Sam Werner's Pitt football chat: 10.3.13

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Sam Werner: We'll get started at noon, but feel free to leave your Pitt football questions now for this week's chat.

Matt in PA: Do you think the defense actually improved, or was Virginia's offense just that bad? It seems Virginia's WR dropped a lot of balls to help Pitt out

Sam Werner:It really was a little bit of both. Virginia coach Mike London said Sunday that he counted 10 dropped passes from his team in the game, which is obviously a lot. Cavaliers quarterback David Watford finished 15 of 37, and if his receivers could have caught even half of the balls that they dropped, it probably would have been a much closer game.
That said, it was definitely an improved effort from Pitt's defense. Even on the dropped passes, there were usually defenders either right there impacting the play or close by. The biggest difference I saw was that the Pitt defenders seemed much more confident in their assignments against Virginia than they did against Duke. Now part of that is probably because they match up better with the Cavaliers (more of a pro-style team) than they did against Duke, which really spread them out.
Overall, yes the defense did get better, but I don't think it was a seismic enough change to the point where you can say that last year's defense is "back." They were helped a lot by a pretty inept Virginia offense.

Mike Burk, Sarasota, FL: With last week's defensive showing a combo of UVa's offensive ineptitude, the defense understanding their assignments and Coach House getting more comfortable in his DC role: Saw the note about vet's getting rest, why not take the time to make sure everyone understands the system/terms, etc.?

Sam Werner:Again, I think it's a little bit of everything. You don't want to draw too many conclusions based on one game, but it's a step in a positive direction. Yes, Virginia made mistakes, but the other side of that coin is that the Pitt defense DIDN'T, and that in itself is a step forward from Duke.
As for the veterans getting rest this week, it's more of a physical rest than true "time off." Savage and the rest of the older guys will still be in meetings, going through plays and whatnot, they just won't be taking snaps in practice with the first team. With Savage, I think it's a necessity because of how banged up he got against Virginia. Even if you take out the concussion he suffered, he's got some pretty sore ribs from getting sacked seven times. Yes, he still needs all the reps he can get, but it's more important that he's healthy.
With other guys, like a Jason Hendricks for example, there's no real use in going overboard on the physical drills when you know what you've got with him, almost like during training camp. From what I've heard, Pitt's practice yesterday (after two days off) was one of the highest intensity sessions they've had since the beginning of the season.

BubsFromSistersBasement: Any word on Jahmahl Pardner coming back? He was promising as a freshman before his injury.

Sam Werner: Pardner made his season debut for Pitt in the Duke game, but has seen really only limited special teams duties so far this season. He was the team's starting nickelback last season before tearing his ACL in the third game of the season against Virginia Tech.
Really, it just doesn't seem like he's back to 100 percent yet. We spoke to him during training camp and he said that, while the knee is "healed" from a medical perspective, there's still the challenge of regaining his speed, burst and jumping ability that he had before the injury. And that's all without factoring in the mental side of things when it comes to trusting his knee again.
It has been just over 12 months since his ACL injury, which is just about the normal timeframe it takes to get back. The staff still likes his potential, but missing all that time put him behind the eight ball a little bit and allowed guys like Trenton Coles and Titus Howard to pass him on the depth chart. I think he'll eventually be a contributor for Pitt again in the future, but it's going to take some time.

William: How confident are coaches in Connor as a pass blocker? It seems like they have Bennett in when they try to do play action, which takes away some of the element of surprise.

Sam Werner: From what I've seen, Conner's gotten his share of playaction snaps as well (as has Rachid Ibrahim). But to your larger point, I do think there's a steeper learning curve when it comes to pass blocking at running back as opposed to the other aspects of the position. Conner obviously has the physical tools to be a great pass blocker (he's really big) but the knowledge and technical aspects of the game are details that can take some time to pick up. Some of the sacks Savage took Saturday, for example, were a result of a running back not picking up the right guy on a blitz.
Ultimately, though, I think the ideal solution for Pitt would be to establish Bennett as a legitimate rushing threat, which he really isn't now. I know the staff is going to ride the hot hand within a game, so to speak, but there's a great benefit in having two running backs that the defense has to worry about instead of just one. Even though Conner has gotten most of the carries in the last two games, it wouldn't surprise me to see Bennett continue to get a good number of carries when they can to try and get him going.

