Sleight of Hand

 

The November 12th matchup between the 5-4 Pittsburgh Panthers and the 9-0 Clemson Tigers was not supposed to be a 43-42 barn burner, but it turned out to be just that. There was a large disparity in talent so much so the Tigers were upwards of a 19 point favorite to win the game.

That’s because if you look up and down Clemson’s roster, you will see a plethora of possible future first round talents. Which is remarkable considering the talent they lost, but also lost was a ton of experience on the defensive side of the ball via the 2016 NFL draft. That included six defensive starters.

Clemson
ALL PLAYERS ROUND PK(OVR) DRAFTED BY POS HT WT GRADE POS RANK OVR RANK
Shaq Lawson News 1 19(19) Buffalo Bills DE 6’2⅝” 269 90 3 17
Kevin Dodd News 2 2(33) Tennessee Titans DE 6’5″ 277 87 4 33
Mackensie Alexander News 2 23(54) Minnesota Vikings CB 5’10⅜” 190 81 7 48
T.J. Green News 2 26(57) Indianapolis Colts S 6’2½” 209 70 8 99
B.J. Goodson News 4 11(109) NY Giants ILB 6’0⅝” 242 69 4 106
Charone Peake News 7 20(241) NY Jets WR 6’2⅜” 209 68 13 117
Jayron Kearse News 7 23(244) Minnesota Vikings S 6’4″ 216 61 16 141
D.J. Reader News 5 27(166) Houston Texans DT 6’2⅝” 327 61 17 143
Eric Maclain News OG 6’4⅜” 313 30 24
Travis Blanks News S 6’0″ 212 30 30
Zac Brooks News 7 26(247) Seattle Seahawks RB 5’11½” 200 30 38
Joe Gore News OT 6’5½” 304 30 50
D J Reader News DT 0′” 340 0
T J Green News S 0′” 209 0
Joe Gore News T 0′” 283 0

 

Even with all of that experience and talent lost, they were a top ten defense in 2016 because they were coached well and their scheme allowed them to play fast. This is why Pittsburgh’s offensive coordinator Matt Canada’s scheme and game plan was such a thing of beauty.

Defensive coordinator Brett Venables had his unit prepared for certain plays and looks, but there was no way that their scout team could execute the ‘sleight of hand’ that the Pittsburgh offense brought that day.


 


Rather than try to match up mono y mono, something that the Pittsburgh offense couldn’t do on their best day, Canada used his scheme as the equalizer. He utilized a lot of shifts, motions, and exotic looks to force the Tigers’ defenders to think rather than react. The layers of ‘eye candy’ tested Clemson’s discipline from the time the Panthers’ offense ran onto the field until the final whistle.

On the first drive, Canada sends out 22 personnel (2 RBs, 2 TEs) and aligns them in a goal line type set, but then shifts to 5 wide. The unorthodox set, shift and personnel was the ‘eye candy’ needed to attack corner Cordrea Tankersley.

 

Canada and his staff knew Tankersley’s strengths and technique. He’s a very aggressive press and bail corner, and the coaches put him in situations to take chances and create turnovers. So, when Cordrea saw the personnel — TE Jaymar Parrish and star running back James Conner into the boundary — he immediately keyed on Conner. Post-snap, the Tigers bring a six man pressure, so Tankersley knows that Peterman has to get rid of it quickly and that he LOVES throwing passes into the boundary. Peterman one-steps and points his shoulder to throw to Conner, so Tankersely jumps the out route, leaving Parrish wide open. Peterman shows off his poise and touch leading Parrish out front, which swings the field position for the Panthers.

 

On the very same drive, the Panthers utilize the same personnel grouping. This time, though, they attack inside linebacker Kendall Joseph. Joseph is a fast flow linebacker who only had 12 games under his belt at this point. At times, he leaves his keys, and that’s exactly why Canada attacked him. Pitt again aligns in a five wide set with 22 personnel in the game, motions a couple times, and uses RB Conner as the ‘eye candy’ with jet sweep action. Joseph loses his eye discipline and widens to the jet sweep action, even though that is not his responsibility.

 

The ‘eye candy’, paired with the power read shovel pass, caused Joseph to improperly react and ultimately took him out of position. This allowed the “less superior athlete” (FB Aston) the opportunity to break a tackle and get into the end zone. This play would be replicated on several occasions throughout the game, and the Tigers could not stop it.

 

At the 9:44 mark of the second quarter, the Panthers’ offense got another crack at the drive, after Clemson committed a pass interference penalty on 3rd and 1o. Canada calls a deep shot. Pre snap, the strength of the offense is into the boundary, but they motion the tight end and full back and settle in with the strength to the field.

 

Post snap, they run play action to Conner to the boundary, and Peterman half rolls to his left.

Peterman’s roll out action and eye manipulation of sophomore safety Van Smith (17 games played at this point) allow tight end Scott Orndoff to sneak out while matched up with Ben Boulware. Coverage is not Boulware’s forte. Rather, he’s an instinctive, downhill player. The play design got the Panthers’ most consistent receiver, Orndoff, one-on-one with Boulware.

