Pitt has a defensive line that is noted for its depth, and a very talented depth chart along its front four. Both the talent and the depth were a non-factor in Thursday night's loss. A combination of a healthier Greg Romeus, as well as some of the other defensive linemen pushing the starters may make a difference, going forward.
Going back to Thursday night's game, starters Greg Romeus, Jabaal Sheard, Myles Caragein and Chas Alecxih played a significant chunk of the reps. Brandon Lindsey was the only other defensive end to see action in the rotation, while Tyler Tkach and Aaron Donald were the only other tackles.
Between the front four, there was only one tackle for a loss--coming from Sheard. Romeus finished with four tackles, as did Caragein. Alecxih was in on three stops. Outside of a pass breakup from both Sheard and Romeus, those were the only plays the defensive line made the entire game.
For Romeus, four tackles is a decent number. It shows that he played out there, but he's a player who is far from performing up to his standard. Pitt's concerns on the defensive line start with Romeus' health. He might not be as injured, as much as he is just trying to get back into football shape. Last year, it was Jabaal Sheard who sat out most of training camp, then got off to a slow start.
"Greg Romeus played 59 plays in the game," head coach Dave Wannstedt said. "I don't know if he had 59 plays throughout the entire training camp. He's kind of playing himself back into form a little bit."
It doesn't sound like the depth that Dave Wannstedt and Greg Gattuso were hoping to use, going back to the influx of players who made plays in training camp. Justin Hargrove was one of the surprise players in camp, and Nate Nix has made quite a move at defensive end. It doesn't look like the coaching staff is comfortable putting either into a big game. However, the situations of the game may have dictated that a little bit.
Because of the way the game was going--the fact that Pitt was down 14-7, and had to fight to get back into the game, Romeus and Sheard were kept on the field.
"They made it difficult to really get a full-speed pass-rush going," Wannstedt said. "We were playing from behind the whole game, which didn't make it easier as well."
When Sheard had to be taken out of the game to catch a breather, Lindsey replaced him. When Sheard went back in, he went for Romeus.
"I did a poor job of substituting for (Romeus), getting him some more rest in the second half," Gattuso said. "Jabaal was kind of banged up, and we were just trying to keep one of the two out there. I take the blame to not get him more adequate throughout the rest in the game."
While Romeus' health, and his ability to get back into football shape is a concern, that much can be aided by the addition of some of the younger defensive linemen. The situation of the game--being up 17-7 as opposed to being down 14-7 may change that a little, but for Wannstedt and Gattuso, they want to see that if they're going to make substitutions, they're going to have players on the field who can help preserve a 17-7 lead. It's hard to tell from just one game who those players will be, but starting this week against New Hampshire, more players will be given a chance.
"I think that Ty Tkach deserves more chance, and Aaron deserves a lot more chance," Gattuso added. "He's going to get his opportunity. He's getting better and better every week."
Donald is a perfect example. It seems there was a little more comfort level, using Tkach and Donald in certain instances last Thursday. In fact, both he and Tkach are being asked to push Alecxih and Caragein in practice even more. One thing is for sure, that Donald, is exemplifying what this team needs out of its defensive line rotation.
"He's a kid that if he will continue to learn what he is supposed to do, and if he continues to improve each week, he can really be an impact for us this year," Gattuso said. "That's why we chose not to redshirt him this year. We think he's going to step in there and play."
Tyrone Ezell is also not too far from getting back into the mix, even though a true freshman came in and stole his spot in the rotation.
"Ty Ezell really came back," Gattuso added. "He had a tough camp. He was a little overweight. He's down to 280 pounds. He had a great day (Tuesday). The competition is going to have to heat up. I think you'll see a different group this week."
Though Romeus' health is somewhat of a concern, the real concern is with him getting back into football shape. That combined with Pitt controlling the tempo of the game, as well as some of the younger defensive linemen proving they can play like starters will bring the defensive line back. If all three of these things can get back on the same page, Pitt's defensive line should be able to get back in sync.
"It's a comfort thing," Gattuso said. "In a big game, on the road, you tend to over play the guys. As a defensive line, it's imperative you get more substitutions."