Who Dominates the State?: The Rematch, Featuring Penn State’s Spread and Pitt’s Quarters Defense

Raise your hand if you predicted at halftime of last year’s game at Pitt that Penn State would lead the entire country in yards per pass completion (minimum 200 attempts) last season. Yeah, I didn’t either. At the time, Penn State trailed by 14 points and 111 yards. Falling just short of a furious comeback in a 41-38 defeat, the Nittany Lions closed those deficits to 3 and 26 respectively, but had 241 more passing yards.

That was just the beginning of an improbable quest to win the Big Ten and narrowly lose 52-49 to USC in the Rose Bowl, allowing this year’s Penn State team to rank fourth in the AP poll entering a home rematch with Pitt on Saturday. To put the Lions’ offensive explosiveness in perspective, the only FBS team in the 2010s to eclipse their mark of 16.15 yards per completion was Art Briles’ Baylor gauntlets in 2013 and 2015. The question of whether the Lions will take the next step and generate sustained offensive dominance shall begin to be answered by again going against their in-state rival led by an idiosyncratic defensive guru, Panthers head coach Pat Narduzzi.

In the one season with their new offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead (former head coach at Fordham and once a Pitt graduate assistant), Penn State and its head coach James Franklin increased their season total of big plays—or plays of 20-plus yards—by 62.5%. This explosiveness was especially pronounced in the passing game where the total big plays increased 44.6% from 36 to 65, but it was not limited there. The run game saw its share of total big plays increase 30% from 20 to 26. It is not coincidental that both facets of the offense became more explosive simultaneously.

“When we talked about the installation of this offense initially, we said it was predicated on running the ball successfully,” Moorhead said to statecollege.com. “When you’re able to do that, it forces defenses to commit numbers to the box either by secondary support or by pressure. When you do that, you create one-on-one match-ups on the outside.”

Moorhead has plenty of peers in college football who predicate their game-plan on stressing the defense in the box with a run game, combined with a fast-tempo. Head coaches Urban Meyer (Ohio State), Dan Mullen (Mississippi State), and Tom Herman (Texas) are some of the most renowned Spread offensive minds who likewise use their no-huddle run game to manipulate defenses into forgoing safety help against their receivers. One key to pulling off a fast-tempo, no-huddle offense is versatility with one 11 personnel group (1 running back, 1 tight end, 3 receivers) that never has to come off the field: tight end Mike Gesicki (no. 88) is especially important as an in-line blocker, H-back in the backfield, and slot receiver.

The potency for Spread run games also stems from getting around the basic arithmetic of football. Given that there must always be five offensive linemen, defenses can gain a favorable matchup by using six defenders to attack gaps and five in coverage—one for each eligible receiver. Run plays usually feature an inherent mismatch of two extra defenders: the ball-carrier cannot block for himself and teams rarely jeopardize their quarterback with a blocking assignment after the handoff. Any team with a marginally competent quarterback makes defenses usually position at least one of their extra defenders as a high safety, insurance against a deep pass. But that still leaves a mismatch of one extra defender. How do Spread offenses counter this dilemma?

“If the defense has one high safety and six defenders in the box, the quarterback has to be involved in the play,” former Oregon Ducks, Philadelphia Eagles, and San Francisco 49ers head coach Chip Kelly explained. “He has to read one of the defenders, in effect blocking him. We can block five defenders and read the sixth one.”

Kelly is referring to a concept called the zone read, or read option, in which the quarterback makes a decision after the snap to either hand off to the running back or run with the ball himself. The mobility of quarterback Trace McSorley (no. 9) is pivotal to what Penn State does with this concept and those which derive from it. Even the mere threat McSorley might run makes defenses less aggressive.