Peterman stops his half roll, swings his hips around, and throws it deep and where only Orndoff can catch it. This was another multi-layered play with a dash of deception built into it, and topped of with very good mechanics by the senior QB.

 

Pittsburgh continuously attacked up the middle, as it is the quickest way to get upfield, stay ahead of the chains, and downright demoralize a defense. They consistently attacked the linebackers in the pass and run game. The power blocking concepts helped the less talented Panthers offensive line secure the Clemson front at the point of attack. The motion and play design forced mental mistakes by the defensive unit as a whole the whole day. For example, take the following play.

Pittsburgh again uses motion to confuse the Tigers’ defenders. The series of motions appears to be the ‘trick’ that caused a blown assignment by LB Joseph.

After motion

 

The play is made to look very similar to the shovel pass that was run earlier in the game. It shows the same read keys for Joseph, and he and safety Tanner Muse both key the FB Aston.

 

Peterman plays the part of the magician. He fakes the shovel, uses his eyes to hold Muse, remains calm, and throws an accurate pass off platform as LB Boulware closes in. It was a pretty design and excellent execution by Peterman.

 

As you may have noticed, Peterman played a huge part in Pittsburgh’s ability to use the ‘sleight of hand’ to beat an uber-talented Tigers defense. Of all the QBs that entered the 2017 draft, Peterman had some of the tightest mechanics, understood all of the nuances of playing the position and they were on full display during this game.

On the following play, the Panthers again motion two times and add the jet action into a simple inside zone run play. With so many layers to the play prior to the snap, the Tigers’ defenders were already questioning themselves.

 

This includes defensive end Christian Wilkins, the Nagurski finalist and Bednarik semifinalist. He is arguably one of Clemson’s best players, and surely the most versatile. Wilkins had several false keys thrown at him on this play. Post snap, the H-release by Aston, along with the jet action, cause Wilkins to second guess himself. Wilkins who is 6’4″, 310 pounds is is unblocked and that is an unusual position for a guy of his size to be in. Initially, he takes a good angle to Conner, but then changes direction as Peterman carries out the bootleg.

This leaves a massive cutback lane, and Conner hits it. This was another fine example of the offense utilizing everything in their arsenal to cause elite defenders to hesitate instead of play fast.

 

Pat Narduzzi’s Pittsburgh Panthers definitely threw a wrench in Clemson’s perfect season. However, the credit should go to the Panthers’ offense and offensive coordinator Matt Canada. Canada used an array of deception to cause the Tigers’ defenders to play at a much slower pace. He challenged their ability to mentally process plays at their typical game speed by using pre snap motions, shifts, and creative play designs. This game was an exercise in how a well coached and executed scheme can be the equalizer on gameday.

 



Players who stuck out on film:

Nathan Peterman-Displayed very good eye discipline, the ability to manipulate defenders with his eyes in order to get the ball to his primary wide receiver. Absolutely loved his decision making in the game. Pre-snap he was often asked to decipher the defensive coverages or alignments based on the myriad of motions, keep the play called or kill it. On the read shovel passes made the correct reads and decisions on whether to give, keep or shovel. Flashed his underrated athletic ability to extend plays or to get outside of the pocket and throw on the run. Displayed the ability to make accurate throws while under duress from inside the pocket and with defenders at his feet. Consistently kept his eyes downfield even when he had to slide in the pocket and or climb the pocket. His mechanics are top notch. Exhibits very good ball handling skills on hand offs and play action fakes, carries out ‘QB keepers’, and overall made every play look the same making it difficult on defenders. Lastly, he was always poised and in control. Late in the game he led the offense down the field with great decision making and two very accurate passes to Orndoff to put his kicker in position to win the game.

 

His throwing on the run was much worse in this game than other games viewed this season. His accuracy suffered, he failed to complete a few passes due to an improper amount of velocity on the throw.

 

James Conner-Conner was the catalyst for the Panthers offense and that was with the Tigers knowing he would be. Showed good balance and lateral agility especially immediately prior to contact. Conner exhibited very good patience, pressing the line of scrimmage on zone runs. His vision was top notch in this game, worked through front side reads and cut it back if needed. Consistently used his off-hand to stiff arm or to sift through garbage. In the passing game, he did a solid job of cutting defenders when he needed to and knowing when to check release into a route. He also did a great job of carrying out all play action fakes and displayed soft hands in the passing game.

 

Dexter Lawrence-I thought Dexter was almost un-blockable in the run game. The Pitt offensive line could not block him one on one. Versus the run he did a great job of keying the ball, maintaining gap integrity then bench pressing the offensive players en route to the running back. Overall was hit or miss as a pass rusher. Exhibited good burst off the ball early in drives along with solid lateral agility on stunts and twists. Displayed a nice arm over move and bull rush but at times looked gassed after a series of 4-5plays.

 

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