Pitt still missing finishing touch

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Offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti is happy with the way Pitt's offense has progressed, but Wednesday he said it is time for it to take the next step and finish drives.

"I think we played better," Cignetti said of the offense's performance Saturday at Notre Dame. "Right off the bat, you could see we had timing and rhythm and tempo to the offense. And, yeah, I think the passing game took a positive step.

"We are making progress, but, what I would like to see, which I think everyone would like to see, is more points on the board. When you get in the red zone, you have to score touchdowns, you can't be settling for field goals."

Cignetti said the Panthers' offense has, at least, shown the ability to move the ball but red-zone failures make it seem like there has been no such progress.

But talking about scoring from the red zone and scoring from there are two different things and Pitt has converted only 8 of 19 trips into touchdowns. That is a drop from last year when the Panthers converted 58 percent (33 of 57) of such chances.

"I think it always comes down to execution," Cignetti said. "Whether it is in the pass game or in the run game, you must have 11 guys functioning as one making the plays. I am a believer in percentages, and, sooner or later, we are going to start making those plays."

Cignetti said one obvious reason for the offense's improvement is quarterback Tino Sunseri, who has gotten better each game. He said Sunseri played his best game against the Irish last week, despite the Panthers' 23-17 loss.

One thing that could ease Pitt's red-zone pain is a quick-strike touchdown from outside the 20.

That would mean Sunseri would have to connect with Jon Baldwin on long passes, and that has been a struggle so far.

Sunseri hit Baldwin with a 56-yard touchdown pass against Notre Dame, but it was on a bootleg play and Notre Dame's defensive backs all bit on the fake, leaving Baldwin wide open about 20 yards behind the defense for an easier throw and catch.

Cignetti said Sunseri and Baldwin have been practicing hard to accomplish that, and he believes it is a matter of time before they connect.

"Different quarterbacks have different strengths and weaknesses, and we've been working on the deep ball with specific drills with Tino," Cignetti said. "But it is not just the quarterback, it is not just the wide receiver -- it takes both of them to be on the same page, the accuracy of the ball, the ball location, the flight of the ball and the route. We're working hard at it.

"I've been around quarterbacks like Jeff Blake where the deep ball is a natural. I've been around other quarterbacks who had to really work at it. I feel he is good at it, we just have to start taking our shots and we are going to start getting a return on it."

Meanwhile, tight ends Mike Cruz and Brock DeCicco have combined to catch four passes -- all by Cruz -- for 31 yards and no touchdowns. That is a big drop from last season, when, after five games, Nate Byham and Dorin Dickerson had combined for 23 catches and six touchdowns.

Cignetti said the tight ends are a big part of the game plan every week, but because Pitt has a progression-read passing game, the lack of catches has been dictated by the defense.

"The difference is obviously the personnel, and you have to try to utilize strengths of every player you have. Hey, I would like to have the tight end involved in this offense and in every pass play they are somewhere involved.

"Every week, we think they are going to be a part of the offense. We try to be balanced, we try to be multiple."

Saturday, the Panthers' offense will have to be on top of its game as Syracuse is playing at a very high level, according to Cignetti.

"[Doug Marrone] has that defense playing hard and playing well," Cignetti said. "You see a defense that gets lined up, they are in good stances, they have good gap control, the linebackers play downhill, they run to the ball, they hit you; you can see they have it going the right way."

Paul Zeise: pzeise@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1720.


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