Inside Zone Read TD MIN

McSorley’s correct decision in one instance amounted to the game-winning touchdown run by Barkley against Minnesota last season. To make the arithmetic work, the offensive linemen execute zone-blocking, meaning they all take a step to the same side (with some exceptions in particular variants). If they have a defender aligned in they are stepping toward, the lineman must block him; if they do not, they must help the lineman adjacent to them with a double team, and push their target toward the second level of defenders. The quarterback’s decision kicks in on a defender who is not blocked at all. In the above visual’s case, the quarterback scans the defensive end who will either remain in his gap or crash into the backfield. The quarterback should handoff in the former scenario and keep in the latter. Smartfootball editor Chris B. Brown described the zone read as “a hypercharged bootleg [that] works best as a constraint to control the backside for an otherwise effective zone running game.”

PUR Split Zone

Penn State does not always run this blocking concept with a read-option component. To limit McSorley’s potential exposure to hits, Moorhead includes an Inside Zone variant called the Split Zone (shown above in gifs) in which the H-back pulls across the offensive line. He blocks the edge rusher who would be unblocked in a zone read; the zone read action from earlier can get the edge rusher to slow down and make himself an easy target.

This variant of Inside Zone was a change-up that led to big plays last year for Barkley including two touchdowns against Pitt. His longest run of the season, an 81 yard touchdown run against Purdue, was also a Split Zone concept.

Slice and Stick RPO

But there are also post-snap reads that Moorhead gives McSorley like Slice and Stick that combine the Inside Zone with passing concepts. Glance is an example of a run-pass option (RPO), or packaged play, which tasks McSorley with reading a safety to decide whether to handoff or pass. The Slice and Stick RPO uses the Split Zone blocking scheme described earlier and packages it with a Curl-Flat, one of the most common short passing concepts Moorhead uses. Some other run-pass options Moorhead likes to use include Glance (Inside Zone and Skinny Post), Pop Lateral Pass (Inside Zone Read and lateral screen pass, designed like a triple option), and Quick Out Tag (Inside Zone and Bubble Screen). Each of them force the defense choose between at least two potential ball-carriers and pick its poison.

On top of that, Moorhead has a traditional Hank Concept shown above that uses two parallel Curl-Flat combinations—as opposed to the one in the previous visual on both the boundary (narrow side) and the field. This has the effect of spreading the outside linebackers tasked with underneath zones into the flat. Additionally, underneath crosser concepts like Snag tack on a corner route to a curl-flat which spreads the defense into a triangle. But most importantly, the defense’s anticipation of the Curl-Flat—after being exposed to it many times—during an RPO can manipulate its players out of the box to make it less potent against a Split Zone.

Moorhead is one of many Spread coaches who refrain from predictability in their run game by including gap-blocking schemes as a change-up. Gap-blocking schemes consist of run concepts that combine play-side linemen blocking to their back-side gap with situational double team blocks and back-side linemen pulling to the play-side. They are better suited than zone-blocking schemes to generate a play-side numbers advantage, but form less cutback lanes for the runner.

Power Read PITT

Moorhead’s core Power Read scheme is essentially the traditional Power O concept, except it mirrors the zone read by also giving the quarterback a give-keep option. One-back Power O run plays entail the backside guard pulling to block the play-side edge rusher, with the remainder of the offensive line down-blocking a defender toward the back-side. Dart (shown above) is a similar concept Moorhead uses that sends the backside tackle pulling to the play-side.

The unique twist added with the Power Read and Dart Read is that the quarterback makes a read of a play-side defender, instead of a back-side defender who would be read on a zone read. This is the nearer delineation of traditional option football than the Inside Zone Read; as Brown put it, “a well designed and executed playside option play should give the offense a numerical advantage as well as great blocking angles; in short, the playside of the line can ignore one or two playside defenders who are being read (and thus should be made wrong by the QB’s reads) as they build a wall to seal off the backside.”

Inverted Veer

Moorhead adds another wrinkle to this concept, the Inverted Veer, which reverses the run lanes for McSorley and Barkley from the Power Read. The classic veer concept consists purely of down-blocks and double teams against the defensive line up to the linebackers, while the Inverted Veer uses the same blocking scheme as the Power Read. Brown explains that he “coined this concept an ‘inverted veer’ because it took the old-school ‘veer option’ philosophy of sending the runner and the QB to the same side but inverted their paths: instead of the runningback inside and the quarterback going around edge, the runningback ran a sweep and the quarterback was effectively the dive player.” The Inverted Veer concept is actually designed to get a huge running lane up the middle for McSorley, but if the defense crashes down, then Barkley of all players has a free lane on the outside, as he did against Akron!

