Wannstedt wants better execution from defense

Dave Wannstedt returned to his alma mater two years ago toting a long history of success on the defensive side of the ball … and that brings up a question:

When are his Pittsburgh Panthers going to stop somebody?

It hasn't happened much -- at least not against quality Division I-A competition -- in Wannstedt's first two years. Teams have regularly turned Pitt into paper Panthers, shredding them at will.

Pitt ranked an embarrassing 107th in the country in rushing defense last season (181.3 yards per game), 94th the year before. It also registered the fewest sacks (21) in the Big East last season and finished seventh out of eight teams in total defense (363.1 yards per game), ahead of only Syracuse.

This spring, the team is replacing All-America middle linebacker H.B. Blades and superb cornerback Darrelle Revis … and that brings up another question:

Is it going to get worse before it gets better?

Wannstedt doesn't think so. He believes an influx of young talent will turn his defense in the right direction -- and opponents in the wrong direction. Without singling out players, he has repeatedly implied that the main problem the past two years was the underwhelming talent base he inherited from former coach Walt Harris.

The message board fanatics disagree. Many of them believe eighth-year defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads is the problem and that if he were fired everything would be OK. Wannstedt recoils at the notion. He kept Rhoads as one of the holdovers from Harris' staff and retained him after last season's disaster, when many expected the ax to drop.

Wannstedt also moved Rhoads from defensive backs coach to linebackers coach, believing the coordinator should work from the middle of the defense, as he did under Jimmy Johnson at the University of Miami and with the Dallas Cowboys.

"It's my job, as head coach of this football team, to make sound decisions -- some of 'em maybe not popular -- on what's best for this football team," Wannstedt said. "Paul Rhoads is an excellent football coach. He's an excellent recruiter. You know, when I was a defensive coordinator my first year with the Dallas Cowboys [1989], I was labeled a college coach who didn't know what he was doing -- 'Might as well go back to college; can't handle the pro game.' Three years later, when we were in the Super Bowl and ranked No. 1 in every category and didn't have a Pro Bowler, I got assistant coach of the year and a head coaching job, and I was a genius. I've been around long enough to know how this profession works."

Wannstedt insists his defense rarely was out of position last season. He will recite a litany of plays in which Pitt was in the ideal defense but simply didn't execute. One occurred against UConn, when the Panthers had quarterback D.J. Hernandez trapped for a short gain -- and a punt to follow -- but turned him into Michael Vick by missing a slew of tackles.

"Is that the coach's fault? A fan might think so, but it's not the case," Wannstedt said. "When you have good people, you keep 'em. Now, you don't stick your head in the sand and say things are fine. Things aren't fine. We didn't play good enough defense. But there are a lot of people responsible for it, starting with me, the head coach."

"It was tortuous by the end. That's a good way to put it. We weren't playing smart or good football by the end of the season."
-- Defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads

Rhoads was not oblivious to the cries for his head. Things were different in 2004, when 17 interceptions and four defensive touchdowns helped propel Pitt into the Fiesta Bowl. Nobody was complaining in 2002, when the Panthers ranked among the country's top 25 in seven defensive categories and allowed the fewest points in a Pitt season since 1988, despite playing 13 games. Things were OK in 2001, too, when Rhoads' defense racked up 38 sacks, and in 2000, when Pitt finished 17th in the country against the run.

The decline over the past two years, however, reached a mind-boggling low point in the final three games of last season, when UConn, Louisville and West Virginia combined to roll up 1,621 yards (including 916 on the ground) and 139 points.

They might have done worse against tackling dummies.

"It was tortuous by the end," Rhoads said. "That's a good way to put it. We weren't playing smart or good football by the end of the season. Things on the outside, whether its fans or whatever, that doesn't bother you. When you have enough pride in your own job and you know it's not being done right, that's all you need to feel bad."

Rhoads pointed to a single play as a turning point. It happened against Rutgers, when Pitt, 6-1 at the time and trailing 13-10, had the Scarlet Knights pinned deep early in the fourth quarter. Tailback Ray Rice then bolted 67 yards up the middle to set up the clinching touchdown.

"After that," Rhoads said, "she goes down the toilet in those last two games."

Pitt actually lost four in a row after that, leading to speculation about Rhoads' job. His players didn't want him to go. They love his enthusiasm and teaching ability.

"I wasn't really too worried," junior middle linebacker Scott McKillop said. "I'm 100 percent glad he's back. He brings the mad-dog intensity to our defense, and we need that."

What Pitt really needs is more good players. McKillop has a chance to be one of them, as he steps in for Blades. Talented sophomore Aaron Berry, who's having a good spring, will replace Revis in what should be a respectable secondary, particularly if sophomore safety Elijah Fields can get his act together.

The defensive line -- which Wannstedt has emphasized in recruiting -- is deeper and more experienced and should be bolstered by the arrival of junior college transfer Tommy Duhart.

The linebacker crew is another story. McKillop is the only one with experience, and it's not much. On one side, a converted safety/quarterback (Shane Murray) is competing with a converted receiver/tailback (oft-injured Dorin Dickerson).

"It's a melting pot of, as I would tell them right now, nobodies," Rhoads said. "All we're asking them to do is learn -- and when they learn, they'll start playing faster."

The faster, the better. It's about time Wannstedt's Panthers started stopping people.

Joe Starkey covers the Big East for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.