Facing a more conventional offense last week against Miami, the Pitt defense allowed 348 total yards, including 248 in the air. Still, they sacked Miami quarterback Jacory Harris twice, and picked off two of his passes.
Now, the Panthers get back to facing the spread. In facing spread offense, Pitt allowed 122 yards on the ground (4.5 avg) against Utah, before limiting New Hampshire to just over two yards a carry.
Some spread offenses show run, then come out throwing the ball, like a Utah or a Cincinnati. They have the ability to run the ball. Instead, they use the run to set up the pass. Quarterbacks that have run this type of spread offense include Jordan Wynn of Utah, and Tony Pike of Cincinnati. Pitt has to face another quarterback with similar abilities in Wesley Carroll--a quarterback not considered a running quarterback, but one that can throw the ball for big-time yardage, with the possibility of breaking a big run with his legs.
Last week, Carroll torched the Maryland defense with a school-record 35 completions for 58 yards, throwing for 355 yards and two touchdowns. Are the Panthers in any better position to stop this quarterback--even though he looks like more of a primary passer than he is runner?
"From a personnel point, I definitely think it helps to get some more experienced guys on the field, or at least have them available," head coach Dave Wannstedt said. "We'll see a lot of the same things as Utah, a lot of the same things as New Hampshire. Playing these spread teams, it's probably more of a premium from a defensive back standpoint."
With the pressure on the defensive backs, Wannstedt has a group that has progressed steadily since facing its first test of the season at Utah.
"Since (the Utah game), we've been pretty clean," Wannstedt said. "Even last week against Miami, they completed some passes, no question. (Jacory Harris) was completing them, and (Miami receivers) were catching them. We just have to keep tightening up every week."
Even in the midst of facing injury problems to two of their most experienced players; Dom DeCicco and Andrew Taglianetti, the secondary has been tightening up. DeCicco did not play the New Hampshire game, and after a first-quarter interception last week, missed the rest of the Miami game.
In his place, is Jason Hendricks. Hendricks missed an assignment on Utah's biggest pass play--a 61-yard touchdown pass from Wynn to Devonte Christopher in the opener at Utah. Hendricks filled in for DeCicco when he went down at Utah, started and played the entire New Hampshire game, and filled in for DeCicco again last week. Wannstedt said Thursday that he's unsure of DeCicco's status, but if the senior isn't ready to go, Hendricks has progressed and learned since that Utah game.
"Every time Jason plays, you're going to see him do things that he might have made a mistake the week before," defensive backs coach Jeff Hafley said. "But, he's going to correct it, and he's going to get better."
Jarred Holley has had an interception in each one of the three games so far. Once he had his interception against Miami last week, Harris started throwing the ball away from the middle of the field. Utah came out trying to connect on a lot of the underneath routes in its spread attack. Holley picked one of those passes off, and when he picked off a pass last week, Miami started avoiding the middle of the field.
Pitt has also used K'Waun Williams as the extra nickel back in some of its passing down packages, and Kolby Gray saw some time when both Taglianetti and DeCicco were out. With corner being a question-mark heading into the season, Antwuan Reed and Ricky Gary are on the right track. Having more help from the safeties has helped them to this point. With the safeties progressing, taking away the middle of the field, the defense only needs Gary and Reed to come up big in one-on-one coverage.
The defensive line, coming off a good effort against Miami, has adjusted to playing without Greg Romeus for the time-being. Jabaal Sheard had what Dave Wannstedt called one of his best games in a Pitt uniform. The linebackers make a more permanent shift, as we'll see Max Gruder in the middle from here on. Gruder looks more comfortable, but Pitt's outside linebackers continue to struggle in pass coverage. They already have good support from Holley and company. Any big play ability they can add to the mix, will help this defense all the more.
Even though Holley is one of Pitt's overall stars right now, it will be interesting to see if Florida International tests Pitt over the middle. Pitt has a lot going for it, from a defensive standpoint, even in light of injuries to some key starters. If the rest of the defense can rally around the play at safety, specifically Holley, stopping the spread will no longer be a weekly problem for the Panthers.
"Jarred knows that FIU has got some good receivers," Hafley added. "Their quarterback is a heck of a football player. He threw the football 58 times last week. They got one of the better receivers we'll play, in T.Y. Hilton; good player. They've got another good receiver, (Greg Ellingson). They're going to throw the football on us just like all these spread teams will. We just got to keep putting him in position to make plays and be around the football."