Sweep Read

Meanwhile, the classic Sweep play becomes part of Moorhead’s gap-blocking scheme with an option component as well. The Sweep Read play shown above features Penn State attacking both edges of a defensive front simultaneously; McSorley read the unblocked Akron defensive lineman (no. 50), while pulling guards Steven Gonzalez (no. 74) and right guard Brendan Mahon (no. 70) give the Lions a 5-on-5 matchup on the play-side.

The run game didn’t always click for Penn State last season. With its 4-2-5 and Cover 2 base defense, Indiana’s one-gap defensive linemen and linebackers (freed to remain in the box by the scheme) held Barkley to 58 rushing yards on 33 attempts (1.8 average). Michigan State’s defensive line thwarted Penn State in the trenches and its cornerbacks provided stellar run support on the outside, holding Barkley to 14 yards on 12 attempts (1.2 average). With the same base scheme as the Spartans, Pitt itself limited Barkley to 85 yards on 20 attempts (4.3 average), skewed by a 29-yard attempt that otherwise would leave it with a 2.9 average. But outliers like that cannot be ignored. Barkley’s greatest asset is his ability to improvise a breakaway run at any given moment, no matter how sound the defensive scheme. Moorhead’s is his use of run game tactics that build on his own tendencies.

The extensiveness of counterpunches Moorhead has in his run schemes gives defensive coordinators two uncomfortable choices: cross your fingers and hope assignment football is executed perfectly, or overload the box and attack all possible give-keep or run-pass options with scrape exchanges (a linebacker fills the gap left by a crashing defensive lineman, or a safety fills the gap left by a blitzing linebacker). The threat of the deep ball makes the latter option a perilous one. And like his run game, Moorhead’s deep passing game has an elegance that derives from its simplicity.

“In our pass game structure, every single one of our routes falls into a concept or a family, so that way our kids know what the defining characteristic of each concept is, instead of rote memorization,” Moorhead said in FBGPU’s Get Coached Up segment. “Our kids don’t understand or memorize plays by position. ‘The z has this, the x has this, the y has this.’ We want our kids to understand the concept of the play. Once they understand the concept of the play, no matter where they line up on the field…they know what the route is based on where they are aligned, as opposed to what position they’re playing.”

Flood Concept

Moorhead’s Flood concept is one of the staples of the offense because it is a straightforward method to attack three different levels of the defense simultaneously. There are several combinations of routes that build a Flood, but the Scissors play consists of a combination of a 14 yard post by the front-side no. 1 receiver (with an option to run a go against Cover 1 or 0) and 12-yard corner route usually by the no. 2 receiver from the sideline. The intersection of their routes creates a Scissor shape which gives the concept its name. Meanwhile, the no. 3 receiver (either another slot or a tight end or a running back) runs a flat route.

The way Moorhead wants to deploy Flood is to do so at the holes in zone coverage or off man. Moorhead characterizes those soft coverages as ones that give Penn State “access,” in contrast to press man or cloud (a distinct Cover 3 where the front-side cornerback jams the flat receiver) which give him “no access.” The “access” decision leaves McSorley going through half-field progression reads on the front-side, while “no access” leaves him with two progression reads on the back-side: first, a 12-yard dig from the no. 1 receiver that exploits a seam over the middle; second, a whip route from the no. 2 receiver. The example shown against Michigan State features an off coverage look that alerts McSorley to access on the front-side, where he eventually identifies a passing lane between the deep zones.

With Flood as a Staple, some of Moorhead’s change-ups exploit the gaps in the defense’s coverage. Particularly apt at attacking seams between underneath and deep zones, Dagger is a combination of a go from the slot that serves as a clearing route for an intermediate dig from the outside receiver. The Drive concept is one Moorhead uses to exploit the seams in underneath zones, with a shallow crosser in front of a curl route. Moorhead’s use of the Hi-Lo series also frequently creates a pick with two receivers running shallow crossers parallel to each other.

