3rd-down defense emphasis
Nittany Lions need to get stops when it counts
First, Penn State coach James Franklin reminded everyone, his team is 3-0. His defense has allowed three touchdowns in three games. And the team has taken its last two opponents’ best shots and won.
“No one unit is dominating statistically, but we’re playing really good team football,” Franklin said Tuesday. “We’ve got to take some steps to be more dominant in all three areas, but if we can just keep marginally getting better every single day, then we’ll like where we’ll be.”
That said, the Lions studied plenty during their off week in preparation for the Big Ten schedule, which begins Friday night at Maryland. One of those pressure points was a curiosity of the non-conference schedule: third-down defense. Specifically, defense in third-and-long situations.
Penn State undermined itself on numerous third-and-long plays against Buffalo and Pitt, though it ultimately allowed just two touchdowns. Still, some of the statistics are notable.
According to data from the Coplay-based Sports Info Solutions, opposing quarterbacks have completed 72 percent of their passes (13 for 18) against Penn State on downs of third and 10 or longer. They’re averaging 17.6 yards per completion on those downs.
Buffalo, for instance, completed four thirddown passes of 23 yards or longer; two went over 40 yards. And Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett went 9 for 12 for 120 yards on third down. Combine his fourth-down success (3 for 3 for 68 yards), and Pickett threw for more than half his 372 yards on third or fourth down.
So, yes, third-down defense was part of the bye-week study hall.
“We work like crazy to get people into third-and-long situations and then we let them off the hook,” Franklin said. “That’s been something obviously over the bye period we’ve spent a lot of time discussing and studying and looking at. It’s definitely an area that we can get better.”
Penn State has been fairly good on third down overall, allowing a 30% conversion rate that ranks 25th in the nation. But in those favorable situations, Penn State’s pass rush hasn’t gotten to the quarterback or its coverage has softened.
Pitt, for instance, went 4 for 9 on third downs
of nine yards or longer. According to Sports Info Solutions, on third-and-10 or longer, Penn State has broken up just one pass and recorded one sack, despite getting pressure on quarterbacks 11 times.
Both Pitt and Buffalo ran well-timed routes across the middle against blitzes and pressure. Pitt beat Penn State with several screens. And Pickett threw some lovely passes to receiver Taysir Mack, who made difficult catches in tight quarters.
To counter, Penn State stressed anticipation on those downs, particularly of the screens.
“I feel like as a whole, the defense just needs to recognize and be ready for it,” linebacker Cam Brown said. “It usually relies on the linebackers making the plays, so we can take the blame for that. But we have to just be playing more anticipation football and see that coming.”
The long conversions haven’t necessarily hurt Penn State yet. Buffalo had four drives of 10 plays or longer (including one lasting 19 plays) and scored just one touchdown. Pitt’s drives of 18, 10 and 10 plays produced just three points.
Still, losing on long downs and staying on the field affects defensive morale. It also skews time of possession, in which Penn State ranks 127th nationally at under 26 minutes per game.
Franklin doesn’t consider time of possession a “huge factor” in games, especially with his team’s big-play ability, but it can get teams off track.
So get off the field, Franklin told his defense this week. Still, it’s a tricky process.
“We are obviously doing a little bit more right now emphasizing third down in practice,” Franklin said. “But as you all know, when you shift time and resources to one area, which is third down, then you have to take it from somewhere else that we have in our normal week. You just can’t add [practice] time, although as coaches, we’d love to do that.
“So that’s always a discussion: Do you just emphasize it and spend more time on it, or do you leave the plan the way it is and try to work through it gradually?”
“We work like crazy to get people into third-and-long situations and then we let them off the hook.” —Penn State coach James Franklin
Pitt converted 4 of 9 attempts on third-and-9 or longer against Penn State. Receiver Taysir Mack, left, against Penn State cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields, was a big part of that.