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UNC Football Positional Group Grades: Week 4 win vs. Pitt

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A look at how each positional group for the Heels performed in their Week 4 win over the Panthers

Pittsburgh v North Carolina Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Nick Weiler kicked an extra point to put the Heels up one point 37-36 with two seconds left as Carolina completed a double digit fourth quarter comeback to beat the Pitt Panthers on Saturday. A lot went wrong for Carolina on Saturday, but the team never quit and kept playing to the final whistle to pull out the win. Quarterback Mitch Trubiksy and wide receiver Ryan Switzer willed the Heels to victory. Trubisky recorded 453 passing yards on 35-46 passing with five touchdown passes. Switzer tied the school record with 16 catches and 208 yards.

Positional Ratings (1-10 Scale 10 is the best)

Offense: 7

Offensive Line: 3

With the win over Pitt, the Heels became just the 5th team in the past decade to score at least 37 points in a win while recording fewer than 20 yards rushing. The kicker with that statistic is the Heels had 18 total yards rushing. Carolina’s offensive line was outmatched by the Panther’s front in the run game all day Saturday.

Carolina’s longest called rush of the afternoon was seven yards. The Heels’ linemen were always fighting with defensive tackles in the trenches, the Heels never had linemen in the second level dealing with linebackers or defensive backs. Rather, the Pitt defensive line occupied the Carolina line and allowed Panther linebackers and defensive backs to run up to the line of scrimmage and stuff run plays.

The offensive line became such a problem in the run game that the Heels were forced to extensively utilize short lateral passes to Ryan Switzer and running backs to provide them with a facsimile of a running game. The lateral passes allowed the Heels to get around the dominant performance of the Pitt line, but it also took the Heels’ offensive line out of the game by limiting their involvement. These plays overemphasized Switzer’s role in the offense as he was the best runner after the catch—consistently making multiple players in the second level miss to pull off long gains for Carolina.

The offensive line also submitted their weakest game of the season in pass protection. Trubisky was sacked four times and hit on several other occasions. There were other plays where Trubisky was forced from the pocket to scramble or throw the ball away because of a quick breakdown in protection. The Heels’ offensive line seemed unprepared to deal with blitz packages.

As the game went on the Panthers changed their strategy and consistently rushed the passer with five or six players on almost every play. The offensive line seemed unable to deal with plays where every man had a defender. Against Georgia the Heels had a similar problem; throughout the season, when the line has been confronted with five rushers and each offensive lineman has a single to work with a single team, at least one lineman is beat by a simple bull rush. This is not always the same lineman being beat, but Trubisky never has a clean pocket for more than a second when teams rush even five players let alone six or more. Against blitz fronts, the coaching staff might need to introduce line-wide cut blocks to ensure that Trubisky has even a second and a half to make a decision with the football.

In this game, the adjustment the coaches made was to have a tight end and a running back in the backfield to give Trubisky extra blockers. The issue with this solution is the fact that the Heels then only had three receiving options—a major reason why the offense sputtered in the middle of the second half before the final few drives.

Backs and Receivers: 9

T.J. Logan and Elijah Hood had quiet days for the Heels, but that was through no fault of their own. Each runner was faced with a wall of bodies at the line of scrimmage as well as quickly charging safeties on each of their carries in the contest. Hood’s first quarter fumble was closely linked to the crowd at the line of scrimmage, although that does not excuse poor ball control.

Another issue with the run game was play calling. The scheme was quite plain, there was not the steady dose of read option plays or runs outside of the tackles. The Heels faced a similar situation against Georgia but counteracted their offensive line issues with sweeps, pitches or simple off tackle looks for T.J. Logan. These plays never materialized against Pitt and allowed the Panthers to over-commit to stopping runs at the line of scrimmage.

The running backs were instead compelled to make the most of bad situations and neither runner broke an average of three yards per carry. Although not a skill that is normally in such demand, Hood deserves credit for being excellent in pass protection. Pitt sent five and six pass rushers consistently and in each case Hood picked up the blitzers exceptionally well. Hood diagnosed blitzes’ direction as well as where his offensive line would need the most help. These correct split second decisions were critical throughout the third and fourth quarter as the Heels battled to come back. Hood bought Trubisky critical extra seconds on pass plays, and considering the fact that the Heels won by the finest of margins, these seconds were critical to the team’s victory.