Post-Wheel

One of Moorhead’s best tactical manipulations last season came with an addition to the Deep Post route. Knowing that the post routes stressed defenses vertically (particularly against man coverage), Moorhead often includes a wheel route from Barkley to pair him up with a linebacker. A concept employed frequently in both pro and college football, the Post-Wheel concept had resounding success in getting Barkley to score touchdowns against Big Ten opponents like Iowa and Wisconsin.

Pitt proved susceptible to the Post-Wheel as well, with its linebackers failing to contain Barkley down the sideline on this long touchdown.

A clever twist to this concept Moorhead showed against Akron was to use Gesicki on the wheel route behind X-receiver Juwan Johnson (no. 84). Gesicki’s route drew the attention of the Akron safety, leaving Johnson open on the post in the middle.

However, the mother of all deep passing plays in Moorhead’s playbook is Four Verticals, a concept which is designed exactly as it sounds: four receivers line up spread out and run up the field. “The vertical routes are usually gonna be run anywhere between 2 and 3 yards inside the numbers,” said current Notre Dame defensive backs coach Todd Lyght, one of Kelly’s former assistants, to PhillyMag. “And then the receivers on the outside want to be about 4 yards from the sideline, giving yourself enough space to move away from the defender and giving a little bit of a window for the quarterback to throw it to the outside and upfield arm of the receiver. Those are the lines that the offenses want to hit when they go four verticals.”

Four Verticals

It is a nightmare for defensive coordinators to defend this play with a single high safety in either Cover 1 (man coverage across the board, except for a single high safety) or Cover 3 (three deep zones). These coverage shells force the free safety to hold back from committing to one of the seam routes, at risk of the quarterback throwing the opposite way. Penn State’s frequent use of play-action with Four Verticals (or Three Verticals with seven man pass protection) is particularly deadly, as it frees the slot receivers from being jammed by defenders in underneath zones.

Even when Pitt went with four deep zones, as its base defense often does, that still left defensive backs in one-on-one matchups against the likes of Chris Godwin (now a Tampa Bay Buccaneer) and current starters DaeSean Hamilton (no. 5), DeAndre Thompkins (no. 3), and Juwan Johnson (no. 84). That group has rare a size and speed combination, so that remains a risky approach in dealing with Penn State.

“It’s standard stuff, but what works is it’s complementary with the run game,” explained Villanova receivers coach Brian Flinn. “You go into a game, you see a team that’s heavy one-back and heavy run, what a lot of defenses do is they say, ‘Alright, we’re gonna close the middle and we’re gonna play Cover 3 and make them throw the ball.’ So now you’re play-acting at a defense that’s lined up there to stop the run and you’re throwing the ball down the field. It’s a pretty natural progression.”

The objective of Moorhead’s offense, like that of any Spread offense, is to force the defense to respect a threat to any part of the field. When its run game and deep passing game alike are functioning, Penn State forces defenses to defend multiple areas at once. Or, more realistically, to pick its poison.

The task of having answers for the read option, underneath pick routes, and four verticals on every single play falls on the shoulders of Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi and defensive coordinator Josh Conklin. It is a daunting one. But it is one Narduzzi especially has undertaken years of extensive thought on how to do it.

“We have to play spread offenses and in most cases, they are no-huddle hurry-up teams,” Narduzzi said at the 2015 Nike Coach of the Year Clinics, while he had been installing his scheme at Pitt for the first time. “I do not want to change personnel to match up. We do not play any nickel defenses. If the offense plays with “21- personnel” or “10- personnel” we use the same linebackers. The Mike linebackers are going to defensive ends, the defensive ends are going inside at the defensive tackle positions.”

The ideal defense would always have four defenders in man coverage against vertical routes, four defenders in deep zone, and up to nine defenders in the box. With only 11 defenders on the field, it seems theoretically impossible to have four defenders accounting for all of the threats in the passing game and nine accounting for the run game. But like the Spread offense, Narduzzi’s defense found a creative way to manufacture a favorable numbers advantage.

