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Pitt Football's 2011 Midterm Report - Part II: Defense and Special Teams

First, if you haven't already done so, go back and check out Part I of this series, which focused on the offense. Now on to the defense and special teams...

While the offense has been experiencing some difficulties grasping the new "high-octane" offense, the "nitro" defense has been doing a tad better in my opinion.  Now, I wouldn't consider it exceptional by any means, but the unit has definitely made some plays. 

As expected, the defensive line has looked pretty good thus far.  They get a decent push up front and have been good at stopping the run as well.  There's also been a good amount of pressure on the quarterback. Unfortunately, there have been big gains against the secondary and linebackers as well, but I'll get to that later.  

Linebackers have also looked capable at times.  Todd Thomas and newly-minted starter Juan Price are a force to be reckoned with when rushing the passer or chasing down runners.  Their speed on outside pass rushes is clearly noticeable and effective.  While they haven't had a large number of sacks, they apply plenty of pressure and cause quarterbacks to make some throws that he normally wouldn't want to make.  They've had ups and downs in the passing game, but Greg Williams and Max Gruder have done a good job at clogging the middle on run plays.

The real problem on defense, in my opinion, can be found in the secondary.  Yeah, I know they've done an incredible job against Michael Floyd and Mohamed Sanu (the two best receivers faced thus far) but they are still giving up way too many big plays. When Pitt has a chance to make the opposition give the ball up and the quarterback finds a wide open receiver on 3rd and 8, it sucks the life out of not only the players on the field, but the ones on the sidelines, too.

The aspect of the game most forgotten about is special teams.  So far the return game has been great compared to previous years.  Ronald Jones has been doing a good job on returns and has managed to make plays more often than not.  Field position is critical and he is doing a great job at giving the Panthers a chance.  Corey Davis also looks pretty good on kick returns.  He seems like he is only a move or two away from breaking away for a big run.  

The kicking has solidified since a few miscues at the beginning of the season.  Punting has been a little bit of a different story.  Matt Yoklic hasn't been terrible, but there's room for improvement in getting more distance out of his punts.

Midterm Grades

Defensive Line: Teams have been held to under 100 yards rushing in three of the six games so far.  They did let up over 200 yards on the ground in the win against South Florida, though.  Not that the defensive line is the only factor in yards allowed in the running game, but it is probably the biggest.  Grade: B-

Linebackers: With Brandon Lindsey lined up as an outside-linebacker earlier this season before being moved back to defensive end, this core has really stood out thus far.  Todd Thomas has made a big difference and freshman, Juan Price has looked great since assuming a starting role.  They have been getting to the quarterback and have also done a good job in run defense.  Grade: B+

Secondary:  As I mentioned above, the unit has done a good job of shutting down the two stars they've faced in Floyd and Sanu, but have also been prone to lapses against others.  This part of the defense is the biggest weakness in my opinion.  Many plays have been let up on third downs and the inability to force punts has been extremely frustrating.  Grade: C

Defensive Average:  While holding teams in check at tines, the defense overall has been inconsistent at times.  Grade: B-

Returners: Ronald Jones and Corey Davis have handled most of the punt and kickoff returns, respectively.  They haven't yet broken a touchdown, but the play here has been nothing to complain about.  In previous years Pitt has been abysmal at both of these spots and it's refreshing to actually look forward to returns rather than fear them.  Grade: A-

Kicking/Punting:  While Harper has been much more consistent lately, his early struggles can't go entirely unnoticed. Yoklic has also been struggling lately with getting good contact on punts.  Earlier in the season we saw Tino and Mark Myers punt the ball a few times, which was interesting and sort of kept the defense off-guard.  Having the quarterback punt the ball also allows for no return and usually resulted in some bad field positioning for the opposition.  Grade: C+

Special Teams Average: With a resurgence in the return game and some solid field goal kicking as of late, the special teams unit looks above average. Since Harper's resurgence, the kicking is about on par with that of Dan Hutchins, but the return game is much better.  Grade: B

Overall Midterm Grade: This grade appears to be a little higher than they deserve in my opinion for a 3-3 football team, but in taking the average in every aspect of the game, it ended up that way. This proves (at least according to the grades) that there have indeed been some good things about the season despite the fact that things look so dire right now. If the team can put it all together, they have a chance to turn things around in the second half.  The key word, though, is 'if'.   Grade: B-


All in all, it looks like this season is going to be one of those "wait and see" type of years.  Every week we are either going to see Jekyll or Hyde.  I predict the team to finish out 7-5 as I mentioned in Part I.  They are a good team at their core, but are making some fundamental mistakes to keep them from reaching their potential.  By the end of the season, though, this team could be much more consistent and give the team some momentum to build upon.