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Syracuse Football: Breaking Down Defensive Play-Calling vs. Pittsburgh

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We're used to seeing teams spread the field or use misdirection on this Syracuse defense. What we're not used to is teams simply lining up and running straight ahead ... and actually being successful with it. This was strange.

Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Something weird happened on Saturday, and I'm not talking about the fake punt. We've seen teams spread the field and throw on the vulnerable secondary. We've seen teams run misdirection to take advantage of a sometimes too aggressive front seven.

But Pittsburgh tried something new. They lined up three tight ends and two running backs, and ran straight ahead on the Syracuse defense. And it worked.

They used the three tight end formation four times on their first touchdown drive in the second quarter. They put all their tight ends on the line to form an eight-man line (which is legal) for four-consecutive plays to score their second touchdown. And they iced the game with seven-straight plays from the formation following the fake punt to set up the game-winning field goal.

But let's also talk about that fake punt. For context, when Syracuse lined up for a punt at the Pitt 47 in the third quarter, the Panthers left their defense on the field to guard against the fake. Facing a similar situation with 4:51 remaining in the game and the ball on the Pittsburgh 48, Scott Shafer sent out his punt return team. Pittsburgh lined up two gunners to the left, drawing multiple SU players over to match up with them, and ran the fake to the right.

The Orange were left with one defender covering the deep corner route, and one defender who had to choose to cover the receiver in the flat, or to stop the punter from running. Caught in between, the punter threw over his head to the open receiver for the first down.

What can you say at this point? Pittsburgh did something entirely different from what has worked against this defense in the past. They didn't torch the Orange, racking up 5.8 yards per play and 4.1 yards per carry on the ground. But what's becoming a theme is the Syracuse defense breaking when it's needed most, and we saw that with the free points at the end of the first half, and the two scoring drives at the end of the game.

Let's break down the rest before it gets too morbid in here.

First Quarter

DRIVE 1
Time Down Ball O Personnel D Personnel Blitz Run/Pass Direction Result Note
14:56 1st and 10 Pitt 22 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A PA WR Screen Pass Right 4 yard gain Hudson Tackle
14:25 2nd and 6 Pitt 26 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A Run Middle 5 yard gain Franklin, Simmons Tackle
13:48 3rd and 1 Pitt 31 2 RB, 1 WR, 2 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB LCB Blitz (rush 5) Run Middle 2 yard gain Hodge Tackle
13:14 1st and 10 Pitt 33 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A Run Left 8 yard gain Hudson Tackle
12:38 2nd and 2 Pitt 41 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB LOLB Blitz (rush 5) PA WR Pass Right 38 yard gain WR takes end around and throws to wide open receiver, Scissum Tackle. Cordy chased Boyd before he threw and left man open
12:01 1st and 10 SU 21 2 RB, 2 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB MLB and ROLB Blitz (rush 6) Run Middle 6 yard loss Perfectly timed blitz, Franklin almost took handoff in backfield, made Tackle (forced fumble, recovered by Pitt)
11:24 2nd and 18 SU 29 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A PA WR Bubble Screen Left 9 yard gain Cordy Tackle
3rd and 9 SU 20 Offsides 5 yard penalty, Ron Thompson
10:31 3rd and 4 SU 15 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A Run Left 1 yard gain Franklin, Cordy Tackle
DRIVE 2
Time Down Ball O Personnel D Personnel Blitz Run/Pass Direction Result Note
9:06 1st and 10 Pitt 24 1 RB, 2 WR, 2 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB MLB and ROLB Blitz (rush 6) Run Left 20 yard gain Blitzing linebackers got sucked inside, exposed edge for run, Winfield Tackle
8:40 1st and 10 Pitt 44 2 RB, 2 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB LOLB and MLB Blitz (rush 6) Pass Right 6 yard gain Quick pass before pressure, Dowels Tackle
8:03 2nd and 4 Pitt 50 1 RB, 1 WR, 3 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB LOLB and LCB Blitz (rush 6) Run Middle 1 yard gain Simmons Tackle
7:24 3rd and 3 SU 49 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A Pass Left Incomplete Pass underthrown, good coverage
DRIVE 3
Time Down Ball O Personnel D Personnel Blitz Run/Pass Direction Result Note
4:16 1st and 10 Pitt 28 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A PA Pass Right 22 yard gain Dump off to RB, Hudson Tackle
3:42 1st and 10 Pitt 50 2 RB, 2 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB MLB Blitz (rush 5) Run Middle 4 yard gain Franklin Tackle
3:09 2nd and 6 SU 46 3 RB, 2 WR 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A Pass Right 17 yard gain Hudson in coverage
2:41 1st and 10 SU 29 3 RB, 2 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB RCB, ROLB, MLB Blitz (rush 7) PA Pass Right 2 yard gain Fake end around dumped to RB in flat under pressure
2:06 2nd and 8 SU 27 2 RB, 2 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A Run Left No gain Samuels Tackle, Thompson forced running back inside on toss
1:27 3rd and 8 SU 27 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 3 DL, 3 LB, 5 DB MLB and ROLB Blitz (rush 5) Pass Sack 5 yard loss Franklin sack on nice inside move on blitz