Safety Depth

The alignment of Pitt’s two “deep” safeties are the aspect of this defense that distinguish it from most teams. Namely, they typically line up only eight or nine yards behind the line of scrimmage. The purpose of this alignment is to allow them to join the four defensive linemen and three linebackers in the box during a run play. “People talk about, ‘Man, we’re in an eight-man front,’” Narduzzi said in an instructional DVD. “Well, we’re in a nine-man front.”

Year Rushing YPG NCAA Ranking (out of 127)
2016 PITT 108.9 9th
2015 PITT 126.1 21st

The nine-man box wreaks havoc on run games by freeing up defensive linemen and linebackers to attack a single gap, with safeties filling any cutback lane that might emerge against either a zone or gap-blocking scheme. Even with five offensive linemen, a tight end, and a read option, spread offenses fall short by two in accounting for threats in the box. The close proximity of safety Jordan Whitehead (no. 9) to the line of scrimmage allowed him to close in on McSorley who hesitated to make a give-keep decision. The Panthers’ fast-flow attack against the run made the read more difficult for McSorley to process, and several other instances of this indecision contributed to losses. This year, Whitehead has been suspended through the Penn State game, so Pitt will attempt the difficult feat of filling his shoes.

Narduzzi already has his Pitt run defense functioning at the level of his Michigan State units, even if other parts of the defense are lagging. Along with holding Penn State to 74 rushing yards (2.39 per attempt), Pitt held CFP national champion Clemson and its daunting Spread offense to 50 rushing yards (2.00 per attempt) in an upset victory last season. The sheer mathematical mismatch offenses face explains why Narduzzi’s defenses consistently rank among the NCAA’s best at stuffing the run.

However, the safeties’ responsibilities are much more extensive than simply run support. Their initial focus is on the offense’s eligible receivers. Narduzzi tells his safeties to number them from the outside in. The visual above shows that receivers lined up in the middle of the formation are numbered to the side they declare. Each safety looks first at the receiver (or tight end) labeled as the no. 2 receiver.

Cover 4 Base vs PSU

If the no. 2 receiver runs vertically past the five-yard mark, the safety engages in man coverage against him down the field. Alternatively, if the no. 2 receiver runs a short inside route like a slant or a short outside route like a flat or quick out, the safety shifts his focus to the no. 1 receiver. At that point, the safety passes him off to the three linebackers who each are responsible for an underneath zone against short routes. The safety then provides help over-the-top to the cornerback against the no. 1 receiver. This read-and-react coverage assignment—a combination of man and zone coverage as options—is called pattern-matching.

Narduzzi also defies conventional wisdom in his coaching of the cornerback position. Most college teams—even ones that run a similar scheme to his—assign their cornerbacks to play predominantly off-coverage where they line up 5 to 8 yards away from the receiver. In contrast, Pitt’s cornerbacks play press coverage which means they align directly in front of the receiver.

“The corner aligns inside the number-1 receiver and forces him to take an outside release,” Narduzzi explains. “Against the press corner with inside leverage, the receiver must take an outside release. He can run a fade or a fade comeback. The receiver can run two routes. If the press corner takes an outside leverage position, the receiver has an inside release and can run a slant, curl, dig, or post.”

The key, of course, is Pitt’s cornerbacks must have the speed, balance, and instincts to execute their assignments. That is easier said than done, considering that they are reading and reacting to the receivers’ route. If two receivers execute a rub route, a cornerback must switch his man with the other defender (usually an outside linebacker). If the no. 1 receiver runs a short route, the cornerback should leave him to the linebackers and drop into a deep zone. But against Four Verticals, he is in man-to-man down the sideline for the whole field. The cornerbacks and the safeties alike must hold up one-on-one in Four Verts, far from an easy task. This iconic Spread passing concept creates four deep zones which is why Narduzzi’s coverage shell is termed Cover 4 or Quarters Coverage.

