Pitt running back Dion Lews has caught 20 passes for 172 yards this season.
By Paul Zeise Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Pitt offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti often has said that one of his favorite plays, a screen pass, is a staple of his offense because there are so many ways it can be executed successfully.
Screens also enable the Panthers to get the ball into the hands of a playmaker in open space, so the possibility of a big play exists every time the play is called.
Last year, the Panthers did not use the screen pass too much, but this year they've incorporated more screens into their offense and used just about every variety to tailbacks Dion Lewis and Ray Graham and fullback Henry Hynoski.
Calling plays is one thing; executing them is another. The Panthers have struggled to execute screens, and that has become a source of frustration.
Pitt turned a screen pass from Tino Sunseri to wide receiver Devin Street into a 79-yard touchdown against Syracuse earlier this year, but, for the most part, screens have not produced much yardage and game-changing plays.
In fact, in the Panthers' 30-28 loss to Connecticut last Thursday, they had opportunities to make big gains out of screens but, coaches said, missed blocks undermined their success.
Pitt offensive guard Chris Jacobson, one of those who missed a block, said the Panthers should be getting more out of such plays.
He said it is difficult to execute screen passes because simulating blocking for them in practice almost never is practiced at full speed or with full contact.
"We do a lot of our screen work in like a group period, so the tempo isn't what it is in the games," Jacobson said. "So sometimes, coach [Tony] Wise will tell us, this isn't how it is going to be in the games so you have to be able to adjust, and we're like one block away from that screen breaking loose and we're going to get one here."
Lewis, who had five receptions for 50 yards, including a screen pass he took 31 yards, said that screens are an excellent call for the Panthers.
"We ran a lot [of screens] last week, more than other games and we need to keep getting better," Lewis said. "And, if we execute it, it will be a great play for us. It was open, it was there, we just have to execute it better."
Cignetti was not made available for comment this week, but Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said the reason screens can't be simulated in practice at full speed are the cut blocks that make for a high injury risk.
"They were wide open, but we really didn't block them very well," Wannstedt said. "We had people there, they were great calls and, when we caught the ball, you said to yourself 'this is going to be a 20-yard gain' and we make 3.
"We just didn't execute, and a lot of those plays are cut blocks downfield and you don't work on that. It all looks good at practice because you are out there and you aren't cutting your own players. And, when you are out there [in a game] and all of the sudden it is live, sometimes they are not as clean as what they need to be.
"But we're not going to give up on them because they could have been well-executed big plays for us."
"Any time we are getting the ball to Dion or Ray," Wannstedt said. "I can remember way back when I was at Chicago, and Mike Holmgren was at Green Bay with Brett Favre in his early days, they were the screen kings of the National Football League. And their whole philosophy was that the screen play was thought of in the same terms as a running play.
"If you are calling a third-and-15, you may be disappointed, but, if you run a screen on first down or second down and you get 4 [yards] and then you hand it off and get 4, you are happy. So when you are running screens, are you trying to make 30 yards or just positive yards out of it? We've been close [to breaking one] the last couple of weeks, we just need to keep working."