It all starts in the team meeting rooms, where cornerbacks Ricky Gary and Antwuan Reed point out to their defensive line counterparts, that they deserve a little assist on the seven sacks that the defensive line produced this past Saturday against Rutgers.
"You know Ricky and Reed and all (the corners) will go (joke) with the d-line, saying that happened," senior Dom DeCicco said. "(The corners) get us interceptions too. It goes both ways. As long as we're helping each other out, we'll be fine."
Gary and Reed have a case. For the first time all year, Pitt's pass defense held an opponent to under 200 yards passing in a game. By the time starter Chas Dodd exited the game, he completed just 8-of-19 passes with an interception, with 62 total passing yards. The defensive line's pressure had a lot to do with it. What defensive corner Phil Bennett saw, was a lot of coverage sacks as well.
"Our guys, we're great rushing (the quarterback), but our coverage is good," Bennett said. "There's a lot of cover sacks. That's how it's tied in together, Saturday in particular. Listen to (Rutgers head coach Greg) Schiano (post game comments). There wasn't anywhere for (Rutgers quarterback Chas Dodd) to throw the ball."
While it's typical that defenses that produce a lot of sacks, also yield fewer passing yards and produce higher interception totals. One thing that aids a pass rush is having corners that can cover the receivers well. Defensive lines that can produce sacks help the corners by creating pressure, but when corners like Ricky Gary and Antwuan Reed have been covering as well as they have over the last two games, it makes a dominant Pitt pass rush even better.
"You say this in a positive way — we've been very consistent in our coverage," head coach Dave Wannstedt said. "The guys are making good checks in the back. Guys are in place.
"Ricky Gary is really having a good year. Antwuan Reed has really gotten better. We have Buddy Jackson not just on special teams but in our nickel back position. Dom DeCicco is still working both spots out there. He was on three special teams and played nickel back and played safety. I don't think that we have anyone on our team that contributes more than Dom DeCicco does."
Making their checks and being in place is one thing, but from a player standpoint, there's a more noticeable difference in the physical play from the field view.
"I just think Ricky and Antwuan are playing more physical than corners that I've ever seen since I've been here," DeCicco added. "They're both challenging receivers, making it hard for them. It makes everyone else's job on the defense easier."
The numbers don't lie. Pitt's run defense is ranked ninth nationally, allowing 92.43 rushing yards a game. Though it's pass defense is 75th, allowing 222.86 passing yards a game, Pitt has cut into that average over the last few games thanks to an average of three sacks a game, which also ranks ninth nationally--all of this without Greg Romeus.
Pitt's philosophy of bringing pressure from the front four hasn't changed, nor will they be blitzing the linebackers more anytime soon. If they can get additional coverage from their corners in particular--as the team has gotten production from safeties Jarred Holley and Dom DeCicco--it just might be the missing piece to making a really good defense really great. The leadership of Gary, the improvement of Reed and Jackson, as well as a talented freshman player in K'Waun Williams looks like an ideal combination at corner. If they can continue to improve and play well as they have in recent weeks, the cornerbacks will add a dimension to the Pitt defense that hasn't been seen under Dave Wannstedt. Obviously, Darrelle Revis had a good career while he was at Pitt, during Wannstedt's first two years. However, the depth and talent on the defensive lines of 2005 and 2006 are nowhere close to the 2010 version.
"I think Ricky Gary--to this point--has had a fine year," Bennett added. "His demeanor, the way he's going about business, is something that hasn't been in place before. It's important to him right now. He doesn't hesitate to tell Antwuan (Reed), he doesn't hesitate to tell Buddy Jackson, ‘This is important. You need to listen.'
"I think Antwuan has made some strides the last couple of weeks. He's been inconsistent throughout the year, but I think he's starting to make some strides. Buddy Jackson has been in our bandit package. K'Waun Williams is coming back this week. If we continue to progress, we'll have a chance here, at this run."