BubsFromSistersBasement: We've seen Dorian Johnson playing a little more since the New Mexico game on short yardage as an extra tackle...any indication of a play action at the goal line to him?

Sam Werner: Jim Hueber actually joked about this with us the other day when asked about Johnson's package at the goal line, saying something like "He's an extra blocker now, but if he shows up wearing a jersey in the 80s this week watch out."
Realistically, no. That seems a little too gimmicky for this staff to pull out of their bag of tricks. Especially with where Pitt is at now, Paul Chryst and company are much more concerned about every offensive lineman doing their job blocking than they are about a sort of gadget play like that. Johnson's an extra blocker, nothing more (of course, I'm totally prepared to eat crow if he does show up in an 80s jersey this week).

BubsFromSistersBasement: There is a lot of talent at TE and it seems under used? With Savage under seige against UVA, why not use a few quick hits to those big targets?

Sam Werner: Gotten a couple of questions about the usage of the tight ends, and I'm not sure I have a real definitive answer. Especially midway through the Virginia game, when it became apparent that the Panthers were having trouble with Savage, they still went with a lot of five- and seven-step drops with pass plays designed to receivers. Chryst has said that he wants the tight ends to ultimately be a larger part of the passing game, but Saturday seemed like a perfect opportunity to do that and they were nowhere to be found.
Some of this has to go on Savage too. He can still get a little overaggressive (his second interception Saturday was a good example) rather than take a checkdown to JP Holtz or Scott Orndoff.
The one positive I've seen from this part of the passing game is that the staff does seem to like Orndoff as a red zone target. He has two catches this year, both for touchdowns, and that's where he has gotten the bulk of his work. Pitt didn't have a ton of red zone chances Saturday, and that's where I think the tight ends will ultimately have the biggest impact in the passing game.

Ryan:Is there a reason to be concerned with Chris Blewitt? Has a couple of missed and blocked kicks this year.

Sam Werner: I would say there's no reason to be too concerned...yet. He hasn't been automatic, but a couple of the misses (particularly in the Duke game) came as results of high snaps. The one thing I know is that the staff really, really likes his demeanor, which is pretty important as a kicker. Chryst has a lot of faith in Blewitt even as a freshman.
More importantly, Pitt doesn't have a ton of other options right now. Drake Greer, a walkon, is the only other placekicker on the roster after Brad Lukasak left the team. Barring an injury, it's Blewitt or bust for Pitt.

Guest: Why continue with a 4/3 defense when the defensive line has been so ineffective (short of Donald's play)? Why not use a 3/4 with more blitz schemes?

Sam Werner:That's a good question, but I think the answer is already in there. Pitt actually has mixed up its defense pretty significantly this year in terms of formations. Yes, they're a 4-3 base, but they got to 3-4 on most third down plays with an extra linebacker like Nicholas Grigsby or even Ejuan Price rushing the passer from a stand-up position.
You could even argue that some of these plays are a 3-3-5 or a 4-2-5, with Anthony Gonzalez dropping back into coverage and playing more as a defensive back than a linebacker. Point is, Pitt really is mixing up its defense, primarily on third downs.
Now, you could make a case that they should do more of it on first or second downs, I suppose, but the defensive line has actually done a pretty good job stopping opposing running backs this year. The numbers are a bit skewed because of New Mexico's offense and Duke's success with quarterback runs, but running backs haven't been able to do a ton against Pitt's defense this year.

Sam Werner: All right, folks. That's all the time we've got for today. Same time, same place next week. Enjoy the open weekend.



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