Under pressure: Defenses thriving in sack-happy ACC
PITTSBURGH (AP) — Each week, the Pittsburgh coaching staff jots down a number representing the amount of sacks they’d like the Panthers to have during a given game. Sophomore defensive lineman Jaylen Twyman would prefer to keep the number a secret.
Not because it’s so ambitious it’s almost impossible to reach. Quite the opposite.
“It’s too low,” Twyman said. “We aim for the stars. Me, myself, I don’t set goals because I’m trying to break the bank.”
No team in the Atlantic Coast Conference cashes in more than the Panthers. Pitt is averaging 4.44 sacks per game, second in the country only to Ohio State. The Panthers are quick, belligerent and relentless. They’re hardly the only ones in the sack-happy ACC, where six teams rank in the top 20 nationally in taking down the quarterback, the most of any Power Five conference.
The defense-oriented Big Ten has four schools in the top 20. The Big 12 and SEC just one a piece. The pass-centric Pac 12? None.
“We throw the ball a lot in this league,” North Carolina coach Mack Brown said. “And I think there’s a lot better teams in this league than perceived because a lot of us are so much alike that so many games are coming down to the end.”
Asked if the common thread in the ACC is great coaching, Pitt’s Pat Narduzzi — who developed a reputation as one of the most aggressive defensive coordinators in the country during his tenure Michigan State before becoming the head coach at Pitt nearly five years ago — shook his head.
“It takes players,” Narduzzi said. “It takes a secondary. It takes (everybody). There’s coverage sacks. We’ve talked every week. It’s a combination of whatever.”
It’s also a necessity in a league that’s spent the better part of a decade trying to find ways to keep pace with Clemson.
For all the high-profile offensive talent the defending national champion Tigers have produced during their rise to prominence, they’ve become a factory for NFL-ready pass rushers, players who cut their teeth by devouring ACC quarterbacks at an alarming rate. Clemson sent four defensive linemen — Clelin Ferrell, Christian Wilkins, Dexter Lawrence and Austin Bryant — to the pros just last spring, with Ferrell, Wilkins and Lawrence all going in the top 17 picks of the draft.
The unbeaten Tigers have dropped off a bit this season — they’re 20th nationally but only sixth in the conference after leading the country with 54 in 2018 — but remain the gold standard. Regularly landing some of the most talented high school players in the country helps, but Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables stressed success doesn’t just stem from having good raw material to work with.
“Hey, man, getting there is really hard,” Venables aid. “Finishing, that’s even harder. Too many guys, they take one hand off the wheel. You’ve done all the hard work, now finish. There’s certainly an art to the finish as well.”
An art the Panthers have made an effort to refine during Narduzzi’s four-plus seasons on the job. Pitt rode a tireless running game and a solid if not spectacular defense to its first ACC Coastal Division title last year. The Panthers remain a threat to repeat — a rarity in the wide-open Coastal — thanks in large part to a defensive front that has become dominant despite losing starters Rashad Weaver and Keyshon Camp to season-ending injuries. Weaver went down in August and Camp followed after getting hurt during a loss to Virginia on Aug. 31.
Yet Pitt has kept on coming thanks to the rapid maturity of a group that includes Patrick Jones II and Twyman, players who hardly look like backups. They’ve combined for 14 sacks (seven each) while playing with a tenacity that belies their even-keeled personas. Twyman always believed this level of production was coming. It’s why he asked to switch from No. 55 to No. 97 last spring, the same number worn by former Pitt star and two-time NFL defensive player of the year Aaron Donald of the Los Angeles Rams.
“A lot of people back at home, my coaches ask me, ‘That’s a lot of pressure,’” said Twyman, a native of Washington, D.C. “I was like, ‘Pressure only busts pipes or makes diamonds.’ And that’s what our whole defense lives on. We love the pressure.”
Pressure that opposing offenses are struggling to deal with, particularly schools with instability or inexperience at quarterback. Syracuse, where sophomore Tommy DeVito is in his first season as a starter — has given up more sacks (45) than any other team in the FBS. Miami — which has shuttled between Jarren Williams and N’Kosi Perry — is five spots behind the Orange. Florida State — where James Blackman and Alex Hornibrook have split time — is sixth. North Carolina, which turned to freshman Sam Howell, is tied for the 12th-most sacks allowed.
“We’ve helped” defenses, Brown quipped.
Defenses have also helped themselves. Pitt’s secondary is among the most experienced in the country, leading senior cornerback Dane Jackson to suggest the defensive backfield is the reason the Panthers are getting to the quarterback so often.
Jackson was mostly kidding, but the play of Jackson and company allows Narduzzi, defensive coordinator Randy Bates and defensive line coach Charlie Partridge to take chances up front.
“We’re pretty aggressive with our coverage,” Partridge said. “We’re in press/man coverage quite a bit with our guys. Often times, not all the time, but often times it’s hard for a quarterback to find a quick window. So you’ve got to put a lot of credit to the back end and the discipline and the things they’ve been able to accomplish.”
Things that have allowed the Panthers to render the sack goal the coaches set each week into a moot point. Twyman stopped paying attention to the numbers set out for his group long ago.
“They got their statistics and analytic people and stuff like that,” Twyman said. “I’ll let them do that. Coaches are going to coach. Players play. So we don’t look at the analytics. We go out there and ball.”