to the outside, with runs inside the formation then becoming a change-of-pace play. All of those short passes can also get safeties moving forward, inviting the occasional deep shot on a double move. This is the basis of an offensive game plan than can and has worked in other places.
But so far, it hasn’t worked for Pitt. Why? Mistakes.
Pitt’s quarterbacks, be it Kenny Pickett or Yellen, have not shown supreme accuracy this season. While a lot of these throws are not thrown into windows so tight that precision is required, they need to be completed with a very high level of confidence. You can’t have overthrows or underthrows on routes executed within four yards of the line of scrimmage.
Here, Yellen overthrows A.J. Davis on a screen pass, where a good throw that led Davis toward the sideline would have likely resulted in Pitt at least getting a field goal out of this drive. Instead, the Panthers punted.
Those mistakes have come on both ends of the passer-to-receiver combination, with the Panthers dropping the ball more than any other team in college football, even when it has been placed on the target. Here’s Taysir Mack dropping an intermediate pass on the first drive of the game.
Incompletions, because of a poor throw or a drop, stop the clock, disrupt the momentum of the play-calling, and put the team behind the down-and-distance markers. If the offensive game plan is going to rely heavily on short passes, it can’t get into scenarios where it regularly needs more than a short pass to convert a first down.
Even worse is a sack, which will immediately put the offense behind the sticks and invite the same kind of slow-developing play call that likely put the quarterback in a position to take a sack in the first place.
Here, we can’t see what Yellen can see down field, but we can see the defensive alignment. It’s a Cover 2 with man coverage underneath, meaning there is someone on each receiver, with deep help over the top on the outside. Only Sibley has a 1-on-1 matchup, and he’s open enough that Yellen could have gotten a pass into him a few yards down field. Instead, Yellen tried to wait for something deeper to open up and was sacked after Pitt’s line was badly beaten by just a four-man rush.
Pitt’s line has generally done well in pass protection, so Yellen can be excused for thinking he had more time, but it’s clear that this was called as a deep pass play with little deception involved, which allowed Miami to defend it perfectly.
The sack on first down essentially ruined any chance Pitt had of being able to successfully maintain its short passing attack.
Long passing has not been Pitt’s speciality for many reasons. The line has not been solid in providing pockets for a long time, and Pitt’s receivers have not show aptitude in winning on the kind of routes necessary.
Here, freshman Jordan Addison is matched up against a safety nearly eight yards off the ball. With the speed he can build up in that stretch, he should be able to blow right by him and on toward the corner. But Addison doesn’t get a clean win at the top of the route and turns for the ball too soon, causing an overthrow. A crisper route, and this is probably a touchdown.
Pitt has the plays in its playbook to have an offense that can still move the ball without a running game. The problem is that plan requires a very high level of execution, and that’s something the Panthers have not provided thus far.