Pitt Preview: Defense

I would stop short of calling Wannstedt a defensive genius, but he is an outstanding defensive coach. Wherever he has coached the defenses have generally been good to outstanding regardless of the talent on hand. His trademark is solid aggressive defenses. He is a hands-on type of head coach that spends a great deal of his time on the defensive side of the ball, and that is where he'll make his impact with the Panthers in 2005.

Wannstedt will bring the aggressive, attacking 4-3 defense he learned from Jimmy Johnson to Pittsburgh. There isn't anything particularly complicated about Wannstedt's defense, he readily admits that it's fairly simple defense. What makes his defenses so good is that his guys just seem to play much faster than the offense. Wannstedt isn't concerned with size; it's speed that he covets. Wannstedt wants players that play downhill and he will sacrifice size to get speed on the field -- speed disrupts.

Assisting Wannstedt will be defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads who has held the position at Pitt since 2000. Rhoads has had some up and downs years, but he is generally considered to be a very solid coach and he is well liked by players. I expect Rhoads to be re-energized under Wannstedt.

Expect the Pittsburgh defense to be very aggressive with a lot of movement up front. The defensive line looks to penetrate and make plays in the backfield--something the Pitt defense has struggled to do in the last several years.

The line will need to replace two defensive tackles from last year's unit. One spot will likely go to fifth year senior Thomas Smith (6-4, 285-pound) who was a starter at defensive end in 2004; other than that, there isn't much experience or depth for the Panthers and this could become a concern. Senior Phil Tillman or sophomore Corey Davis will likely be pushed into action.

Moving Thomas Smith inside shouldn't hurt the defensive end position because Pitt has more depth and talent here, but they do lack experience. Senior Charles Sallet (6-0, 225-pound) should retain his starting spot as the speed rushing defensive end, and Joe Clermont (6-2, 245-pound), a converted linebacker got a leg up on the competition for the starting strong-side defensive end position with a strong performance during spring practice. There are a couple of younger players that could see some action, or Wannstedt could move some linebackers down to improve the speed coming off the corner.

The linebacker corps is where the talent is on defense. I fully expect Wannstedt to turn this group into one of the best units in the country, as they are well suited for his style of play. Pitt graduated 3-year starter Malcolm Postell, but they return the defenses top two tacklers, junior H.B. Blades and senior Clint Sessions. Both players can move and hit. If the defensive line can be disruptive, these two players can dominate. Brain Bennett will likely get the nod at the third linebacker spot (had 118 tackles in 2003), but he lost his starting position last season. Pitt also returns junior Derron Thomas who started for sessions against Notre Dame last season, as well as fifth year senior J.J. Horne ,who has extensive playing experience. Pitt has lots of talent at linebacker and all can play.

The defensive backfield struggled last season finishing ranked No. 100 nationally by giving up 255 yards per game and 22 touchdowns on the season, but they should improve. The best of the bunch is fifth year senior Josh Lay, who picked off two of Brady Quinn's passes last season. At the other corner is returning starter sophomore Darrelle Revis. Revis had a solid year starting as a true freshman in 2004. Both corners play very good man defense, but will give up a big play from time to time.

At free safety is three-year starter Tez Morris (5-10, 190-pound). Morris was third on the team in tackles so he finds himself around the ball, but he only has three career interceptions. He'll need to be a force for the defensive backfield to improve on last year's performance.

Junior Mike Phillips (5-11, 190-pound) and senior Sam Bryant will battle for the strong safety position vacated by 3-year starter Tyrone Gilliard. Phillips started six games at corner last season so he is solid in coverage, but Bryant is closer to the size you'd like at strong safety at 6-0, 220-pounds.

Expect the Pitt defense to be greatly improved this season with Wannstedt installing his brand of defense. It's an aggressive defense, but it's not a defense that gambles and blitzes every other play. The Achilles heal will likely be the defensive line. An experienced offensive line like Notre Dame's will probably be a huge challenge for the defensive front, but a dynamite group of linebackers and an experienced secondary could be the equalizer.

I do think the offense will struggle to establish the power running game, so the defense will be counted on to keep them in games, and even score points. I do believe Wannstedt and Rhoades will get the job done, and the defense will win several ballgames -- just not the one on September 3.

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