Wannstedt wants better execution from defense
Defense hasn't been Pitt's strong suit the last two seasons, but the Panthers say that should change in 2007, Joe Starkey writes.
Dave Wannstedt returned to his alma mater two years ago toting a long history of success on the defensive side of the ball and that brings up a question:
When are his Pittsburgh Panthers going to stop somebody?
Pitt ranked an embarrassing 107th in the country in rushing defense last season (181.3 yards per game), 94th the year before. It also registered the fewest sacks (21) in the Big East last season and finished seventh out of eight teams in total defense (363.1 yards per game), ahead of only Syracuse.
This spring, the team is replacing All-America middle linebacker H.B. Blades and superb cornerback Darrelle Revis and that brings up another question:
Is it going to get worse before it gets better?
Wannstedt doesn't think so. He believes an influx of young talent will turn his defense in the right direction -- and opponents in the wrong direction. Without singling out players, he has repeatedly implied that the main problem the past two years was the underwhelming talent base he inherited from former coach Walt Harris.
The message board fanatics disagree. Many of them believe eighth-year defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads is the problem and that if he were fired everything would be OK. Wannstedt recoils at the notion. He kept Rhoads as one of the holdovers from Harris' staff and retained him after last season's disaster, when many expected the ax to drop.
Wannstedt also moved Rhoads from defensive backs coach to linebackers coach, believing the coordinator should work from the middle of the defense, as he did under Jimmy Johnson at the University of Miami and with the Dallas Cowboys.
Big East notebook
Wannstedt insists his defense rarely was out of position last season. He will recite a litany of plays in which Pitt was in the ideal defense but simply didn't execute. One occurred against UConn, when the Panthers had quarterback D.J. Hernandez trapped for a short gain -- and a punt to follow -- but turned him into Michael Vick by missing a slew of tackles.
"Is that the coach's fault? A fan might think so, but it's not the case," Wannstedt said. "When you have good people, you keep 'em. Now, you don't stick your head in the sand and say things are fine. Things aren't fine. We didn't play good enough defense. But there are a lot of people responsible for it, starting with me, the head coach."
The decline over the past two years, however, reached a mind-boggling low point in the final three games of last season, when UConn, Louisville and West Virginia combined to roll up 1,621 yards (including 916 on the ground) and 139 points.
They might have done worse against tackling dummies.
"It was tortuous by the end," Rhoads said. "That's a good way to put it. We weren't playing smart or good football by the end of the season. Things on the outside, whether its fans or whatever, that doesn't bother you. When you have enough pride in your own job and you know it's not being done right, that's all you need to feel bad."
Rhoads pointed to a single play as a turning point. It happened against Rutgers, when Pitt, 6-1 at the time and trailing 13-10, had the Scarlet Knights pinned deep early in the fourth quarter. Tailback Ray Rice then bolted 67 yards up the middle to set up the clinching touchdown.
"After that," Rhoads said, "she goes down the toilet in those last two games."
Pitt actually lost four in a row after that, leading to speculation about Rhoads' job. His players didn't want him to go. They love his enthusiasm and teaching ability.
"I wasn't really too worried," junior middle linebacker Scott McKillop said. "I'm 100 percent glad he's back. He brings the mad-dog intensity to our defense, and we need that."
The defensive line -- which Wannstedt has emphasized in recruiting -- is deeper and more experienced and should be bolstered by the arrival of junior college transfer Tommy Duhart.
The linebacker crew is another story. McKillop is the only one with experience, and it's not much. On one side, a converted safety/quarterback (Shane Murray) is competing with a converted receiver/tailback (oft-injured Dorin Dickerson).
"It's a melting pot of, as I would tell them right now, nobodies," Rhoads said. "All we're asking them to do is learn -- and when they learn, they'll start playing faster."
The faster, the better. It's about time Wannstedt's Panthers started stopping people.
Joe Starkey covers the Big East for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
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