Coach Dave Wannstedt believes in his 4-3 defense, which has been the Panthers' base formation since he took over after the 2004 season.
But No. 5 Cincinnati (11-0, 6-0 in the Big East) -- which comes to Heinz Field tomorrow -- is a spread-offense team, one that features a lot of one-back and empty backfield formations and is built on a quick-strike passing game. It's unlikely the Panthers will be able to rely on their bread-and-butter defense in what could be the most important game of the Wannstedt era.
Instead, the 14th-ranked Panthers (9-2, 5-1) will have to throw in a lot of their nickel and dime formations, replace linebackers with safeties and try to get the fastest 11 guys on the field at all times in order to counter the Bearcats.
- Game: No. 14 Pitt (9-2, 5-1 Big East) vs. No. 5 Cincinnati (11-0, 6-0), noon.
- Where: Heinz Field
- TV: WTAE.
"They are very versatile in their formations," defensive coordinator Phil Bennett said. "I think the thing we have to do is what we've done well this year -- keep the ball in front of us and not make stupid mistakes.
"Nowadays, what you want from your outside linebackers is you want them to be the 'tweener' types who can also cover -- like an Elijah Fields -- because of speed and change of direction and athleticism, which you need against these kinds of offenses."
Fields has played the role of the nickel-back/bandit-linebacker/hybrid player for the Panthers and likely will be prominent in this game.
Recently he has split time with outside linebacker Greg Williams and has been in the game in passing situations.
Bennett said Fields could see a lot of playing time, but the key won't be the scheme so much as how well it is disguised and how much the Panthers are able to keep Cincinnati quarterback Tony Pike guessing.
Regardless of formation, the Panthers agree they will need to get pressure on Pike and, unlike last year when the quarterback eluded a number of sack attempts, get him on the ground when they have a chance.
Pitt defensive end Jabaal Sheard said the Panthers' defensive line has done a good job this year but he believes Pike is the best combination of passer and scrambler they have faced.
Last year's game was frustrating, he said.
"Tony Pike is very comfortable in the pocket but he is also very slippery when he moves his feet," Sheard said.
"We watch the film from last year and we missed so many opportunities [to get sacks] and it just hurts and we can't do that this year.
"His awareness in the pocket is the key," Sheard pointed out. "You think you are sneaking up on him and you wouldn't think he can see you, but he knows where you are at and where you are coming from."
Bennett called for a strong push: "Sacks won't be the key -- pressure and getting consistent pressure -- will."
Cincinnati, by virtue of Pitt's loss to West Virginia last week, has already clinched at least a share of the Big East championship. The winner of this game owns the tie-breaker and thus earns the conference title and its automatic BCS berth.
NOTES -- The game is officially sold out, according to the athletic department. However, the department is selling an additional 1,000 standing-room-only tickets for Pitt students with valid ID.
Paul Zeise can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1720.