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Pitt must get more pressure up front to challenge Penn State

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Last week against Youngstown State, the Panthers held on for a narrow, 28-21 overtime win against the Penguins. Youngstown State wasn't exactly a juggernaut on offense, but still managed more than 300 passing yards in nearly pulling off an upset.

Now, to be fair to Pitt's beleaguered pass defense, only a little more than 1/3 of those yards came in the first half as the Panthers raced out to a 21-0 lead. The team, by their own admission, didn't play as hard in the second half and that allowed Youngstown State back in the game. But the Panthers still left some open receivers and with better throws or better hands by their offense, the damage could have been worse.

The secondary has become an easy punching bag for fans. That is understandable when you rank among the worst FBS teams statistically in pass defense, as the Panthers did last year. Part of the problem last week, though, was with the team's pass rush at times. Pitt has played only one game to date this season but it wasn't that encouraging. The Panthers did rack up eight pressures but recorded only a single sack when Amir Watts produced one against the Penguins. Given the opponent they faced, too, that just wasn't nearly enough.

Pitt's secondary hasn't been great, admittedly. But giving up more than 300 passing yards to an FCS program isn't all on them, either. The defensive line has to create more pressure so they're not out there covering for excessively long periods of time.

The pass rush stepping up is even more important for the next two games. The Panthers are without safety Jordan Whitehead for the Penn State and Oklahoma State contests and, while he had a bit of a down season last year, he remains the best player in the secondary.

Most of the pressure of any team generally comes from the defensive ends. Unfortunately, Pitt has quite a bit of inexperience there. The team lost Ejuan Price to the NFL Draft this past year and fellow starter Rori Blair was dismissed from the team before this season. Blair wasn't a star and it's easy to suggest his production should be easily matched. But the one thing he provided was some game experience as he played in 35 games and was a two-year starter.

The Panthers have Dewayne Hendrix, who returned after missing almost all of last year due to injury. Hendrix was a highly-touted recruit and looked like a potential star. However, he's still finding his way. That's evident because he remains an 'OR' selection with freshman Rashad Weaver on the depth chart, signifying he is not even a lock to start. The other spot is held down by Allen Edwards. While he's a senior, he has only five starts to his credit in his career.

One silver lining here is that, just as the offensive game plan was oversimplified last week against Youngstown State, my guess is that the defensive game plan was similarly light in terms of different blitz packages. I suspect the Panthers were saving some things defensively and that could result in more pressure. The counterbalance, of course, is that the opponent is certainly much more difficult on Saturday.

Additionally, the Panthers also have some good athleticism at linebacker. That group is pretty inexperienced, too, but they have made some plays and could certainly help create some havoc if called upon. Their pass defense has work to do but they are athletic enough that they should be able to get to the quarterback on blitz packages.

The bottom line is that Pitt must get competent play from their secondary this week. A lot of that will be dependent on finding a way to get more pressure from the front seven if they want to have any chance to keep things close this weekend.

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