With essentially no run game, the passing attack was heavily leaned on to become the Carolina offense. The receivers easily answered the call to power the Heels, especially Ryan Switzer. Switzer tied the school record for most receptions in a game with 16 and set a career high in yards with 208. Switzer was Trubisky’s safety net throughout the game as well as serving as a de facto running back with his steady diet of short passes and yards after the catch. Switzer came up big time and time again, extending drives with receptions for exactly what the team needed on critical third and fourth downs.

This highlighted one of Switzer’s underrated skills, he is an outstanding route runner with excellent awareness of where the sticks are on third and fourth downs. Switzer also showed off his excellent hands against Pitt, his 16 catches came on 17 targets without a single drop. Bug Howard, Mack Hollins and Austin Proehl stood out for the Heels as well. Although he left the game injured, Hollins caught a touchdown on a deep pass by Trubisky early in the game and was an instrumental blocker on lateral passes while he was still in the game. Once Hollins went out, the Panthers started moving more players closer to the line of scrimmage since they could take safeties out of deep coverage once the Heels’ deep threat was out of the game. Howard made the game winning catch in the end zone on a back shoulder fade and the physicality he displayed on that play was in full effect all game long.

Howard beat his men off the line of scrimmage in press coverage and physically overpowered smaller corners in the end zone for each of his two touchdown receptions. Proehl’s contributions to the game were just as critical to the Tar Heels’ win. In the absence of Hollins, Proehl became the outside receiver opposite Howard and turned in a seven-catch, 99-yard and one touchdown performance. Proehl also came up big when the team needed him. On the penultimate drive, Proehl caught a 20-yard Trubisky pass before going out of bounds at the 3 to set up the first touchdown to Howard which pulled the Heels to within six.

On the final drive Proehl came up in the clutch with three catches. The most important catch was on fourth and 6 on the second fourth down that the Heels would convert on their game winning drive. On that play, Proehl lined up outside and ran an out route against soft coverage without safety help. On this play Trubisky threw the ball before Proehl fully completed his break, but Proehl turned his head, found the ball, caught it cleanly and got both feet in bounds before getting out of bounds to stop the clock.

While the procedure itself is relatively straight forward, it required a tremendous amount of concentration and underrated amount of skill. He ran the route perfectly, exercised proper fundamentals and displayed awareness of where the sticks were while also knowing his own field positioning to make sure he caught the ball in bounds before getting out of bounds. Most importantly, it showed that the coaches and his quarterback had faith in him to execute this play perfectly.

On a do or die play, the team knew that they could rely on their little-used fourth receiver to perfectly execute a play. Not every team has that type of depth on their roster and the emergence of Proehl a true target for Trubisky could become a critical part of the offense for the rest of the season.

Quarterback: 10

With no running game to speak of, the Heels needed a big day from their quarterback, and Mitch Trubisky delivered. Trubisky played a professional caliber game against the Panthers; he guided the offense with play calling, displayed excellent awareness of his pocket, took sacks when necessary, scrambled when he could, threw it away when required, displayed next level accuracy, plus arm strength, and did not turn the ball over once. He also went 35-46 with 453 yards and five touchdowns. Trubisky was excellent Saturday, not only did he fail to turn the ball over, there were not any dropped interceptions either. He put the ball where only his man could catch it, often fitting footballs into windows which weren’t there when he threw it—a next level skill.

At this point, whenever he has any time in the pocket, Trubisky will put Carolina in a position to succeed on offense. He moves through his progressions quickly and succinctly, often displaying a top level of chemistry with his receivers. He possesses the ability to understand coverages both before and as plays develop, the Proehl catch is an excellent example. On that play, he recognized that he had soft man coverage on the outside. The streak part of the out route gets the corner to bite deep and turn their hips, at that point he throws the football, knowing that Proehl will break outside.

Not only that, but he knows how fast Proehl is and puts the ball on a line to where he will be on his route. That helps Proehl find the ball when he turns his head, he now doesn’t have to adjust his angle or his speed. That type of chemistry and next level understanding was absent from the Carolina offense in previous years. This level of skill will help take the Heels to the next level as an offense, allowing them to fully compete with the Clemsons and Florida States of the ACC.

Defense: 6

Defensive Line: 6

Pitt rushed for 281 yards against the Heels on Saturday. That number really should be 309, since the stat sheet includes a -28 yard team rush when the Panthers had a bad snap in the first half. On the other hand, the Panthers had the ball for the first 12:44 of game time and the game ended with a time of possession advantage for Pitt of 41:07 to 18:51.