The Cover 4 shell is not a straightforward set of assignments for the secondary. Narduzzi’s former boss, Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio, defined Quarters as “tight-man in a zone coverage with good run support that self-adjusts to various formations and routes.” The self-adjusting mechanism is contingent on defenders being in synch on their reads. Safeties and cornerbacks must agree when a no. 2 receiver has crossed the five-ish yard threshold to warrant bracket coverage. Linebackers must know when to trade receivers on pick plays. All of this takes extensive practice and this is another reason why Narduzzi tasks his players mastering only one base defense, not a variety of fronts and coverages.

The way Pitt’s Quarters defense gets characterized as a “bend, but don’t break” unit was best exemplified by the Panthers’ improbable 43-42 victory over the eventual CFP National Champion Clemson Tigers. Tigers quarterback DeShaun Watson recorded videogamish statistics with 52 completions for 580 yards in 70 attempts. But Pitt was content to concede the flats for short gains, knowing that Watson would eventually have to attack the middle. The result? 3 interceptions, including the fatal one shown above where middle linebacker Saleem Brightwell (no. 39) was ready to jump underneath the route. The Pitt team that allowed the second-highest passing yards per game last season is hardly a unit of world-beaters, but that statistic alone clearly doesn’t address the context of Narduzzi’s defense as a whole.

An additional word of caution: Offenses do have counter-punches to a defense that attempts to mimic the read-and-react facet of spread offenses. The most potent one is that they can stress both linebackers and safeties with play-action. An effective play-fake will lure both position groups too close to the line of scrimmage, especially because the safeties are already just eight or nine yards deep. Play-action makes it more difficult for linebackers to get to the flat or safeties to return to a deep quarter zone. Penn State’s play-action attack especially is lethal, as it often incorporates Four Verts. A slight hesitation by the safety gives a receiver just enough timing to get open one-on-one for a big gain with this concept.

Similarly, RPOs are especially effective because they inherently force a safety in Quarters to choose to defend the run or pass. The safety’s close alignment to the line of scrimmage can be used against him if he opts to cheat in favor of defending the run. Otherwise, it frees up the box with one less defender to attack.

Cover 4

Penn State is also one of many Spread teams that frequently use 3×1 (3 receivers on one side, 1 on the other) receiver sets which complicate Pitt’s numbering system. Nothing changes for the cornerback who always presses on the no. 1 receiver. But an outside linebacker and a safety must both align on the no. 2 receiver. The strong-side safety’s deep zone/bracket coverage decision is the same as it usually is, but this linebacker covers the flat in case one of the no. 2, no. 3, and no. 4 receivers (no. 4 is the running back) runs there.

The middle linebacker carries the no. 3 receiver to his zone responsibility and looks for any inside breaking patterns that might emerge. More than anyone else, the weak-side safety is in a bind. Reading the quarterback who could perform a play-fake, reading the strong-side no. 3 receiver who could run a vertical route, and then potentially bracketing the weak-side no. 1 receiver is a thankless task that can leave this safety out of position.

The weak spots of Narduzzi’s base front are not limited to Trips sets. Quarters coverage might have elegant self-adjusting rules for the four players in 2×2 sets, but the rules of football allow an offense to have five eligible receivers. This means the linebackers have sole responsibility for the running back who is numbered as the no. 3 receiver. The rules of Narduzzi’s Quarters Coverage mean a cornerback or safety is never assigned to cover him.

One of the fastest college running backs ever, Barkley burned Pitt’s linebackers both on wheel routes and in the flat last year. With further refinement in his route-running, Barkley could be an even more dangerous receiving threat this year. Against Pitt, Penn State liked to clear out the safety and cornerback into deep zones when they are in Quarters, leaving the linebacker isolated against Barkley. The limits of scheme simplicity are most apparent when there is inflexibility to adapt to an abnormal threat.

But in spite of the weak spots in Pitt’s passing defense, there is one aspect it proliferates at. Despite mostly rushing just four defenders, Pitt has ranked in the top quartile for sacks per game each of Narduzzi’s first two seasons.

