Pitt offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti said Wednesday that quarterback Tino Sunseri needs to improve or he could find himself on the bench instead of leading the team on the field each week.
Cignetti said Sunseri left too many plays on the field to give Pitt a chance to win in the team's 31-3 shellacking by No. 15 Miami Sept. 23 at Heinz Field.
"I wouldn't say he is on a shorter leash," Cignetti said, "but every position you have to evaluate performance and, if the guy on the field isn't giving us the best chance to win the game then, hey, changes might have to be made. Tino is our starting quarterback and what you need to do is get a feel for 'if something bad happens, why did it happen?'
"In this case, it is more, 'let's just get the eyes focused on the primary receiver and let's give ourselves a chance to make a play.' [On the decision to make a change] there is intuition, there is feel and you don't know until it happens."
When presented with Cignetti's assessment of the situation, head coach Dave Wannstedt agreed that Sunseri -- who has been made off limits to the media this week -- has not played well and needs to play much better than he did against the Hurricanes.
But he said he has not considered a quarterback change because he believes Sunseri's progression is not much different than that of most young quarterbacks. He said he has full confidence that he will improve as he gains more experience.
"Do we have to make some plays in the passing game? Sure," Wannstedt said. "But I'm confident that we're going to come out here and make some plays and we're going to work through this.
"Am I surprised about the whole thing? Not really. A little bit disappointed, I thought we'd be further ahead offensively than we are at, both run and pass, but am I totally surprised? No.
"Tino has had a good week, and I am confident that he is going to play good this week, I really believe that."
Cignetti said Sunseri's biggest problem is that he is not seeing things on the field as they develop. Because of that, he hesitates, which deprives him of a chance to make plays.
And even when Sunseri is seeing things, he does not trust what he sees and focuses instead on what the defense is doing rather than what his receivers are doing down the field.
Cignetti said he watched film with Sunseri this week and has gone back to basics in trying to correct some of his problems. He said they have spent a lot of time talking about Sunseri's eyes not being focused downfield enough or for long enough on given plays.
"I think the biggest thing with Tino is that he needs to understand 'where is my starting point,' " Cignetti said. "So what we did is that we went back and made sure he understood on each play 'here is my starting point.' What we had to do was make sure his eye progression was correct."
Sunseri was sacked three times by Miami, scrambled out of the pocket three times, dumped the ball to his underneath receivers a few times and never looked comfortable in the pocket.
Cignetti said some of his scrambles and his dumpoffs were ill-advised because had he stayed in the pocket and kept his eyes down the field, he would have seen open receivers.
"He was uncomfortable," Cignetti said. "But, when your eyes aren't right, it makes it difficult to play back there. What I saw on film I believe is correctable."
Cignetti said Sunseri did all the things he is talking about in the first two games, but did none of them against Miami.
Cignetti stressed that Sunseri has not had the luxury of easing into his role as a starter because the Panthers' early schedule was so tough. Pitt played at Utah in the first week of the season and, after a soft touch (New Hampshire), played the Hurricanes last Thursday.
He contrasted that to last year when the Panthers' first three games were Youngstown State, Buffalo and Navy. That allowed then-quarterback Bill Stull the luxury of learning Cignetti's system and easing into the season against weaker opponents.
But he also made it clear that he is not using Miami's talent on defense as an excuse for Sunseri's performance. Because as well as the Hurricanes played that night, Sunseri was his own worst enemy.
"Miami was really good, and I don't want to take away anything Miami did, but, when you go back and watch the film, the primary receiver was open numerous times, we had time in the pocket and, for some reason, the ball just wasn't coming out," Cignetti said. "We had our opportunities and didn't take advantage of them."
NOTE -- Sophomore middle linebacker Dan Mason (dislocated knee) will have surgery Friday.
Paul Zeise: email@example.com or 412-263-1720. First Published September 30, 2010 4:00 AM