The Panthers also rushed for almost all of their yards outside the tackles with jet sweeps to the outside and other outside runs giving them the majority of their yards. In light of the second two facts, the defensive line’s play seems considerably better. On run plays between the tackles the line held up quite well. The Panthers were often limited to three yards or fewer when they ran between the tackles as opposed to the much larger gains they had on the outside. The line commanded double teams by the Pitt offensive line when they ran between the tackles which allowed the linebackers and safeties to run up into the box and make plays.

This shows up in the stat sheet. Star Pitt running back James Connor was limited to 66 yards on 16 carries as the primary between the tackles runner. Pitt wide receiver Quadree Henderson was the game’s leading rusher with 107 yards on nine carries. Henderson exclusively ran jet sweeps to the outside over the course of this game to completely neuter the impact the defensive line could have. Pitt’s success running the ball was ultimately a result of their players avoiding the defensive line rather than the defensive line being brutalized by the Panther’s offensive line.

The line was weaker when rushing the passer as opposed to the run game. Carolina failed to sack or even knock down Pitt quarterback Nate Peterman. Some of the lack of production in the passing game is a function of the limited number of times Peterman passed the ball. Pitt only attempted 18 passes out of their 68 plays. With so few opportunities to make plays when rushing the passer, it was more difficult for the Heels to make an impact on the stat sheet. That being said, the defensive line did not cause Peterman any strife. Peterman completed 14 of his first 15 passes without any trouble, he faced a clean pocket and was able to pick his spots in the passing game.

The lack of a pass rush has been a real problem for the Heels so far this season. Against Pitt it was a concern but not a major issue as the Panthers are a run-heavy team. If the Heels can not generate a sufficient pass rush against say, Miami, later in the season, that game will be substantially harder to win.

Linebackers: 5

The linebackers played substantially better in this game than they had in previous games against FBS competition. Andre Smith and Cole Holcomb played significant roles in pass coverage and in the run game. However, the linebackers still clearly struggled with lateral movement in the run game. The Heels completely failed to set the edge in this game, a typical responsibility of the linebackers.

However, the failure to set the edge is not entirely the player’s fault. Carolina called ran their defense out of the nickel package on the vast majority of snaps. In this set up the defense only has two linebackers on the field and they are not evenly distributed across the field. In a traditional 4-3 defense, the linebackers position themselves in the gaps between the shoulders of the defensive linemen, this allows the linebackers to surge forward against the run to fill up every potential hole a running back could hit. However in the nickel, the defense sacrifices a linebacker for a defensive back with the idea that a pass play will be more than likely.

This alters the positioning of the linebackers substantially. In the nickel, the linebackers typically position themselves so that one player is in the traditional outside linebacker spot to one side of the field and the other is between where the middle linebacker and the other outside linebacker would be. The positioning of the linebackers, which side is overloaded, is determined by the coaches. The overloaded side could be the longer side of the field, the short side, the side with the extra receiver or the side with fewer receivers.

The coaches have various reasons for choosing which side has extra attention from the linebackers but it often relates to the pass coverage they’ve called for that play as opposed to any run blitzing plans. As such, on plays with multiple running options, an offense playing against a nickel defense can purposefully run away from the linebackers—who must now cover more distance to fully set the edge. As such, the success of the Pitt rushing attack was less of a weakness for the linebackers and more a result of the scheme they were playing in.

Defensive Backs: 7

A consequence of Pitt’s rushing scheme was the overemphasis of the importance of the secondary on defense. Carolina needed their corners and safeties to make tackles in the open field and to salvage plays and prevent touchdowns. This shows up in the tackling statistics. M.J. Stewart led Carolina in tackles with 13 and safety Donnie Miles was third with nine. In fact, five of the Heels’ top seven tacklers were defensive backs.

With the runs to the sidelines and off the tackles away from the linebackers, the defensive backs needed to come up and make play after play to stop the run. The defensive backs were mostly up to the task, they showed off impressive open field tackling skills and prevented the Panthers from getting even more yards on the ground.

In pass coverage, the defensive backs played what could be their worst game of the season. Stewart and Des Lawrence were each beat when in man coverage for first downs and the Heels seemed to struggle in pass coverage in general. Peterman completed 14 of his first 15 passes not only because of a lack of pass rush but also due to less than stellar coverage from the secondary. The defenders seemed to be giving Pitt players significant cushion as if they were wary of being beaten over the top.