Year Sacks per Game NCAA Ranking (out of 127)
2016 PITT 3.1 12th
2015 PITT 2.5 30th

In part, this figure can be attributed to the almost exclusive one-gap assignments for the four Panther defensive linemen: Narduzzi almost always aligns each lineman in the middle of a gap, rather than directly across from a blocker. The defensive lineman is, thus, responsible for penetrating his gap, instead of reading and reacting to a blocker. This means he can explode out of his stance and immediately attempt to get into the backfield, rather than hesitating to make the right read first. Because of the safeties’ run support, Pitt’s front four uniquely benefit in rushing the passer without having to slow down as much as other 4-3 linemen to play the run. On the other hand, Narduzzi designates seven defenders in coverage for his base defense, putting the onus on the front four to generate pressure by themselves.

That would get predictable for the offensive line if Narduzzi didn’t include any change-ups. This is why on third down, Pitt unleashes its package of blitzes. Even so, the blitzes are designed to mitigate the risk of big plays. “We like zone pressure over man pressure,” Narduzzi said on the DVD. “The main — and only — reason is, [zone blitzes] are safe and easy.”

The data backs that up: Brown observed that “in 2010, Michigan State blitzed 31 percent of the time, or 276 times total, yet ran only seven man-to-man blitzes to 269 zone blitzes.” Unlike traditional fire zone blitzes, Narduzzi’s units tend to use six-man pressures instead of just five-man pressures. Wait, didn’t Narduzzi say he prefers safe and easy pressures? Yes, and the catch is he seldom uses “Cover 0” blitzes which use man-to-man coverage across the board.

3 Deep 2 Under Fire Zone

Instead, Narduzzi calls for Cover 3—three defenders in deep zones, with two defenders in underneath zones in this case. It does sacrifice the essential advantage of Cover 4—accounting for all four receivers in Four Verticals, but the tradeoff is improved ability to generate pressure. The perfect example was last year’s game-sealing interception against Penn State where two linebackers executed delayed blitzes and put enough pressure on McSorley to throw within the safety’s catch radius.

While Narduzzi was still the Michigan State defensive coordinator, Brown wrote that “the most famous six-man blitz Michigan State uses is the old “Double A” gap blitz, which sends two linebackers right up the middle on either side of the center. Even that, however, has an MSU twist: Dantonio and Narduzzi arrange their six rushers in a wide variety of ways, looping defensive tackles, crashing ends, and using linebackers and safeties off the edge.”

Nickel Packages

Graphics found at http://breakdownsports.blogspot.com/

The visuals above show Narduzzi’s Okie package—one with three down linemen instead of the usual four. In place of one defensive lineman, an extra defensive back—the nickelback (NB)—is crucial in making the Cover 3 look work. Those visuals show that Narduzzi will often pair this player with the strong safety either in a deep zone adjacent to the sideline or an underneath zone (the two cornerbacks get the opposite assignment).

But the bottom right visual shows Narduzzi giving him a different assignment. The nickelback attacks the B-gap, behind a T-E (Tackle-End) stunt from the weakside linebacker and defensive end (who are more like an end and tackle respectively here, despite their names). The confusion of the stunt is designed to distract the left tackle and left guard from this blitzing nickelback. The pressure getting home can cause the quarterback to see ghosts.

This is especially true with a coverage called Nickel Seam Mike 3, the most effective complement to Quarters coverage, a variant of which is shown in the above gif. The cornerbacks retreat into deep zones and the safeties advance into underneath zones. The key to making the numbers work is the middle linebacker defending the deep third in the free safety’s place. The gif above shows a different blitz with the Mike dropping into a deep third, along with both safeties. The sack this look notched against Penn State last year shows Narduzzi found a blitz package that manufactures the illusion of seven men in his base Quarters Coverage, while actually using five or even six men to generate a pass rush.

On the blackboard, the best way to take on a Spread offense that aims to give itself a numbers advantage with read options is exactly what Narduzzi has done for his defense: create a read option of their own that makes the offense always wrong. Moorhead will again have tactics that force the Pitt defense to pick its poison. But perhaps the exposure to this offense from last season will make defenders spend less time thinking and more time playing fast.