Pittsburgh Play Calls: 9 runs, 9 passes

Defensive personnel: 17 base defense, 1 subpackages

Blitzes: 9/18 (50%)

The first quarter was kind of a mixed bag for the defense, as they let pick up some big chunks of yardage, but ultimately didn't break. Each time Pitt had a big play - the wide receiver reverse pass, a long run off tackle, a dump off and run by the running back - the Orange stepped up to limit them to just three points. Unfortunately, this did not continue through the fourth quarter.

Second Quarter

DRIVE 4
Time Down Ball O Personnel D Personnel Blitz Run/Pass Direction Result Note
7:35 1st and 10 Pitt 30 1 RB, 2 WR, 2 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A Run Right 11 yard gain WR end around, Whitner Tackle
7:04 1st and 10 Pitt 41 1 RB, 1 WR, 3 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB LCB and LOLB Blitz (rush 6) PA Pass Left Incomplete QB's arm was hit as he threw, underthrown pass
6:57 2nd and 10 Pitt 41 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A RB Screen Pass Right 10 yard gain
6:16 1st and 10 SU 49 1 RB, 2 WR, 2 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB MLB and LOLB Blitz (rush 6) Pass Sack 8 yard loss Franklin Sack on well-timed blitz, called for targeting but waived off after review
6:00 2nd and 18 Pitt 43 2 RB, 2 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB MLB and LOLB Blitz (rush 6) Run Right 17 yard gain Clark missed tackle at line, Scissum Tackle
5:21 3rd and 1 SU 40 2 RB, 3 TE 5 DL, 3 LB, 3 DB N/A Run Right No gain Franklin Tackle
4:44 4th and 1 SU 40 2 RB, 3 TE 5 DL, 3 LB, 3 DB N/A Run Middle 3 yard gain Great trap block on Slayton, Scissum Tackle
4:11 1st and 10 SU 37 1 RB, 2 WR, 2 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB MLB delayed blitz (rush 5) PA Pass Left 14 yard gain QB rolled left after fake, Taylor in coverage came up to stop QB run, TE wide open behind
3:40 1st and 10 SU 23 1 RB, 1 WR, 3 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB RCB and ROLB Blitz (rush 6) PA Pass Left Incomplete Winfield Pass Breakup at line on blitz
3:35 2nd and 10 SU 23 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB LOLB and MLB Blitz (rush 6) WR Screen Pass Right 7 yard gain Raymon Tackle
2:57 3rd and 3 SU 16 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 2 LB, 5 DB N/A Run Left 5 yard gain Dowels Tackle
2:26 1st and 10 SU 11 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB MLB Blitz (rush 5) Run Left 9 yard gain Arciniega missed tackle in backfield, Winfield Tackle
1:57 2nd and 1 SU 2 2 RB, 3 TE 5 DL, 3 LB, 3 DB N/A Run Middle No gain Slayton Tackle
1:41 3rd and 1 SU 2 2 RB, 3 TE 5 DL, 3 LB, 3 DB N/A Run Middle 2 yard TD Hit at line, powered into end zone
DRIVE 5
Time Down Ball O Personnel D Personnel Blitz Run/Pass Direction Result Note
0:26 1st and 10 SU 42 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 3 DL, 3 LB, 5 DB N/A Designed pass, QB run Middle 13 yard gain Zone coverage, 3 man rush, QB had lane to run, Thompson Tackle
:10 1st and 10 SU 29 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 3 DL, 3 LB, 5 DB N/A Pass Incomplete Spike
:09 2nd and 10 SU 29 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 3 DL, 3 LB, 5 DB N/A Pass Left 17 yard gain Zone coverage, no rush, completed in gap in zone

