Pitt has had breakdowns in its pass coverage that have really hurt the Panthers in all three of their games.
Now they face another quick-strike offense in Notre Dame on Saturday, putting the pressure once again on the linebackers and defensive backs to step up and make something happen. Many of the problems have come on underneath routes against the linebackers, who have been slow to cover and react.
That has Pitt ranked next-to-last in the nation in pass defense, giving up an average of 336 yards a game. The Panthers have moved around their starting linebackers -- true freshman Ejuan Price is now starting at Panther, while Tristan Roberts has replaced Shane Gordon and Todd Thomas is starting over Greg Williams.
Brandon Lindsey, who the Panthers wanted to play linebacker, is now back at defensive end because he is more effective lining up with his hand on the ground.
Defensive coordinator Keith Patterson said it is a matter of finding the right players to fit into the 3-4 scheme as they get adjusted to the new defense.
“We’re constantly evaluating what we're doing, making sure what we’re doing fits the talent and skill level,” Patterson said in a phone interview. “We’re not asking young men to do something they're not capable of doing. You can sit here and go against your own offensive personnel but until you get out there in a game situation, you don't know how certain people are going to react, you don't know how well they match up with other people's personnel.
“Through three games, we’re able to evaluate that and maybe get guys in different positions better suited for their talents and ability.”
Buffalo and Maine play more of a quick-style offense than Iowa, so the breakdowns in each game were different. The Hawkeyes were able to erase a 24-3 deficit in large part because quarterback James Vandenberg passed for 162 yards in the fourth quarter.
Coach Todd Graham said there were 12 errors by the pass defense in that quarter. Iowa was aided by good starting field position on several of its drives, and the Pitt offense simply could not sustain a drive to get the defense off the field. Still, Pitt could not make a play on defense when it needed to despite dominating the game for three quarters.
Finishing the fourth quarter has been a theme. The Panthers have given up 41 fourth-quarter points -- 35 in the past two games.
“What's been really strange about this season is how we've been so dominant in certain parts of every game and then all of a sudden, it's almost like I don't know. It's been hard to explain,” Patterson said. “I haven't been a part of that.
Another problem that has plagued the defense has been a lack of turnovers. Pitt only has two on the season -- both interceptions. Patterson counted three dropped interceptions against the Hawkeyes.
Notre Dame has turned the ball over 13 times this season, so creating more is a huge point of emphasis. But above all else, coaches have harped on their players to finish.
“We shut teams out in the first quarter and have not been able to finish,” Graham said. “We’ve made a lot mental mistakes in the fourth quarter. A lot of those have come off blitzes and things like that. We’re trying to execute a new system. We’ll keep working hard to eliminate the errors.”