Pitt's offensive line to feel the pressure
Tuesday, October 19, 2010
By Paul Zeise, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The message from Dave Wannstedt to his offensive line last week when the Panthers were preparing for their game at Syracuse was "you must be physical."

If there is a message this week from Wannstedt to his line as they prepare for Rutgers' defensive front it is "be physical, but you better know your assignments, too."

The Scarlet Knights (4-2, 1-0 Big East) have one of the toughest defensive fronts to prepare for because they put so much pressure on opposing offenses and do it in so many ways. They are particularly fond of blitzing regardless of the down, distance or situation.

Wannstedt, whose teams are 1-4 against the Scarlet Knights, knows the challenge they will present to his offensive line and believes this game will be won or lost as much in the film room leading up to the game as it will be decided Saturday at Heinz Field.

"They take a lot of pride in their ability on defense and in making big plays with the scheme they use," Wannstedt said at his weekly news conference. "Last week, we saw a 4-3 physical defense. It was simply 'here is my guy, I have to block him.' This week it is different -- they are moving, they are twisting and they are firing guys, so it's more of a combination. It is a lot more of the mental application of getting the job done as much as it is the physical.

"If you look at their team, three of their wins came in the fourth quarter with their defense making big plays and turnovers in the fourth quarter, giving them the opportunity to win. We need to focus on protecting the ball, and this will be a 60-minute game, without a doubt.

"Nobody will force the blitzing issue as much as Rutgers will."

Interestingly enough, Rutgers coach Greg Schiano cut his teeth as a young assistant coach with the Chicago Bears under Dave Wannstedt, yet the Scarlet Knights' defense is nothing at all like Pitt's.

Wannstedt wants to get pressure with his front four and isn't a big fan of the blitz -- although the Panthers (3-3, 1-0) have blitzed a little more this year -- while Schiano is a big fan of blitzing and has crafted together an extremely aggressive defense that can be very difficult to deal with.

Through six games, the Scarlet Knights have held opponents to an average of 15.3 points and 292.5 yards of offense per game and have forced 12 turnovers. Teams also have run for only 123.3 yards per game against the Scarlet Knights, averaging only 3.6 yards per rush.

And Rutgers has given up only three points in the fourth quarter this season and has outscored teams, 46-6, in the final quarter and overtime.

Oddly, if there is one stat the Scarlet Knights' aggressiveness on defense has not shown up it is in sack -- they only have five through six games -- but they also have 23 quarterback hurries, 33 tackles for loss and have broken up 20 passes.

Wannstedt said protecting quarterback Tino Sunseri in the pocket is the team's top priority, and the best ways to do that is to run the football effectively and make sure the offensive linemen don't miss blocking assignments in the pass game.

To that end, he has been encouraged by how well the line has progressed in its rebuilt form -- the Syracuse game was the unit's third in its current form, with Jordan Gibbs at right tackle and Lucas Nix at right guard -- and he said it will only get better.

"We've taken a few steps forward," Wannstedt said. "Syracuse brought quite a bit of pressure and our guys did a good job of handling it. Like I said, this week will be more difficult. The guy that's forced to make the biggest adjustment is Lucas Nix, especially with the run game because we do so much pulling with the guards with the sweeps and screens and on the power play."

The Rutgers game is a huge one for Pitt because the Panthers have yet to win two games in a row this season and still are holding out hope that they can win the Big East.

After this week, the Panthers will play host to Louisville, then play at Connecticut and South Florida, so it is clear they have a chance to get on a little bit of a roll -- provided they can get started with a win against the Scarlet Knights Saturday.

[HIGH-LIGHT]NOTES[/HIGH-LIGHT] -- The Pitt-Louisville game Oct. 30 at Heinz Field will be a noon kickoff. It has been designated as "The Big East Network Game of the Week," televised by ESPN Regional and locally on WTAE. ... Punter/Kicker Dan Hutchins was named the Big East special teams player of the week for the second time in three weeks for his performance in Pitt's 45-14 win at Syracuse. Hutchins averaged 50 yards per punt on five punts and had two punts downed inside the 20. He was also 6 of 6 on extra points and made his only field-goal attempt -- a 24-yarder. ... Wannstedt said linebacker Greg Williams and tight end Mike Cruz responded well to their demotion to the second team for the Syracuse game and thus will be back in the starting lineup against Rutgers.