Pittsburgh Play Calls: 8 runs, 9 passes

Defensive personnel: 9 base defense, 8 subpackages

Blitzes: 7/17 (41.2%)

This was a bad, bad quarter for the Orange defense. They gave up another long touchdown drive - this one 14 plays - in what's becoming a pretty standard occurrence. Then following the botched pooch kick and ill-advised penalty on the SU kicking team, they played a soft-as-a-pillow scheme to give up an easy three points at the half (which would turn out to be a VERY important three points). Chuck Bullough dialed up nothing but three-man pressures with soft zones that allowed a 13-yard QB keeper and a 17-yard pass to make for an easy field goal. Not Syracuse's finest moment on defense.

Third Quarter

DRIVE 6
Time Down Ball O Personnel D Personnel Blitz Run/Pass Direction Result Note
13:13 1st and 10 Pitt 20 1 RB, 2 WR, 2 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB MLB and LOLB Blitz (rush 6) WR Screen Pass Right 3 yard loss Cordy Tackle for loss
12:47 2nd and 13 Pitt 17 2 RB, 1 WR, 2 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A Pass Middle 9 yard gain Boyd on crossing route covered by Franklin
12:05 3rd and 4 Pitt 26 1 RB, 2 WR, 2 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A Pass Left 24 yard gain Boyd in corner route in gap in zone between CB and safety
11:33 1st and 10 Pitt 50 1 RB, 4 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB LOLB and Safety Blitz (rush 6) Run Left 2 yard loss Slayton Tackle
11:07 2nd and 12 Pitt 48 1 RB, 2 WR, 2 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A Run Right No gain Dowels makes nice play to shed blocker and make solo tackle
10:25 3rd and 12 Pitt 48 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 3 DL, 3 LB, 5 DB MLB and LOLB Blitz (rush 5) WR Screen Pass Left 3 yard gain Whigham playing safety, comes up to make tackle
DRIVE 7
Time Down Ball O Personnel D Personnel Blitz Run/Pass Direction Result Note
7:35 1st and 10 Pitt 24 1 RB, 2 WR, 2 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB MLB Blitz (rush 5) Run Middle 5 yard loss Raymon great penetration for tackle for loss
2nd and 15 Pitt 19 False Start 5 yard penalty
6:37 2nd and 20 Pitt 14 2 RB, 2 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A PA Pass Left Incomplete Pass overthrown
6:31 3rd and 20 Pitt 14 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 3 DL, 3 LB, 5 DB N/A Pass Middle 7 yard gain Cordy Tackle
DRIVE 8
Time Down Ball O Personnel D Personnel Blitz Run/Pass Direction Result Note
4:01 1st and 10 Pitt 41 1 RB, 1 WR, 3 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB ROLB Blitz (rush 5) Run Left 7 yard gain Boyd outran Franklin to sideline
3:36 2nd and 3 Pitt 48 2 RB, 1 WR, 2 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB ROLB and RCB Blitz (rush 6) Run Left 14 yard gain Zone read, blitz was perfect call, but Hodge ran right by QB on keeper
3:05 1st and 10 SU 38 2 RB, 1 WR, 2 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB MLB, Safety Blitz (rush 6) PA Pass Middle Incomplete Cordy, Simmons Hurry, Simmons QB hit as he threw short
2:58 2nd and 10 SU 38 2 RB, 1 WR, 2 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB LOLB Blitz (rush 5) Run Middle 1 yard gain Franklin Tackle, Unsportsmanlike Conduct 15 yard penalty on Pitt
2:35 3rd and 24 Pitt 48 1 RB, 4 WR 3 DL, 3 LB, 5 DB N/A Designed pass, QB run Right 8 yard gain Simmons forced out of pocket then chased down for tackle, Forced Fumble OB
DRIVE 9
Time Down Ball O Personnel D Personnel Blitz Run/Pass Direction Result Note
1:57 1st and 10 SU 44 2 RB, 1 WR, 2 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB LOLB and Safety Blitz (rush 6) Run Middle 3 yard gain Arciniega Tackle
1:23 2nd and 7 SU 41 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A WR Screen Pass Right 7 yard gain Pitt had more blockers than SU players
0:53 1st and 10 SU 34 2 RB, 1 WR, 2 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB LOLB and LCB Blitz (rush 6) Run Middle 9 yard gain Cordy Tackle
0:25 2nd and 1 SU 25 1 RB, 1 WR, 3 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A Run Middle No gain Pitt lined up with 8 men on line, which is legal, Bennett Tackle

