August 30, 2013

Breakdown: The Pittsburgh Offense

Seminole head coach Jimbo Fisher said it best Wednesday about Pittsburgh defense. Sometimes the Panthers mix it up and blitz, sometimes they don't. In truth, although the Panthers ranked in the top-20 last year in total defense, there isn't a whole lot of deviance from a standard 4-3 defense. So this week, we turn our attention to the fallout of a complex offseason for the Pitt offense.

The questions are plentiful for Pittsburgh's offense in 2013. The Panthers are replacing their quarterback, last season's top-two rushers and all but one talented receiver. Head coach Paul Chryst, in his second year at the helm, will be trying to figure out his offensive identity as across the way Jeremy Pruitt works with the Seminole defense also for the first time.

It's important to note one key tenet of Chryst's philosophies when looking at either the Panthers of 2012 or Wisconsin's offenses prior to then (Chryst was the Badgers' offensive coordinator from 2005-11): Chryst is not afraid to alter his gameplanning based upon the roster's strengths.

Though it may seem a redundant idea to scheme around skill-sets, coaches don't always operate that way. And while Chryst himself is not calling plays now, it stands to reason Panther offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph, who followed Chryst from Madison, will share in this overriding idea offered at Chryst's Monday's press conference.

"Your job is to adjust to the strengths of your players," said Chryst. "Certainly you've got to keep developing guys and forcing them out of their comfort zones so they can grow. But in the end, I think our job is to make sure that we're playing to the strengths of our players the best that we can. You have to have structure, you have to have a system, but within that I think the system has to be flexible enough to play within their strengths."

The proof is in the offensive stats from the last three seasons. Chryst's Wisconsin offense in 2010 featured a hefty offensive line (as is common in Madison), a pocket passer in Scott Tolzien and three gifted backs in John Clay, Montee Ball and James White. The results: 3,194 yards rushing and 2,593 yards passing.

2011's Badgers, featuring a transfer quarterback named Russell Wilson, put up even gaudier numbers but they were balanced: 3,298 yards rushing against 3,280 passing.

Finally the 2012 Panthers, led by veteran quarterback Tino Sunseri and just one feature tailback in Ray Graham were aerial: 3,341 passing yards against 1,731 on the ground.

So what exactly are the Panthers' strengths this year, and how will Chryst's splits end up? In order to answer that, the first step to take is to explore the team's personnel.

New faces

Quarterback Tom Savagedb] is up there with the most-traveled journeymen in the college game this season. Originally at Rutgers, Savage started all but the opener in his freshman season, tossing for a Big East freshman record 2,211 yards on the way to a 9-4 season. After a hand injury and being jumped on the depth chart, Savage transferred to Arizona in 2011. But when Rich Rodriguez was named the Wildcats head coach late that year, the 6-foot-5 pocket passer had to find a new home.

Savage finally settled on Pittsburgh, having to redshirt in 2012. Now 23 years old, the fifth-year senior brings a pro-style game to the Panther offense.

[db]Tyler Boyd, a true freshman and Pennsylvania product, won the job as Pitt's second receiver. While the Rivals150 prospect figures to impact the offense for the next few years, what can be expected in his first month, or game, at the FBS level?

As for the running backs, though he's not a new face, the Panthers certainly didn't expect Isaac Bennett to stand atop the 2013 depth chart. But with the transfer of Rushell Shell, that's exactly what happened. The only question for Pitt is whether or not Bennett is healthy - he injured his knee in camp and has participated in limited fashion the past week.

Sizable front

What the Panthers do feature is a group of "girthy" trench warriors. Featuring one senior and two juniors, the Pitt offensive line averages 315 pounds, according to the university's listing. Moreover, the initial depth chart released this week does not list a fullback on the roster. Instead, Chryst and Rudolph feature two tight ends in addition to a tailback and a pair of receivers. Though tight end Manasseh Garner (No. 82) will move around and be featured as an H-back at times, this lineup suggests one approach.

The verdict

From what can be gathered in quarterback type, receiver depth and size up front, the Pitt gameplan likely will be one featuring pro-style formations. Yes, the Panthers are paper thin at the tailback position, but don't expect them to line up in three and four receiver sets when the scoreboard allows. Of course the offense will try to feature its best player out of these sets. Let's take a look at how.

Devin Street

Since coach Chryst schemes to his strengths on offense, this means we can expect senior wide receiver Devin Street to see a fair share of passes thrown his way. At 6-foot-4, 195 pounds, Street is undoubtedly the Panthers' best playmaker and is utilized in a variety of ways all in an effort to get him more targets.

Before we examine what kinds of formations Pitt likes to run, let's do a quick refresher of each wide receiver position. The X receiver, known also as the split end, sets up on the line of scrimmage normally to the weak side of the formation. The Z receiver, or flanker, lines up behind the line of scrimmage and typically on the strong side. The Y receiver can be the tight end, H-back or slot receiver. Florida State will see Street line up in all three of these positions on Labor Day.

Given its personnel this year, Pitt will likely use two tight-end sets because it wants to establish the running game. As opposing defenses stack the box to take the running game away, Street will be allowed some opportunity out on the perimeter when he lines up as the Z receiver.

Historically, the Chryst offense loves to get the ball out via the bubble screen while using the X receiver (in a stack look) as a lead blocker. This is a low-risk and effective way to get the ball in the hands of his best weapon. A prime example of this repeated tactic can be found below.

Street also has the ability to stretch the field as the X receiver. While in this position, Street loved to run the deep in or "dig" route with Tino Sunseri at quarterback last season. This year should not be any different as Savage boasts a strong arm and will need to make throws down the field in order to have any success against Florida State.

One area of Street's game that should not be overlooked is his ability as a blocker. When Pitt uses three receivers and one tight end, Street will sometimes be used as a Y. In that role, Pitt will typically motion Street to the strong side of the formation where they can use him as a blocker for their inside zone running schemes.

A new wrinkle?

One thing which cannot be determined during this week's film study is the effect Pitt true freshman Tyler Boyd will have on the offense. Last season, receiver Mike Shanahan was used primarily as the X receiver with Street at Z. Boyd, officially listed at 6-foot-2, 185 pounds, is nowhere near the size of Shanahan, who actually switched to tight end in the NFL. With that in mind, look for Boyd to rely on his speed and agility to make plays.

This could mean that FSU will see Street playing Shanahan's role to make room for the lanky freshman. Should Street make the switch, it won't preclude production. Shanahan amassed 983 yards receiving and caught six touchdowns in 2012.

Certainly none of this guarantees Street is going to torch the Seminole's secondary for huge numbers. In truth, the 'Noles will likely key on him in the defensive backfield. But given that FSU secondary is playing its first game in a new defensive system, Street's versatility does pose potential issues.

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