PITTSBURGH — As Pat Narduzzi stood just outside the Aaron Donald Performance Center doors Monday morning, he couldn’t help but be reminded of his dominant defensive line when watching the grounds crew.
Well, being forced to acknowledge the grounds crews actually.
Narduzzi was attempting to field questions from the media before Monday’s practice, the start of the final week of training camp this summer, but a tractor cruised diligently along the practice nearby field, drowning out all questions. That tractor, he said, was just like Pitt’s defensive line.
The man on the tractor was in the kind of zone that he only sees when watching his defensive line pursue opposing quarterbacks.
The defensive line is Pitt’s bread and butter in the trenches, but this season features a plethora of position groups with deep, talented units. The defensive line and the defense won the first scrimmage last Saturday, but the quarterbacks and the offense battled back and took Saturday’s rematch.
The competition is taking place inside individual position groups and across the roster as a whole, exactly as Narduzzi preaches to his players.
Offense Wins Saturday’s Scrimmage
Pitt hit up Dave & Buster’s Saturday night and took Sunday off, so it was a good weekend, but it came after Saturday morning’s scrimmage at Acrisure Stadium — the first time at Acrisure this summer.
Narduzzi said Pitt got about 130 plays offensively and defensively, working in the ones, twos and threes and added 32 special teams’ snaps. He was impressed not only by how clean the scrimmage was — the crisp execution across all three phases — but by the level of physicality and competition across all three phases. It was football as it should be.
“132 plays of contact, and that’s kind of what we’re about in Pittsburgh, toughness,” Narduzzi said. “I’m impressed with the way our guys came through it. The physical-ness.”
However, one side had to win. And it was the offense that came out victoriously. Narduzzi can’t quite remember the score, but his 45-11, 45-13 margin shows the level of prowess the offense displayed at Acrisure.
“The offense won pretty handily, and why did they win? I tell our guys every week, the offense should win the scrimmage every week if you don’t turn the ball over,” Narduzzi said. “Zero turnovers, you’re protecting the football, you got a chance to win the football game all the time.”
Narduzzi praised both Slovis and Patti’s performances Saturday, highlighting their efficiency in running the offense, but more importantly, not turning the ball over. The running backs secured their carries, the wide receivers made the most of opportunities and Jaylon Barden emerged as the MVP in Narduzzi’s eyes.
With five or six explosive passing plays, it was Barden who came down with a handful of them — contested catches at the point of attack over cornerbacks even.
It was a banner day for the offense. The defense played well, cycling players regularly, but the offense performed to expectations.
Positional Battles to Watch?
The quarterback competition is obviously the position battle to watch, but there truly are battles all across the roster.
Narduzzi highlighted the quarterback and kicking competitions specifically, but there is competition at offensive line, linebacker, defensive back and wide receiver and tight end to a lesser degree.
“There’s battles going on all over the place,” Narduzzi said. “Obviously the quarterback, the kicking job is up for grabs, it’s battles of who’s going to get reps. Who can we trust on the field to do certain things? The competition continues.”
Sam Scarton and Ben Sauls have been competing all summer, and Sauls has taken first team reps in recent practices. The right side of the offensive line is locked in competition with Jake Kradel and Blake Zubovic at guard and Matt Goncalves filling in at right tackle with Gabe Houy rehabbing an injury.
Damarri Mathis’s boundary cornerback spot is likely going to be filled by A.J. Woods, but M.J. Devonshire and Rashad Battle have both been pseudo-starters through camp. While the linebacking corps has seen its likely starters fall into place with Shayne Simon and Bangally Kamara emerging, the competition for increased snaps is strong.
Improvements Over the Offseason
Pitt entered the spring with questions across the roster, maybe not concerns in every case, but definite questions.
With just one week of camp left before it’s game week, a lot of those questions have been answered or will be figured out by the end of the week. There’s been a lot of work put into the new offensive system run by new offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti Jr., and the defense has reloaded along the backend.
“You see the biggest increase from Day 1 or maybe Day 4 and what it was in spring ball, so especially offensively, doing a lot of things, combining two offenses together,” Narduzzi said. “Trying to do what we did well, what do we need to fix? You see that in a big way.”
Narduzzi preaches being 3% better every day. That may not always happen, it may 1% every day, but he just wants to improve every day.
Keeping it Levelheaded
Pitt hit the field at Acrisure Stadium Saturday for the first time this summer, and it was the first time some of the newcomers and freshmen ever set foot on the field. It can be an adjustment to move to a game-like situation, but Narduzzi has no worries about being ready for the big stage.
“One of the things I said to them afterward is they know how to get prepared for a game,” Narduzzi said. “My first couple years I wasn’t sure what I was going to get, but our guys walked into Acrisure Stadium and were locked in just like they were the week before.”
The first scrimmage went so well that the following practice back at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex was a bit of a letdown, slow and sloppy at times, and Narduzzi wanted to correct it. He told the team after scrimmage number one that it was a great performance. He wasn’t so deliberate this time around, even if it was a great performance.
“Yeah, I didn’t tell them they did as good probably,” Narduzzi said. “I was kinda like, ‘We’ve got a lot of stuff to clean up.’ We’ll find out, we’re in pads today, so it’s hard not to turn up. Somebody’s going to get their butt kicked when we’re in pads.”