Editor’s Note: Here is a well researched and thought out article from Jay Kaplan that hits the mark…and will generate good back and forth on the subject.
Question: Why did Pitt’s defense give up so many passing yards last season in the three games it lost?
(A question from 6&34 that is intended to elicit interactive responses from the POV community.)
Five teams threw for over 350 yards against Pitt this past year (two threw for over 425 yards). And they did that despite Pitt having more sacks than every other FCS team but one. I know these two facts by themselves don’t make the yardage allowed impossible. How could it be when the yardage allowed happened. (That’s what in philosophy should be called a true rhetorical question.)
It would be inaccurate to describe what I witnessed this past year with Pitt’s defense (the “Narduzzi defense”) to be inexplicable. I only know it is inexplicable to me. And the primary reason why it may be inexplicable to me is because I don’t regularly go to games. I watch every game on a large screen TV which means that I am limited in what I can observe by the limitations of modern television sportscasting productions.
The most glaring limitation factor is that college football television broadcasts limit what a viewer is able to observe occurring behind the defensive line. I am of the opinion that this limitation makes it impossible for a viewer to sufficiently evaluate a defensive scheme or a defensive player’s performance.
Of course, there are some things that may be observed with a degree of sufficiency that allows for intelligent contextual evaluation of a defensive player’s abilities. For example, we can for the most part observe how fast a corner back is in relation to the receiver’s speed or how skillful that corner back’s pass defense technique is.
What we can’t observe is the dynamic relationship between the moving parts, i.e. the various players’ involved in the receiver’s route running (other offensive players assigned tasks associated with the play) or the other defensive players who have a role in defending against that particular pass play other than the primary defender.
Yes, sometimes the broadcast attempts to show parts of that dynamic relationship but even those efforts are mostly significantly limited.
Someone watching the game from the stands, gets to see the entire field of play. Because my experience does not include a lot of those experiences, I can only surmise that such experiences provide a richer framework to evaluate what happened on a particular pass play. On the other hand, all of the many moving parts are moving rather fast. Pat Narduzzi’s “we’ll look at the tapes” to some extent constitute a rhetorical device to avoid answering a reporter’s question but there is a great deal of truth to the necessity of studying what occurred on the play using video tools not available to outsiders.
So let me get to the point of this article. I don’t understand why Pitt’s pass defense especially in games it lost so frequently appears so hapless and ineffective. I consider myself the proverbial blindman because I believe that the inability to observe the full picture is virtual blindness.
We hear over and over again that the weakness of the Narduzzi defense is that its structure leaves its pass defenders on an “island”. This is not really disputed even by Narduzzi. The structure of the defense accepts that result, recognizes it as a weakness but argues that the weakness is manageable and provides critical benefits to other aspects of the defense, e.g. stopping the run or to a lesser extent strengthening the pass rush, i.e. blitzing.
This is all well and good but WTF, Pitt’s defense gets chewed up often and that includes the job Western Michigan did against Pitt which arguably resulted in Pitt not being considered for the College Playoff Series.
And for me, here’s the rub: the pass defense to my limited and already aditted limited understanding gets beaten not so much on long passes where defenders are on an island, its on the shorter passes where Pit’s defense seems to get ass-kicked. You know perfectly well what I am referring to – those 3rd and 8 passes (or even 3rd and 12) and many other comparable infuriating situations. Those situations have nothing to do with a defender being on an island.
I admit it. I don’t understand how or why this happens. And I’m asking the POV community to engage with me in an interactive dialectic to help me (and any other POVer who admits to similar ignorance) understand why Pitt it so many critical situations Pitt was not able to stop the winning teams passing plays.
One last comment, blaming Pitt for allowing so many 350 plus yard pass defense games on the “smurfs” isn’t going to cut it anymore (and admittedly we don’t hear that species of criticism much these days). But the fact of the matter is that even in the incipient years of blaming the “smurfs”, a few of those guys managed to emerge as NFL defenders which to my mind pretty much says that those casting blame so cavalierly did not know what they were talking about (and that includes me). Then again, how would I know that Avonte Maddox would at the NFL Combine run a sub 4.4 40-yard dash or rank in the 97th and 99th percentiles on the 3-cone and 60-yard shuffle drills, respectively (yikes).*
I mention this because I am asking for POVers to really put their thinking caps on and use their best communication skills to answer my question. Any contribution will be appreciated especially from those POVers who regularly attend games. Comments that integrate the elements of Pitt’s defense components will be most welcome and receive extra credit. Please be prepared to defend your position because it is my hope that responses to comments be critical while at the same time respectful.
By the way, the reason the question is limited to the games Pitt lost is because if the question was not so limited there would be an easy answer to the question (glib as it might be), i.e. opponents were forced to pass against Pitt because they could not run against Pitt’s defense that ranked #3 in rushing yards per play allowed.
Also, by focusing on the games Pitt lost, we can engage in a more qualitative discussion which my instincts tell me is where the answer lies. I say this because whatever HC Narduzzi may have been thinking before the game, the actual game revealed in real time that stopping the run would not be enough to heighten the likelihood of a Pitt victory. In other words, at some point in each of those games the concern was winning the game which is not a statistic but a qualitative outcome. And yes, this does cause the question “Does Pat Narduzzi know what he is doing?” to pop up once again despite how anachronistic the question may seem.
* Statistics courteous of Bet IQ website (https://www.teamrankings.com/college-football/team/pittsburgh-panthers/stats)
** Statistics courteous of Section215.com (https://section215.com/2021/10/27/philadelphia-eagles-avonte-maddox-home/)