Preview: Pittsburgh Defense

IrishEyes examines the Panthers' key defensive personnel for Saturday's matchup under the lights.

The Panthers lead the nation in total sacks (38), rank 26th in rush defense (106 yards per game); 21st in total defense, and 19th in scoring defense (17.1 points per game).

Though Pittsburgh rates a solid 38th in pass defense, the more accurate assessment lies in a team's pass efficiency defense, a category in which the Panthers rank 49th nationally (two spots in front of common opponent, Navy).

Pittsburgh Defensive Depth Chart

  • Defensive End – Junior #97 Jabaal Sheard: Tied for third on the team with 6.5 tackles-for-loss and has posted 2.5 sacks. The 6'4" 260-pound Sheard has started in 22 straight games from his end position. With 30 tackles this season, Sheard continues to build on an incredibly productive 2008 campaign in which the rush end totaled 45 tackles (10.5 for lost yardage), 5.5 sacks, forced and recovered a fumble and had a team-best 11 QB hurries, along with seven pass break-ups.

    Sheard, who posted three tackles in addition to two hits on Jimmy Clausen and two pass breakups last season vs. the Irish, will most often be paired vs. Notre Dame right tackle Sam Young on Saturday.

  • Defensive End – Redshirt-Junior #91 Greg Romeus: Leads the team in sacks (7.5) and ranks 20th in the nation in that category at .83 per contest. Romeus is second on the Panthers with nine tackles for loss and has accounted for three turnovers (a FF, FR, and INT).

    The 6'6" 270-pound Romeus is a member of the Ted Hendricks Award Watch List (presented to the nation's top defensive end) and will be matched up with Irish left tackle Paul Duncan for the majority of the contest.

  • Defensive Tackle – 5th-Year Senior #95 Mick Williams: Leads the team and the Big East Conference with 13 tackles-for-loss (totaling 60 yards) and has added three sacks, 33 tackles and forced three fumbles in nine games this season. At 6'1" 280 pounds, the penetrating Williams keys the front four's relentless push up front from his "3-technique" position. Williams posted a career-best 4.5 tackles-for-loss in the Panthers only loss this season (at NC State).

    The 5th-year senior will present a major problem for the Irish interior if starting right guard Trevor Robinson is not at full strength.

  • Nose Tackle – 5th-Year Senior #93 Gus Mustakas: A 2009 team captain, the 6'3" 285-pound Mustakas is a bit undersized for today's game on the nose but he's held up well vs. the run, totaling 26 tackles (4for lost yardage), and 1.5 sacks while recovering two fumbles. Mustakas keyed the Panthers domination of Navy's ground game with 10 tackles (7 solo) as Pittsburgh limited the potent Midshipmen to just 129 rushing yards (on 46 attempts).
  • WILL Linebacker – Redshirt-Sophomore #55 Max Gruder: Ranks second on the squad with 58 tackles (three for lost yardage) and is tied for second with four pass breakups this season. Noted by Irish head coach Charlie Weis as the Panthers LB who rarely comes off the field, regardless of the chosen defensive package.
  • MIKE Linebacker – 6th-Year Senior #8 Adam Gunn: Along with Mustakas, ranks as a 2009 team captain on the defensive side of scrimmage. Gunn ranks third on the squad with 44 tackles (5.5 for lost yardage) and has posted 5 sacks from his middle linebacker position. Gunn is a sixth-year player (suffered a neck injury vs. Bowling Green in last year's opener) and was named the Big East Defensive Player of the Week for his 11-tackle(3.5 TFL)/3-sack performance at Buffalo earlier this season (his second game back from last year's injury).
  • SAM Linebacker – Redshirt-Sophomore #38 Greg Williams: Fast, athletic ‘backer has two touchdowns this season (Interception and Fumble Returns) to augment his 27 tackles (3 for lost yardage), sack, and forced fumble. Williams has three career touchdowns (UConn 2008) and has started 20 of the Panthers last 21 contests. The 6'3" 240-pound Williams had five tackles last season vs. the Irish in South Bend and will tangle with Notre Dame backup tight ends Mike Ragone and Bobby Burger on Saturday as Kyle Rudolph is lost for the remainder of the regular season (shoulder).
  • Field Cornerback – Senior #17 Aaron Berry: Tied for second on the squad with four pass breakups though he's challenged by opposing quarterbacks less than teammate Jovani Chappel. A member of the Thorpe Award Watch List (nation's best defensive back), The 5'11" 180-pound senior had nine tackles (including one for lost yardage) last season vs. the Irish: three after first-down receptions by then-freshman WR Michael Floyd; four in run support vs. Armando Allen; and two others vs. Duval Kamara (one in which he limited Kamara to a yard on a quick look, though Kamara beat him for a 20-yard gain on the game's first drive as well.

    Weis noted Berry as one of the Big East's best in his Tuesday press conference this week. He has one pick this season after posting three in 2008 (along with 10 pass breakups).

  • Boundary Cornerback – Senior #7 Jovani Chappel: The oft-tested Chappel leads the team with six pass breakups and has 23 solo tackles (28 total) in coverage. Chappel was flagged for a key holding call in last season's matchup but the Irish were unable to capitalize, later failing on 4th and short at midfield on the potential game-winning drive in regulation. Could have matchup issues vs. the bigger, physical Irish receivers at 5'9" 185 pounds.
  • Free Safety – Redshirt-Freshman #18 Jarred Holley: Has started the last four games at free safety and posted a career-best nine tackles as well as his first interception last week in a win vs. Syracuse. The first-year player has 33 tackles, two pass breakups and an interception on the season though 24 of those tackles have occurred over the last four contests.

    Holley (5'10" 175 pounds) was singled out by Weis as the player that has "solidified" the defense over the last four games.

  • Strong Safety – Junior #31 Dom DeCicco: Leads the squad with 64 tackles (noted by Coach Weis as a positive and product of their defensive scheme). The 6'3" 230-pound DeCicco has added two interceptions, two pass breakups and two forced fumbles to his season total and has twice posted 12 tackles this season. Named the Defensive Player of the Game by the coaching staff vs. South Florida, Rutgers, and UConn (three Panthers' opponents prior to last week's game vs. Syracuse).

    Armando Allen and Theo Riddick vs. Dom DeCicco in space will help decide Saturday night's battle in Heinz Field.

Key Defensive Contributors

  • Nose Tackle – Redshirt-Sophomore #94 Myles Caragein: Has 26 tackles (6.5 for lost yardage) and four sacks despite starting just one game this season. Caragein is a true rotation player on the Panthers interior and as the team's "fifth" DL starter, serves as a key to Pittsburgh's ability to remain fresh late. Pittsburgh has outscored its opponents 147-77 in the second half this season. There is little drop-off when the 6'2" 275-pound versatile interior defender enters the contest at either DT or NT.
  • Free Safety/Nickel Defender – Redshirt Junior #4 Elijah Fields: Now plays in the Nickel role to offer the Panthers another bigger, athletic player to balance the defensive package vs. the run. The 6'2" 225-pound Fields started at SLB vs. South Florida after starting three games at free safety.
  • Cornerback – Redshirt-Junior #26 Ricky Gary: The 5'9" 175-pound backup CB could see action if the Irish offense shows a bulk of 4-wide receiver sets.
  • Linebacker – Freshman #40 Dan Mason: A true freshman, the 6'0" 225-pounder from nearby Penn Hills, HS (Pittsburgh) has played in every game and started twice in the middle. Mason was named the Big East Defensive Player of the Week after registering 11 tackles and two sacks in a win over Navy.

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