Special Teams: Pittsburgh Review

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sport

Double farts! SPAULDING!!!!

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Since we are on a bye-week, I will do what I did for the Southern Cal bye-week posts and break up the review and previews. This is the Pitt game review.

I am typically not one to speak my mind and mostly stick to the Xs and Os but there is no other way to say this; Notre Dame unbelievably underperformed on special teams in this game, arguably the worst underperformance of the season. Pitt's special teams are not fantastic and the opportunities were there to take advantage but Notre Dame simply failed to take the bull by the horns and seize the moment. Outside of the punt unit, the special teams units played slow, sleepy, and apathetic. No return man ran with gusto, no blocker blocked properly, and overall the team just looked bad. On that note, let's get into some Xs and Os.

ND Kickoff

Kyle Brindza took all 4 kickoffs for the Irish in this game, booting them for 249 yards and 1 touchback. Tyler Boyd took one kick return for 21 yards and Lafayette Pitts took the other two for a total of 58 yards. One of these was a very short 8 yard return and the other was a monster 50 yard return. Let's look at them.

Tyler Boyd Return

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Boyd fielded this ball about 5 yards deep in the endzone while moving backwards. The decision to bring it out at this point was extremely ill-advised. ND is already at the 30 and there is little hope to make it back to the 25 at this point.

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ND properly maintained their lanes and Onwualu took an angle that forced Boyd to switch fields. What is puzzling to me is  Onwualu's play here. Instead of breaking down and going for the ball-carrier, he ran straight for the rear blocker and knocked him to the ground. It was a nice hit but Boyd already chose his path of return at this point. Onwualu didn't even make an attempt to go for the ball-carrier.

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And the kick return is effectively over here. Boyd would only end up getting back to the 21 after this screenshot. ND did a great job on this return of sticking in their lanes and not overcommitting. Boyd never hit top speed and effectively stopped forward momentum once he made this cut. Overall, a great job by the kick return unit here. Granted, there may have been an even more positive outcome had Onwualu broken down initially but the fact that ND stayed in their lanes killed this return before it even started.

Lafayette Pitts 8 yard return

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This was ND's first kickoff to Pitts after the 50 yard return (highlighted below). It was a designed squib that died at the 11-12 yard line. Pitts fielded it but at this point, ND's lanes are converging and there is a bottleneck forming.

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I have to give credit where credit is due and Kendall Moore and James Onwualu here did an absolutely picture-perfect job of fighting through their blocks. They tore through the Pitt return team and made a line towards Pitts. You can tell by Pitts's cut that he's already sacrificed the bottom side of the field and has made the decision to go right, making the moves by Onwualu and Moore move all that more impressive.

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And the return is over. Onwualu tripped Pitts up and he effectively ended the return. Overall, another great example of kick coverage from ND. It's hard to believe that it started out so poorly. Let's take a look at one of the many special teams plays on Saturday that gave me headaches.

Lafayette Pitts 50 yard return

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Pitts fielded the ball at about the goal line and began his return. You can see some of Pitt's return team blocking already but half of them are sitting back waiting for the return to develop.

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And you can already see the hole forming. The culprit here was James Onwualu (being blocked in the middle of the field at the 21). He left his lane and this opened up a HUGE hole for Pitts, not to mention the fact that he has 3 blockers leading for him. It was interesting to see how Onwualu ended up where he did. He didn't simply leave his lane. Rather, he flew in like a bat out of hell and the Pitt blocker used Onwualu's own momentum to carry him out of the play. It was a great block and a very reckless move by Onwualu.

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The second culprit here was Josh Atkinson, who took an utterly horrifying angle from the outside. He was responsible for contain and once he made this ill-advised move, it was curtains for the Irish coverage unit. This is picture proof example of why you need to keep your lanes. Pitts has the entire wide side of the field open for him to burn. As an outside-contain player, the primary job is keeping the return man inside you; tackling comes second. In this case, Josh went for the tackle but in doing so, vacated the entire outside of the field. If he had held his contain, he had Eilar Hardy and Devin Butler on the inside waiting to make a tackle.

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I'm not one to give cookies on failed coverages but Lo Wood, Devin Butler, Kyle Brindza, and most importantly, Eilar Hardy took great recovery angles to prevent any more damage. Still, the damage was done. The kick coverage was ruined once Onwualu left his lane and made worse by Josh Atkinson's poor angle and loss of outside contain.

The problem with special teams is best summed up by an analogy that I heard once while playing: Nobody remembers the field goals the kicker makes but they sure as hell remember the ones he misses. ND screwed up once on the kick coverage unit on Saturday and many on the Interwebs seem to think our special teams, or kick coverages, stink. Now, I'd like to say that the Pitts long return is indicative of a recurring problem, as it has happened before. However, the culprits mostly change. The problem, in my opinion, is consistency. ND had great coverages on two of the three kicks on Saturday but two poor decisions left them vulnerable on the third. Some on the Interwebs may hem and haw about how our kick coverage sucks but it really doesn't. The problem is it is not consistent time in and time out. Either the team is too aggressive (like Onwualu above) or not aggressive enough (see Navy). A proper balance can be seen in the successful coverages. We are not at the point where a coaching change on the special teams front needs to be made or any radical changes in the gameplan just yet, so calm down everyone. I think it will be fine. In the case of the Pitts return above, Pitt ended up punting on the ensuing drive, so it was not like it was a huge dagger to the Irish team. The next two kickoffs were covered excellently.

