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Pitt's linebackers look to pick up coverage

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By John Grupp
Thursday, Sept. 22, 2011

Pitt is ranked 119th out of 120 NCAA Division I teams in pass defense, but don't necessarily blame the secondary.

"The worst thing about our coverage," coach Todd Graham said, "is the underneath coverage."

The maligned Pitt linebacker corps will get another test against Notre Dame (1-2) at noon Saturday at Heinz Field.

Tristan Roberts will make his second consecutive start at strong-side linebacker over demoted sophomore Shane Gordon, and Todd Thomas gets another try at outside spur linebacker in place of Greg Williams, as the Panthers try to find the right combination in the second tier of the new 3-4 defensive scheme.

"It's a process," defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Keith Patterson said. "We are moving guys around trying to see where they fit our system the best. We're going to get there."

Run defense is the main emphasis for the Pitt linebackers. The Panthers (2-1) are allowing 2.4 yards per rushing attempt, tied for second best in the Big East. Weak-side linebacker Max Gruder had a career-high 14 tackles, and outside linebacker Ejuan Price had two sacks against Iowa.

But the underneath pass coverage is a big reason Pitt is allowing 336.3 passing yards per game. Only UNLV (337.7) is allowing more.

Consider this: Pitt already has allowed more 100-yard receivers this season (four) than all of last year (three). The worst pass defense in the 120-year history of Pitt football, in 2004, allowed 255.3 passing yards per game.

"We've got to work on the pass a little better and get better at it," Gordon said. "We're working on it."

Graham said the Panthers' secondary — cornerbacks K'Waun Williams and Antwuan Reed, and safeties Jason Hendricks and Jarred Holley — isn't the problem.

"I have a lot of confidence in our cornerbacks," Graham said. "Those guys are playing well."

Graham said botched coverage by "our outside linebacker" resulted in two of Iowa's touchdown passes in the 31-27 come-from-behind victory over Pitt.

Roberts, who had 10 tackles against Iowa, said the Pitt defenders are starting to grasp the new scheme.

"In the spring, it was really confusing," he said. "We were all over the place. We figured it out on the fly. At this point, we're pretty comfortable with it."

It may get even easier. Pitt's coaches have simplified the attack heading into the Notre Dame game.

"Maybe we can't run all of the things that we are running," Graham said. "We need to really simplify and get good, and that's what we've done this week."

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