It is not an overstatement to say these two teams were built to challenge each other. Franklin and Narduzzi even share some of their in-state rival’s tendencies on the other side of the ball. Lions defensive coordinator Brent Pry had been the lieutenant of his predecessor, Quarters-disciple Bob Shoop (now the Tennessee Volunteers defensive coordinator), at Penn State and Vanderbilt. For what it’s worth, Pry’s 2016 unit significantly outperformed Shoop’s 2015 unit in total defense (367.9 ypg vs. 575) and passing defense (216.6 ypg vs. 453.0), as well as Narduzzi’s 2016 unit. Like Pitt, Penn State used a four-man rush and creative zone blitzes (with arguably more willingness to use up to eight rushers and man-to-man coverages), and ranked in the top 25 in sacks per game: 21st at 2.9. The Lions’ front seven boasts three sleek and rangy linebackers led by MIKE Jason Cabinda, as well as disruptive defensive tackles Curtis Cothran and Parker Cothren. This is a front seven that can cover much ground with defensive line stunts and zone blitzes.

Penn State might remain vulnerable against Pitt’s run offense, however, as its run defense lags Narduzzi’s. The Panthers gained an insane 341 yards on 56 carries (6.1 average) in last year’s game and return up to three starting offensive linemen: left tackle Brian O’Neill, left guard Alex Officer, and possibly right guard Alex Bookser (returning from suspension). Matt Canada, who resigned this offseason as Pitt’s offensive coordinator to take the same job at LSU, unleashed an offense with Spread concepts often in the form of traditional 21 and 22 personnel looks. The opening 99 yard drive consisting of near-constant jet motions by speed demon receiver Quadree Henderson setting up Inside Zones, sweeps, and end-arounds was cool, but one concept Pitt turned to then and later in the season stood out to me and Brown (h/t for below video).

Canada created a play that replicated the design of the Inverted Veer, but used a shovel pass to the motion man in place of the quarterback keep. This Power Read shovel option was a brilliant modification to his own tendencies. He took what coaches like Moorhead did and took one step further.

Though Canada doesn’t consider himself a Spread coach, he was more than willing to shapeshift into one. The Clemson game, for example, featured Pitt winning the game despite losing the time of possession battle by eight minutes, running 17 plays from no-huddle sets, and more than one-third of plays with 4 or 5 receivers split out wide. Former starting running back (current Pittsburgh Steeler) James Conner even burned Clemson for a touchdown on a Post-Wheel concept. The 308 yards Pitt gained passing were a high point in a season for which they finished second in yards per completion at 15.9, only behind Penn State!

Canada’s successor, Shawn Watson, clearly has a high bar to meet. Among several stints, Watson has worked for pro-style West Coast disciple Bill Callahan and up-tempo Spread guru Kevin Wilson alike. To keep pace with Moorhead’s productivity, it would behoove Watson to use the full variety of motions, blocking schemes, and route concepts. Knowing that Henderson is lethal in space, a motion-heavy game-plan similar to Canada’s seems to be the best way to exploit Penn State’s vulnerabilities. Watson shares Canada’s tendency to use jet motion frequently, but incorporates his own style with some orbit motion too. Henderson just might be a deadly weapon in even more ways this year.

Fascinating as that matchup is in its own right, the defining part of this in-state rivalry game should be when Penn State’s offense matches up with Pitt’s defense. A spread guru and a defensive coach who has pioneered an original strategy to neutralize the spread make for a great faceoff. Moorhead and Narduzzi have each been contemplating for years how to counter the very tactics each is likely to run on Saturday. I suspect Narduzzi is obsessed with this game more than any other this year and has been madly game-planning for it. Don’t be surprised if Pitt makes this contest closer than Bovada’s 21.5 point spread. Less than a year removed from defeating the national champions, Narduzzi clearly has answers to Moorhead’s offense. I just wouldn’t bet against Moorhead and his knack for exploiting an opponent who thinks he has all of the answers he needs.

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