ND Kick Return

Chris Blewitt booted 5 kickoffs in this game for 312 yards and 1 touchback. George took 3 of the returns for 74 yards, returning a long one for 41 yards. George's other two returns were for 20 and 13 yards respectively. That is unbelievably poor. Cam McDaniel actually took the first kickoff return of the game for 11 yards, another extremely poor return. Let's take a look at these returns.

George Atkinson III 41 yard return

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Atkinson fielded this ball at the 5. It was a short kick, likely due to the fact that the wind was so bad in the stadium. On this kickoff, Lafayette Pitts had to hold the ball on the tee for Blewitt. Oddly enough, even though this return went for a long distance, Atkinson fumbled the return and lost several seconds in the process to pick it up.

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Now, there are two very important things to note here. First, John Turner made an absolutely fantastic block at the top of the screen and Joe Schmidt, right in the middle to the right of Atkinson, made a great block on his man. There is your hole, ladies and gentlemen. Great blocking by these two guys. What is sort of upsetting, to me, is James Onwualu on this play. You can see him at the 24 running backwards. At this point, there is nobody to block behind the play and he should be looking upfield to make a block instead of running backwards.

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And with another great block by CJ Prosise, Atkinson is sprung to the outside. This is why I think James should have looked upfield to block someone before, as you can see that Pitt has a guy waiting for George and two recovering safety valves. James may not have been able to get all three but he could have occupied one, possible two of them.

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And George went right for the sidelines. You can see that he has some field ahead of him but is not going to make it that far. He ended up almost blowing by all of these guys and getting tripped up by a diving Pitt player from behind. Overall, a great return by George and great vision. He hit top gear and made moves. Unfortunately for him, some flubbed blocks limited this return. I have to say though, this one came a lot closer to going all the way then I thought it was going to. Just another lesson to hold your blocks and make smart decisions.

George Atkinson III 20 yard return

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Atkinson fielded this ball at the goal line and began his return. Unfortunately for the Irish, you can already see that a pitt player has broken by Kendall Moore at the bottom of the screen, but Atkinson has blockers ahead of him so he should be fine at this point.

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Pitt converged VERY quickly. James Onwualu, in the middle of the screen at the 16, missed a block, leaving his man for the lead blocker. There is a backup for this Pitt coverage man at the 21. Unless George can make some great moves, this return is donezo.

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And as I suspected, the backup valve made the tackle. While Kendall Moore missed an initial block, this was not a problem. What was the problem was James Onwualu missing his assignment in the middle. That left George 1-on-1 in traffic. Another example of where missed assignments go wrong.

George Atkinson III 13 yard return

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George fielded this ball at the 2 and has a lot of daylight ahead of him. At the bottom of the screen, three Pitt players have already abandoned their lanes, meaning there are two open lanes to the bottom of the field.

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Well this is not good. ND has an man to the bottom of the field (James Onwualu again) who took on nobody, and Eilar Hardy failed to hold his block at the 20. Cam McDaniel isn't even looking at the guy on the 15 and because of all that, George is going to be 1-on-1 at the hash (assuming McDaniel picked up one of the guys at the 20).

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And there you have it. James Onwualu's guy stops George in his tracks, Cam picked up one of the guys at the 20 but the other guy who Hardy failed to block assisted on the tackle. Again, this is just another example of what happens when 1-2 guys screw up on a play. I am critical of George because I don't think he often runs like he welcomes contact but here, he had no chance.

Cam McDaniel 11 yard return

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Oddly enough, for the opening kickoff, Cam McDaniel fielded it at the 5. George left to lead-block for him. I hate to harp on guys but James Onwualu is in my dog house. You can see him at the 28 in the middle of the screen completely oblivious to the guy behind him.

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Not a second has passed and Pitt has most of their guys inside the 25. All three lead blockers are looking towards the middle of the field and nobody is looking at the guy streaking from the outside.  Onwualu smartly picked up a new assignment and his missed guy is about to get blocked in the middle.

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And this is why George is a return man and not a blocker. He did not even look at the guy streaking in from the outside and he has Cam dead to rights. Cam only made it back to the 15 before this guy made a solo tackle on him.

Overall, the kick return unit in this game was poor. One good return and three very poor ones because of missed assignments, failed blocks, and poor judgment. The entire unit, James Onwualu included, need to get in the film room and dissect this. James had a fantastic game in the field and made some good plays, but his poor decisions on these returns ruined the kick returns before they had a chance to succeed.

