Year one of the Pat Narduzzi era at Pittsburgh went about as well as anyone could have hoped for. Despite a tough schedule playing in the ACC Coastal division with non-conference home games dates with Iowa and Notre Dame, the Panthers improved. A year after finishing 6-7 with a 4-4 conference record, Narduzzi's Panthers went 8-5 overall and 6-2 in the ACC.
This happened despite slipping on offense in the midst of losing returning starters at QB (Chad Voytik) and RB (James Conner) thanks to injury/illness and largely came as a result of improved defense under Narduzzi's watchful eyes.
As Bill will get to in his Pitt preview sometime next week, the Panthers' D jumped from 65th in S&P to 50th with enormous leaps in every category save for passing downs. Heading into 2015 the Panthers return nine starters for Narduzzi, which puts them in 2013 Michigan State territory in terms of experience and potential mastery of the Narduzzi scheme. We've seen what kind of results that can produce and S&P likes Pitt as a potential top-30 team in 2016.
That leaves questions for the Panthers like "do they have the right pieces returning to make another leap on defense?" And "can they mitigate some of the more commonly exploited holes in this defense?"
Narduzzi's system at Pitt
The Panther defensive scheme is essentially the same as what Narduzzi was running in Lansing with just a few adjustments to their trips defenses similar to what's going on elsewhere around the country. Unlike at Michigan State, where a lack of developed athletes at corner forced the Spartans to play more off coverage, the Panthers were still playing a lot of press coverage on the boundary.
Narduzzi and his staff also mixed in some "three-deep/three-under" blitzes to go along with his patented "three-deep/2-under" zone blitzes that caused so much destruction in the Big 10 over the last several years. The benefit here is that teams who want to attack the stress points in the more aggressive "three-deep/two-under" coverages have to be much more cautious if the defense is frequently dropping an extra defender into the hot route zones.
The upshot of all this is that this is still the same basic defense that is an absolute nightmare for the run game and drop back passing game but is sometimes vulnerable against play-action and RPOs, particularly from smashmouth spread teams, of which there is one or two on the schedule in 2016.
If you want to throw the ball on the Panthers from a drop back passing set you have to deal with a crew that is supremely well versed in pattern-matching from their cover 4 base and mixing in blitzes that can get home in an awful hurry. The leading DE (Ejuan Price) and both inside linebackers (Matt Galambos and Mike Cabrara) for the Panthers in 2015 were terrors last year with Price totaling 11.5 sacks and each of the two backers chipping in another five apiece.
It's still a 4-3 Over defense with the Panthers looking for traditional linebackers to play the "mike" and "money" positions (middle and weakside linebacker) and utilizing a space-backer to play the "star" position who aligns to the field and is either crashing the edge or roving underneath.
In the secondary Narduzzi is still hoping to play great press-corners, particularly on the boundary, while he seems to be adjusting his approach somewhat to feature smaller and rangier options back at safety.
Enforcing the "no-fly zone" at Pitt
The most difficult positions to fill in the Narduzzi secondary are probably the boundary corner, free safety, field corner, strong safety, and star LB (space-backer) in that order.
The latter two positions of strong safety and star are the tip of the spear for this defense, these guys are set to up make plays and put pressure on the offense, which is what defines this scheme. Their aggression and freedom isn't possible without the play of the former three defenders who have to establish the "no-fly zone" so that the strong safety and star can spend their time hunting down running backs.
As it happens, the Panthers are returning their boundary corner Avonte Maddox, free safety Terrish Webb, and strong safety Jordan Whitehead but are looking for players to step up at field corner and space-backer.
At 5'9" 170, Maddox is exactly the sort of undersized athlete who often has ideal quickness, is overlooked due to lack of size, but then thrives due to his ferocity. Spending most of his time in man coverage, Maddox had 75 tackles, three INTs, and 12 pass break-ups a year ago.
Like so many successful Spartan defenders over the last several years, Maddox hails from Detroit, and his ability to lock down the boundary is essential to the Panthers in unleashing their most exciting player, strong safety Jordan Whitehead.
Whitehead is a true sophomore who started as a true freshman a year ago and led the team with 109 tackles while making six of them behind the LOS and adding an INT and six pass break-ups. At 5'11" 185 he might represent a new direction for Narduzzi in prizing greater range and athleticism from his safeties as a counter to the stresses of handling spread offenses.
When Maddox and Whitehead join forces on the boundary it creates quite an impressive advantage for the Panthers. Here's an example of the kind of smothering defense they can get as a result of giving Whitehead roving assignments attached to the TE:
Miami is running power here and their RB is good enough to be able to hit the cutback lane that can form if the backside linebacker aggressively follows the pulling guard to prevent the defense from getting outnumbered at the point of attack.
The play actually goes pretty well for Miami, although their double team isn't able to work their way up to the fast flowing linebackers, their back hits the cutback with ease and while the Pitt space-backer is there to make the tackle, he misses. The problem is that Whitehead is roving as a free-hitter once he sees that his coverage assignment (the TE) is run blocking and he effortlessly glides over and makes the tackle before any serious harm is done.
Because of his ease in moving both laterally and downhill, Whitehead is a phenomenal free-hitter in this system for Pitt. He's also effective as an underneath dropper in Narduzzi's three-deep/two-under zone blitzes:
These blitzes are always one of Narduzzi's trump cards if opponents find ways to attack their base defense because they bring lightning quick pressure and often position the tip of the spear (the space-backer and strong safety) to read the QBs eyes and swarm anything that gets through the initial wave. When paired with tighter coverage on the perimeter, these blitzes make it very difficult for offenses to effectively get after the weak spots in the Narduzzi defense.
As good as Whitehead was a year ago, the Panthers didn't enjoy phenomenal play at space-backer and will be hoping to get an athletic upgrade here from Elijah Zeise, a RS sophomore they moved from WR this spring. If that pans out, and Zeise's team-leading eight tackles in their spring game are a positive indicator, then the Panthers will be in phenomenal shape at their two play-making positions.
The greater question is whether Pitt can get strong enough play from their field corner and free safety Terrish Webb to continue to play these ultra aggressive schemes without consequences. Last year against Notre Dame Brian Kelly knew just where to hit them, moving future pro Will Fuller into the slot and then sending him deep on a seven route against Webb in tons of open grass:
Notre Dame ran play-action with max protection, which ensures they could isolate the key "no-fly zone" defenders and then went after Webb with Fuller...even with Earl Thomas in that position this would be a tough assignment. Narduzzi doesn't seem willing yet to overhaul his scheme to ease up on the pressure in order to protect against tactics like this so senior Webb will need to be ready to be sound and ready when they play the good spread teams on the schedule that will put dangerous athletes in the slot.
Penn State, Oklahoma State, Virginia Tech, Clemson, and Syracuse stand out in particular as teams that can and will look to get after the DBs that Pitt leaves in space in these schemes. If Narduzzi's Panthers can re-establish air supremacy against this schedule then Pitt will really be going places in the ACC.