Football Takeaways: Aggression is a double-edged sword


Thomas Yang | Assistant Visual Editor

Senior safety Damar Hamlin (03) tackles Syracuse running back Jarveon Howard (28) during the 2018 matchup with the Orange at Heinz Field.

By Ben Mankowski, Staff Writer

Pitt football continues to roll, extending its winning streak to four games after defeating Syracuse on Friday night, 27-20. The same aggressive defense that made Panthers head coach Pat Narduzzi famous at Michigan State showed itself against the Orange, though Pitt kept the score close by making several avoidable mistakes.

Aggression paying off on the defensive line

In his time as Michigan State’s defensive coordinator, Narduzzi made his name by pressing receivers and blitzing constantly. This strategy was on full display against Syracuse as the Panthers tallied nine sacks — their most in a single game since 2001. It was a full team effort, with no Pitt defender tallying more than one sack.

Almost every passing play the Orange attempted ended up with a Pitt lineman in the backfield. Both Syracuse quarterbacks were rattled by the constant pressure, with redshirt sophomore starter Tommy DeVito even exiting the contest for good in the third quarter after a jarring hit from redshirt sophomore Paris Ford.

Along with the strong pass rush, Pitt’s defensive line was extremely effective in stopping the run game, holding Syracuse running backs to under 50 yards on the ground. The Orange couldn’t find any traction due to the constant backfield pressure, which also served to force unfavorable distances on third downs. With Syracuse often forced to air it out on third-and-long, Pitt recorded six of its nine sacks on third down.

Pitt now leads the entire nation with 36 sacks on the season, seven more than next-best Ohio State. Even after losing its best defensive linemen before the season — redshirt juniors Rashad Weaver and Keyshon Camp — this unit has made it clear that it’s the crux of Pitt’s success.

Physicality coming back to bite in the secondary

The ugly side of Narduzzi’s aggressive defense manifested itself in the secondary, where the Panthers were flagged three times on one drive. Having the cornerbacks press up on the receivers at the line makes the strategy work by delaying timing. But the Panthers paid for their physical play multiple times by committing avoidable penalties.

Pitt’s secondary could not keep its hands off of the Orange receivers, most of the time while in press coverage. Without the handsy play of the secondary, the Orange offense would’ve stalled in multiple drives instead of marching downfield thanks to pass interference penalties. These penalties kept the score close when Pitt should’ve been building on its lead, and the Panthers’ defensive backs will need to work on cleaner coverage in the future.

Pickett continues to impress

Junior quarterback Kenny Pickett continued his impressive year through the air with a pair of touchdowns and 232 yards. First-year offensive coordinator Mark Whipple and Pickett seem to be meshing this year with impressive quarterback play.

What makes Pickett’s season even more impressive is his ability to play through big hits. Most notably, Pickett was knocked out of the UCF game earlier in the season, only to triumphantly return and lead a winning drive. Adding to his reputation for toughness, Pickett hit the ground four out of six times on Pitt’s opening drive against Syracuse. He took a trip to the locker room but eventually returned and ultimately led the Panthers to victory. Pickett’s throwing ability and physical toughness continued to shine Friday night against the Orange.

Improvement in the rushing attack

Junior running back AJ Davis added another layer to Pitt’s improved offense against Syracuse, rushing for his first career 100-yard game. Pickett throwing the ball effectively all night opened up the ground game for the Panthers’ running backs. Davis highlighted the rushing effort with a late first down run to put the game out of reach.

Ranked 111th in the country out of 130 teams with an average of 112 rushing yards per game, Pitt’s run game still leaves much to be desired. But Friday’s showing was at least a step in the right direction, and shows that the Panthers have several quality running backs at their disposal.

The Panther run game overall is still a work in progress, but Friday night showed how talented the group really is.

Time to put all the pieces together

Every week it seems like some aspect of Pitt’s performance is phenomenal, while another serves to counteract the positives. Whether it be penalties, turnovers, dropped passes or special teams mistakes, the Panthers simply can’t seem to put all the pieces together for a full 60 minutes.

Pitt currently ranks just outside the AP Top 25, and deservedly so. The Panthers simply haven’t played with the level of consistency and discipline expected of a ranked team. But with a great opportunity ahead of them this weekend to finally break into the top 25, Pitt must finally put forth a complete performance against a Miami team that, while it has underachieved, still oozes talent and potential.