ND Punt

Notre Dame's punt team was arguably the only bright spot of the special teams on Saturday. Kyle booted 5 punts for 231 yards, a long of 56 and one touchback. Kyle's first punt went for 49 yards and was returned for -5, a great job by the team. His second went for 48 and was faircaught. His third went for 46 and was returned for -1. His fourth went for 32 and was downed. His last went for 56 yards into the endzone. Overall, this was a great night for the punt team, something that cannot be said for the rest of the special teams. Kyle averaged 46.2 on his punts and had a net average of 43.4. Outstanding. At least one unit showed up to play on Saturday. Let's take a look at the returns.

Pitt -5 return

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Kevin Weatherspoon, Pitt's return man, caught this ball over his shoulder while running backwards. Normally I would say this was a dumb decision but it likely saved them field position. His problem was Brindza booted it over his head and he was not deep enough. Even more positive, Notre Dame has 4 guys for 2 Pitt blockers. The outside contain at the top is taking a great angle and the bottom contain, while blocked, is holding steady. Given Weatherspoon's angle, it is unlikely he would reverse and go down the right anyways.

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I said it was unlikely but to my chagrin, he tried it. I really invite everybody to rewatch the top outside contain (Lo Wood) on this play if you catch a game replay. He did an outstanding job. He didn't pursue. Rather, if you see where he is, he literally planted there and made sure Weatherspoon didn't try to reverse fields. THAT is how you outside contain, ladies and gentlemen. On another positive note, ND now has FIVE guys for the 2 Pitt blockers, and one of them (John Turner at the bottom) is about to lose his man to the bottom of the screen, giving ND 5 on 1.

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While Turner technically lost outside contain here, Weatherspoon was up against the sidelines, and CJ Prosise was right there to shove Weatherspoon out of bounds for a -5 return. Great job by the punt unit, one of their best coverages of the season.

Pitt -1 return

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There is quite literally nothing more to show on this return than this screenshot. Kendall Moore blew by his guy off the line and Weatherspoon, again, was moving backwards to field this punt. It was, effectively, a fair catch, as he went to the ground immediately upon catching it. Great job again by the coverage team, particularly Kendall Moore, for getting down there so fast.

Overall, the punt unit this game was superb. Absolutely nothing bad to say about them at all. It was a flawless performance on their part.

ND Punt Return

Many griped about the kick coverage but for me, if there was one unit that had me going for the bottle of Pepto on Saturday night, it was the punt return unit. Going into the game, I noted that Pitt runs a traditional punt formation. Because of that, Notre Dame should have been able to return every single punt for positive yards, some for a LOT of positive yards. Instead, they failed miserably. Matt Yoklic had 9 punts on Saturday for 377 yards, an average of 41.9 and a net average of 35.9. 3 landed inside the 20, 2 were over 50 yards, 2 went into the endzone, and 2 were faircaught. TJ only managed to return 2 of these punts. One he returned for 13 yards and the other for 1. That, given the Pitt punt formation, is unbelievably poor. Let's take a look at TJ's long return for the sake of review and also a punt that was fair caught because of terrible blocking.

TJ 13 yard return

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Who's got that bottle of Pepto? Top gunner lost his feet and is on the ground and the two bottom gunners overran their man. TJ is 2 on 1 after a bouncy, short punt. Oddly enough, all three gunners--Cole Luke (top), Devin Butler (bottom), and James Onwualu (bottom)--are true freshmen.

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TJ made a fantastic spin move to dodge the two gunners but is now presented with a new problem: 3 Pitt guys, all unblocked. Cole Luke has not recovered and Taurean Folston (I have no idea why he's out there on punt return) is just standing there.

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TJ did what he could and picked an open spot in between two of the Pitt coverage guys. He managed to bring this back a total of 13 yards. Had the punt been decent, he may not have gotten any. Had the ND return team blocked a single player, it may have gone back for a touchdown. I should be furious but moreso I am dismayed.

TJ Fair Catch

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I wanted to get mad so I loaded up a picture of one of TJ's fair catches. ND has TWO BLOCKERS ON ONE GUNNER AND NOBODY BLOCKED HIM. Infuriating.

Overall, this was a terrible game for the punt return unit. Not every team runs the traditional punt formation (because it's stupid) and Notre Dame made it look like it was a perfect strategy. Failed blocking assignments galore. I would hope that these guys get into the film room and watch this. I would also hope they get as mad as I am over it.

ND Field Goal

Notre Dame, for yet another game, failed to kick a single field goal in this game. ND's only attempt was a 55-yard miss by Kyle Brindza, a kick that would have set a record for the longest field goal in ND history. Kyle came up about 2-3 yards short. I have seen some heehawing on the Interwebs about the decision to kick it but to be honest, I was ok with it. The ball ended up being downed in the endzone, giving Pitt the ball at the 38 yard line. They promptly went 3 and out, and ND went on to score on the ensuing drive. Had ND punted in that situation, the field position would have improved slightly on a subsequent 3 and out, but ND scored anyway, so it was a wash.

As always, I welcome comments below. Happy kicking everybody.

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