There are two distinct defensive philosophies about the best way to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks, and both styles will be on display Saturday night when No. 12 Pitt (8-1) plays Notre Dame (6-3).
The Panthers take the "keep it simple" approach -- dominate the line of scrimmage, apply pressure with the front four and blitz rarely.
Notre Dame favors blitzes, meaning the Panthers' offensive line will have its work cut out as it tries to recognize and block the aggressive Irish. Pitt withstood similar tests from Rutgers and Syracuse, two teams that blitz often, but the Irish will pressure Pitt quarterback Bill Stull with better players.
"Defensively, they do a lot," Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. "They're a pressure team. They will force us to make sure that we cover all of our bases, from an offensive standpoint, run and pass-wise. They try to create bad plays, negative plays. They force turnovers.
"Again, with the skill that they have on defense, particularly in their secondary with some of the speed and experience they have back there, they can latch onto receivers and give you a lot of bad plays."
Offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti said he is familiar with Notre Dame defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta and what is going to be coming Pitt's way Saturday.
The Irish have 18 sacks this season (compared to 38 by Pitt), but they have forced 11 interceptions and six fumbles. Cignetti said the sack number is an incomplete picture of how effective the blitzes are at creating pressure and forcing bad decisions.
"[Tenuta] is a very aggressive play-caller," Cignetti said. "He likes to bring different looks, he likes to bring different pressure packages -- that makes it a very tough challenge for the offensive line and our protection unit as a whole, not only in the passing game but also in the running game."
Cignetti emphasized that stopping -- or slowing down -- blitz packages involves more than the five offensive linemen. It is a job that requires the entire offensive unit to do its job efficiently and quickly.
More specifically, the four players who will have the biggest hand in stopping the Irish blitzes are tight end Nate Byham, quarterback Bill Stull, fullback Henry Hynoski and tailback Dion Lewis.
Obviously, Stull is not involved in the blocking like the other three, but his ability to recognize blitzes, get rid of the ball quickly and make good decisions will slow them down.
He also has to make sure he does not force things and is content to throw the ball away rather than take drive-changing sacks or turn the ball over.
The other three played a huge role in blitz protection against Rutgers and Syracuse. The Panthers gave up only two sacks in each of those games, and Stull threw for 386 total yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.
Cignetti said that Byham and Hynoski will have to be aware of where pressure is coming from every play. Both are smart players who have developed into physical blockers. They understand their role and fill it well.
"Those two are a great factor," Cignetti said. "When Henry is back there, he is going to stop his penetrating linebacker or chip the defensive lineman. He's got to shut the door on them, and there is not going to be penetration.
"Nate is the same way, so, when you put Nate and Henry back there as part of the protection, that is when we are really sound and solid. Nate is having a tremendous season for us, he is doing a tremendous job on the line as a blocker."
NOTES -- Dorin Dickerson has been named the John Mackey Tight End of the Week by the Nassau County Sports Commission for his performance in the Panthers' 37-10 victory against Syracuse this past weekend. He had seven catches for 118 yards and a touchdown. ... Wannstedt said safety Elijah Fields will continue to be a week-to-week evaluation because his ankle has not healed. Last week, the plan was to use Fields more than he played, but his ankle was extremely sore, so he played sparingly. The same kind of evaluation will be made as the week progresses. "Unfortunately, it is a week-to-week thing," Wannstedt said. "We were hesitant about playing him too much last week, but he has had a good week thus far, so hopefully he's turning the corner."
Paul Zeise can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1720