Spread Again: Pitt's Offense

Here's a little bonus Statistical In-Ferentz for this week. I watched half of Pitt's game against Buffalo and charted the plays to see what they run and how successful it was:

Pittoffense_medium

(click to enlarge; note that the 4WR, 1RB yardage numbers don't quite add up because one of the plays ended in a hold for -10 yards)

As might be obvious by the number of times "shotgun" and "3WR" appears, Pitt runs a spread offense. And it actually looks quite a bit like the quick-snap spread offense Iowa saw at Iowa State, which should perhaps not be a surprise as Pitt coach Todd Graham came to Pittsburgh from Tulsa and Rice, and Iowa State OC Tom Herman spent a stint at Rice too (although not under Graham). In the half I watched, Pitt played almost entirely three or four wide receiver sets, with one HB or TE (it's the same guy -- 6'4 230 lb. Illinois transfer Hubie Graham) usually lining up split out like a receiver or in motion across the line. On most plays, there was just one running back in the backfield with the QB, star Ray Graham (#1), and four wide receivers (although Hubie Graham occasionally lined up tight on the line):

4wr_medium

But sometimes a second running back is back with Graham, senior Zach Brown (#4). And Pitt didn't usually run out of these two-back sets, but sent the backs out on routes.

3wr_medium

Although Pitt passed more than they ran in the first half against Buffalo, on the year their offense is tilted toward the run, 86 plays to 70 plays. And most of those runs (57) were to Ray Graham. In the half I saw, Pitt went almost entirely with the zone read draw to Graham for its running game.  In fact it seemed like a majority of their plays started with the same basic action by the quarterback: catch the shotgun snap, fake or give hand-off to Graham, then proceed from there, either with a draw to Graham, a QB misdirection run off of the fake hand-off, or a play-action pass. Graham does a lot for this offense: he ran for 201 yards against Buffalo and 120 yards the next week against Maine. He has accounted for 358 yards of total offense so far, 45% of Pittsburgh's total.

The quarterback, Tino Sunseri, struggled a bit in the half I watched, overthrowing open receivers on deep throws a few times. And against Maine (a 35-29 win), he was sacked seven times, didn't complete a pass over 25 yards, and was benched to end the game (his coach says he'll be back starting Saturday). But Steele Jantz looked inaccurate in his first game, so maybe we should all be terrified. Sunseri does have some big targets to aim for: Hubie Graham and wide receivers Devin Street and Mike Shanahan are all listed as 6'4" or 6'5". Enjoy, 5'11" Greg Castillo and Shaun Prater

It's hard to know exactly how good Pitt is. This is their first year with their new coach, so the offense (and presumably the defense) is not a well-oiled machine yet. They beat Buffalo 35-16, but only led at half 7-3 and struggled on offense for much of the game (and Buffalo was the 185th best team in football last year according to the Sagarin ratings). Beating FCS team Maine (142nd best last year) was an even greater challenge, as the Bears stormed back from down 35-15 to almost win the game 35-29. 

But schematically, Pitt seems to run the same stuff on offense that gives Iowa fits in general: they use the shotgun, three or four receivers and a zone read running game, and hope to get the ball out to someone in space before the line collapses. The quarterback is left back there with minimal protection, so there are opportunities to blitz (as I said, Maine got to Sunseri seven times), but Sunseri is not a stiff and can run decently. All in all, it's nothing Iowa hasn't seen before. The test should be similar to Iowa State and Northwestern and Missouri: can Iowa's linebackers match up to receivers and "tight ends" in space, and can the defensive line provide enough push to a) contain the running game and b) get to the quarterback. Iowa did a remarkable amount of blitzing against Iowa State, so it will be interesting to see if they take the same approach against Pitt's spread, or if they stick with their base zone defense (or try something else, like nickel coverage).

Bonus Note: 

On the Wikipedia page of Pitt coach Todd Graham, it says that those wiseass eggheads at Rice were so enraged when Graham abandoned the school for Tulsa after the 2006 season that when Tulsa played Rice in 2007:

[T]he Rice University Marching Owl Band presented a halftime show named "Todd Graham's Inferno" (based on Dante's "The Divine Comedy") which implied that Graham had entered a special circle of Hell when he abandoned Rice for Tulsa.

It's not clear if Graham's move from Tulsa to Pitt marks his ascension to Todd Graham's Purgatorio or merely a descent into a deeper circle of Todd Graham's Inferno, but in any event, have your anti-Guelph burns on hand!

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