Peterman is not known for his arm strength and the Panthers kept most of their passes close to the line of scrimmage. The defense failed to match this attitude and allowed easier short completions which extended Pitt’s drives. As the game went on, the defensive backs improved their play. When it mattered in the fourth quarter, Peterman went 0-3 on his final pass attempts—all of which were on third downs. The defense showed up and showed out when they needed to stay strong at the end of the game and made sure that the offense had a chance to win the game.

Special Teams: 3

Special teams were quietly poor in this game. T.J. Logan made a poor decision to run a kick out of the end zone. Tom Sheldon’s punts were fine, but Nick Weiler, Joey Mangili and the punt return teams had a bad day. Weiler missed a 35 yard field goal, if that kick goes in, then the final moments of the final drive are unnecessary. The Heels would be trailing by three instead of six which would have given Carolina the option to kick a late field goal and head to overtime. While the Heels won the game in the end, the situation of a game tying field goal would have been something the defense was trying to prevent, opening up more options for Carolina on their final drive.

Mangili took it upon himself earlier in the game to try to go for two after a touchdown. Going for two after touchdowns in the peculiar formation (we all know it too well), has a success rate well below 50%. At this point, this needs to be axed from the play book.

The punt return team had a bad day as well. On the first series of the game, the defense played a strong series, forcing a punt after allowing only one first down. On the ensuing punt, Switzer returned it for a touchdown only for it to be called back by a holding penalty which was not especially close to the play. The penalty was especially significant because the first play of that drive for Carolina was a safety—if they were not pushed back as a result of the penalty, then there would not have been a safety.

If that return stands or even if there is just no penalty, then the entire game is drastically different. Special teams let Carolina down on Saturday and it nearly cost them the game.

Coaching: 3

The coaches deserve credit for the attitude of the team. Carolina never quit on Saturday, playing the full 60 minutes and using every second to emerge victorious. That type of attitude comes from the top and the coaches never let their players quit. Coach Fedora also deserves credit for his late game time management. The Heels had all three of their timeouts for their final drives while Pitt had burned through all of theirs. This allowed Carolina to pick their spots down the stretch and was instrumental to their victory.

On the other hand, the coaches made an incredible number of questionable decisions in this game. The most striking was the choice of defensive formation. Pitt ran the ball 55 times and passed 18 times, yet Carolina lined up in the nickel on nearly every play (there were a few short yardage plays in heavier sets). The coaches should have known that the run was coming, and that Pitt was targeting the outsides of the field. Yet the Heels refused to run blitz or to put more players close to the line of scrimmage to let them set up any type of edge containment on both sides of the field.

When the defense set up it was obvious which side of the field Pitt could run to which would let them avoid linebackers and a serious attempt to set the edge. Pitt did run a lot of misdirection with their running plays, but run blitzes off each edge would have gotten home no matter what irrespective of the options on the running play since there would have been a man on each potential runner.

On offense, the play calling in this game was curious. Carolina’s offense was able to pull this game out, and the coaches deserve a lot of credit for setting up the team to succeed even though they trailed for most of the contest. The Heels didn’t use their offensive line hardly at all. They avoided running plays and with the exception of two tunnel screens to Switzer, they also avoided screen passes. Instead the coaches called a ton of lateral passes with one or two wide receivers as the blockers. The coaches seemed to have no faith in their offensive line to be more dynamic than strict pass blockers. If that’s the case, then it is also on the coaches for failing to get any more out of these veteran players

Pitt’s defense is not of the highest quality, yet Carolina completely avoided direct confrontations with them, instead hitting around the outside edges of the defense. Also on offense, the safeties are becoming a real issue. Carolina has now surrendered a safety in each game against FBS competition this season. This can not continue. When the Heels are trapped by their own goal line, don’t call plays that could create a safety—it’s an elementary rule of football, but one that the coaches seem to have failed to master. The safety nearly cost Carolina against Pitt and they can not continue to skate by on the thinnest of margins while giving up safeties.

With better decision making throughout the game, the final drive has the Heels slam the door shut on Pitt. But due to a poorly played performance throughout the contest, Carolina had to rally from behind. There are better teams than Pitt ahead on the schedule, in future weeks, this level of performance will not cut it. The play calling and game plans need to improve in coming weeks if the Heels want to return to the ACC title game.