Alright, this should be relatively short since Cover 4/Quarters coverage is old hat around these parts - we’ve seen and discussed it more than just about any other coverage, and it’s one of the easiest zone concepts to understand and recognize. It’s Clemson’s base shell after all, though the way and rate at which it’s employed at Clemson is a far cry from the almost foolhardy high-risk style Pat Narduzzi runs at Pitt on standard downs.
First to address when discussing Pitt’s defense is the false notion they run a heavy man/cover 0 defense. This isn’t the case, though true cover 4 does in fact resemble man coverage on the surface: if there are four deep routes run into each of the four deep zones, it’s essentially man coverage downfield. But there are still three zones underneath unlike man under coverage, and against fewer than four downfield routes there’s double coverage downfield in theory — though not often in reality with Pitt, where a crashing safety can’t retreat to help his cornerback, and that safety usually does track the nearest inside defender rather than drop back to support the corner.
So what does this look like? As the name suggests, the back four defenders have deep coverage responsibility and split the width of the field into quarters. The three linebackers split the underneath zones into thirds, with the outside linebackers getting to the flats and the middle linebacker responsible for everything across the middle.
Nothing groundbreaking so far, right? Seems vulnerable against a strong running team if the back seven drop straight into coverage — no, not with Pitt. Nowhere is Narduzzi’s old-school, plodding Big Ten background more evident than in how aggressively Pitt’s safeties sit in the box; happy to give up downfield shots with isolated defenders.
The aforementioned back seven have tight run responsibilities before they can worry about their zone coverages, and it’s why offenses are boom or bust against cover 4, especially with Pitt’s insanely aggressive cover 4. The play-action deep shots downfield, passes to the flat, and crossing routes over the middle are vulnerabilities, but not much else is. In a nutshell, one-on-one explosiveness beats Pitt or Pitt smothers you.
That’s hardly good news for this Clemson offense.
See how tight they align — there’s little need to run blitz with safeties near linebacker depth, nor much need to send extra pass rushers when Pitt churns out NFL linemen out of nowhere at a high rate.
Now, Pitt will still throw some exotic stunts and fire zones in passing downs, but even then there are one-on-ones outside to be had. The point being Pitt won’t give you anything on the ground on standard downs, and by the time they trade aggressive coverage for aggressive pressure, there’s little for you to do but try to hit the opening against single high coverage in the face of extra pass rushers, or hope to find the receiver who wins his isolated matchup out wide.
In past matchups with Pitt, Clemson’s had the firepower to make them pay for loading nine defenders into the box and leaving corners and/or backtracking safeties isolated against elite playmakers. Can’t exactly say that this year can we? Throw a sputtering offense with zero explosiveness to date against an aggressive defense which would rather give up a big play than a methodical drive — and boasts an elite offense on its own sideline for good measure — and this looks ugly on paper.
Optimism may still be found though, given Clemson’s track record against Kenny Pickett (lots of interceptions and little success) and in the fact that Virginia Tech held Pitt in the 20s last week. It goes without saying defense will keep Clemson’s chances alive while we hope for the first glimpse of any explosiveness on offense. But Clemson hasn’t reached 20 points themselves against anyone but SC State, and I can’t rationally say this is the week DJ will throw for 500 as he did against Notre Dame last year just because the defensive structure allows it; Clemson has yet to show much ability to execute.
Clemson certainly has the talent to explode, and Pitt’s defense will give them the first real chance to do so this season, unlike previous opponents. So could this finally be the week the offense looks “normal” since Pitt will allow it? Yeah, maybe, but I can’t talk myself into saying everything turns on a dime no matter the opportunities Pitt will afford. There are too many irrational hopes and not enough rational evidence to forecast a win.
But... Pitt will let DJ play his type of game and launch rockets to big, isolated receivers... so it could happen... see there I go again with my optimism! It’s just hope, y’all. Can’t bank on hope.