After the first three games, Pitt was not adjusting well to the new 3-4 scheme under defensive coordinator Keith Patterson. The biggest issue with the defensive unit after those first three games—most notably the loss at Iowa—was the inability to finish off opponents.
In those first three games, in the fourth quarter, opponents combined to complete 33-of-49 (75.5%) passes for 415 yards, four passing touchdowns with an additional two rushing touchdowns. Pitt also forced no turnovers in the same stretch. Outside of the fourth quarter, in the first three games, opponents completed 57-of-94 (60.6%) for 594 yards, 1 touchdown pass and two interceptions.
Things started changing with the Notre Dame game. Pitt finished with a +2 in turnover margin, which included an interception from Jason Hendricks inside the 5—ending a Notre Dame red zone drive. Despite the three-point loss to the Irish that day, Pitt carried the momentum over to its Thursday night showdown with South Florida—a game which has clearly been Pitt's best performance all season. Pitt forced another turnover in that game, and despite letting up over 400 yards—most of which came with the game well in-hand—the defense shut down quarterback B.J. Daniels that night. He was sacked twice, and held to 43 yards rushing; coming off a 100-yard performance the previous week. We saw a transition in this game in terms of third-down defense. Pitt held USF to 6-of-15 on third down, and 0-of-2 on fourth down attempts—arguably the biggest factor that allowed Pitt to dominate in this game, as opposed to something they couldn't grasp in the first three games.
Now that the USF win was three weeks ago, Pitt is still looking for its first win since then. That doesn't mean the defense hasn't done good things since then. Despite losses at Rutgers and to Utah at home, it hasn't been the defense's fault. Despite Utah's John White rushing for 171 yards last Saturday, Patterson wasn't all that enthused about his run defense in this last game, but also doesn't believe it's a cause of concern.
"We misfit a couple, bouncing back and forth, different positions," Patterson said. "In the course of a game, a couple of fits we fit inside and had no one outside on the perimeter. It maybe looked like great execution on their part. You have to give them credit. We have to execute. Those are the kinds of things we're trying to eliminate; the big plays and giving up some of those—what I like to refer as cheap yardage. It's really a result of us not executing what we do, not just necessarily great execution on the part of the offense."
Over the last two games Pitt has held opponents to 10-of-33 on third downs (30.3%). That statistic goes hand-in-hand with another, which has been a big reason the defense has been successful in the red zone. Part of that is field position. That's certainly one thing that has not favored the defense in the last two games. Against Rutgers, they had to take the field at their own 18 after an interception. Rutgers answered with a touchdown, which the way Pitt's offense played that day, put the game out of reach at 13-3.
This past week, they were in a similar situation in the fourth quarter. Tino Sunseri fumbled the ball away after getting sacked, and Utah recovered at the Pitt 19. This time, the Panthers held. In fact, out of four red zone appearances, Utah's offense came away with no touchdowns. Patterson feels by having its back against the wall in so many situations this year, the defense has learned—in a peculiar way—to play with an added amount of pressure, or emotion.
"The thing at Rutgers, I told our guys, it doesn't matter. We have to take the field if the ball is on the ten yard-line, or if the ball is at midfield. We've done a nice job at Utah, when the ball is at midfield. In fact, one time they already were in scoring position, with some sacks and they may have had a penalty, backed them out of field goal range. I was really proud of that."
The defense, of course, came up with 17 tackles for losses and seven sacks against Utah. The third down defense, the red zone defense—all these factors are coming together. That Panthers have also not had a fourth quarter letdown since that Iowa game. Against Notre Dame, it was just the one long drive at the end of the game. In the last three games, the defense has given up two scores—a Rutgers touchdown run (which started at the Pitt 17), and a 39-yard field goal to Utah. With all these other factors in line, the only thing now is to get some hands on some more turnovers.
"We're shooting for perfection," Patterson said. "We want to shut people out and hold them to less than 15 points. The other challenge is get the ball back for our offense. Give them field position. We haven't done that yet. We're striving on things we haven't executed well. I think you'll see a big difference over the next five games."
Personnel-wise, the defense has had to deal with the absence of Todd Thomas in the last two games. Kevin Adams has stepped in at outside linebacker in the last two games. Adams finished with eight tackles, including 2.5 for a loss in this last game against Utah. Greg Williams finished with arguably his best game of the season—seven tackles, four tackles for losses and 2.5 sacks. In fact, Todd Thomas may have to fight back for some reps when he is expected back in the lineup for the UConn game. At the very least, Patterson says the progression of Williams and Adams in the last two games, only makes the linebacker unit deeper.
"A lot of it has been the play of Greg (Williams)," Patterson said. "Greg was playing so well the other day that he just got more snaps. He's been practicing. He's a senior, therefore he's got the experience. There's no doubt that Ejuan (Price) has had his two best weeks. Competition has created at both positions. Now, I have to practice if I want to play. I think both of those positions are getting better every week."
Patterson may have a more serious decision on his mind, with safety Jason Hendricks expected to out for awhile. He may have to jiggle around some defensive backs, but it's evident that he's already done some thinking about it.
"We have a lot of confidence in the guys that we have backing up," Patterson said. "You have to be aware. We might not be as aggressive in certain situations to that side. You're kind of comfortable with Hendricks over there in the boundary. We kind of tweaked some things to be able to offset that. Maybe instead of bringing the corner over, we can maybe bring the safety and play K'Waun (Williams) a little more in coverage. I think you'll see some little tweaks like that in zone pressure. We're going to continue to be aggressive no matter who is on the field. We have to find somebody; somebody will step up.
"Playing Buddy (Jackson) in a nickel situation, and (Andrew) Taglianetti is a versatile player. He's just a guy—maybe not quite as talented—but a guy, he'll get it done. We have all the confidence in the world in him. We're going to use his abilities, which are a little bit different from Jason's (Hendricks). You'll see Taglianetti involved in some pressure situations; some zone blitzes."