Pittsburgh Play Calls: 9 runs, 9 passes

Defensive personnel: 15 base defense, 3 subpackages

Blitzes: 10/18 (55.6%)

As bad as the second quarter was, that's how good the third quarter was for the defense. We saw a few different wrinkles, like Julian Whigham playing safety and making a key tackle on third down on a bubble screen. We saw them hold their own against the screens with a total of 7 yards on three attempts. And we saw them shut down the only two play action pass attempts. Pitt certainly helped the cause with some well-timed penalties, but the defense did its job in the third, allowing just 13 points against a top 25 team.

Fourth Quarter

DRIVE 9 (cont.)
Time Down Ball O Personnel D Personnel Blitz Run/Pass Direction Result Note
15:00 3rd and 1 SU 25 2 RB, 3 TE 5 DL, 3 LB, 3 DB N/A Run Middle 6 yard gain Again Pitt had 8 men on line, Cordy Tackle
14:31 1st and 10 SU 19 2 RB, 3 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB LOLB and LCB Blitz (rush 6) Run Middle 18 yard gain 3rd play in a row with 8 men on line, big hole to run through, Scissum Tackle
14:04 1st and Goal SU 1 2 RB, 3 TE 5 DL, 3 LB, 3 DB Run Middle 1 yard TD 4th play in a row in  8-men-on-line formation
DRIVE 10
Time Down Ball O Personnel D Personnel Blitz Run/Pass Direction Result Note
9:17 1st and 10 Pitt 5 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A Run Right 5 yard gain Zone read handoff, Cordy Tackle
8:39 2nd and 5 Pitt 10 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB MLB and LOLB Blitz (rush 6) WR Screen Pass Left No gain Scissum Tackle
8:04 3rd and 5 Pitt 10 1 RB, 4 WR 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A Pass Right 17 yard gain Again hit spot in zone between CB and Safety on sideline
7:37 1st and 10 Pitt 27 2 RB, 1 WR, 2 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB MLB Blitz (rush 5) Run Middle 1 yard gain Franklin Tackle
6:58 2nd and 9 Pitt 28 1 RB, 1 WR, 3 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A PA Pass RIght 17 yard gain Hodge was inches away from making play, play fake held him just enough
1st and 10 Pitt 45 False Start 5 yard penalty
6:06 1st and 15 Pitt 40 1 RB, 2 WR, 2 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A Run Left 6 yard gain Hudson made nice play to take on blocker and force out of bounds, could have been huge gain
5:32 2nd and 9 Pitt 46 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB MLB and Safety Blitz (rush 6) Run Middle 2 yard gain Arciniega, Samuels Tackle
4:56 3rd and 7 Pitt 48 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 3 DL, 3 LB, 5 DB ROLB Blitz (rush 4) Pass Middle Incomplete Cordy Diving Pass Breakup
4:51 4th and 7 Pitt 48 Punt Formation, 2 gunners spread left Punt Return N/A Pass Right 12 yard gain SU covered deep receiver, and underneath guy had to choose between punter or receiver, Anthony Tackle
4:21 1st and 10 SU 40 3 RB, 2 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB ROLB and RCB Blitz (rush 6) Run Middle 5 yard gain Bennett Tackle
3:46 2nd and 5 SU 35 2 RB, 1 WR, 2 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A Run Middle 4 yard gain Hudson Tackle
3:11 3rd and 1 SU 31 2 RB, 3 TE 5 DL, 3 LB, 3 DB LOLB Blitz (rush 6) Run Middle 4 yard gain 8-men line for Pitt, Scissum Tackle
2:36 1st and 10 SU 27 2 RB, 3 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB MLB and ROLB Blitz (rush 6) Run Middle 5 yard gain 8-men line, Arciniega Tackle
1:56 2nd and 5 SU 22 2 RB, 3 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB LOLB and LCB Blitz (rush 6) Run Middle 4 yard gain 8-men line, Slayton Tackle
1:50 3rd and 1 SU 18 2 RB, 3 TE 5 DL, 3 LB, 3 DB N/A Run Middle 1 yard gain 8-men line, Franklin Tackle
1:39 1st and 10 SU 17 2 RB, 3 TE 5 DL, 3 LB, 3 DB N/A Run Middle 4 yard gain Simmons Tackle
0:56 2nd and 6 SU 13 2 RB, 3 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB ROLB and RCB Blitz (rush 6) Run Right No gain 8-men line, Simmons Tackle
0:13 3rd and 6 SU 13 2 RB, 3 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB LOLB, LCB and ROLB Blitz (rush 7) Run Middle 7 yard gain 8-men line, Franklin Tackle

Pittsburgh Play Calls: 16 runs, 5 passes

Defensive personnel: 14 base defense, 7 subpackages

Blitzes: 11/21 (52.4%)

Pitt dared the Orange to stop their heavy offensive package with three tight ends, lining them up many times all on the line to form an eight-man front. The Orange couldn't stop it on the first drive of the quarter, giving up a touchdown after four-consecutive runs. And they couldn't stop it on the final drive, following the fake punt, as Pitt just broke the defense's spirit. The fake punt only got the ball to the SU 40, so the defense could have made a stop, but instead gave up 34 yards on nine plays from straight-up runs up the middle, where they just got outmuscled and outworked.

  • Total Yards (per play): 427(5.8)
  • Total Rushing Yards (per carry): 188 (4.1)
  • Total Passing Yards (per attempt): 21-for-28 for 239 yards (8.5)
  • Play Action Calls Against - 11 (72 on season)
  • Play Action Results - 7-for-11, 106 yards, 0 TD
  • Play Action Results (Season) - 40-of-62 (64.5%), 569 yards, 3 TDs, 2 Pass Interference, 4 sacks, 1 fumble recovery for touchdown
  • Plays in base defense (4-3): 55 of 74 (74.3%)
  • Plays in subpackages: 19 of 74 (25.7%)
  • Blitzes: 37 of 74 (50%)