The Bearcats secondary will be under pressure to forget the 409 passing yards allowed against South Florida and bottle a Pittsburgh passing game coming off a 400-yard passing effort of its own.
CINCINNATI - The blueprint for breaking the Bearcats defense has been laid out. It's no secret.
Find a way to buy time for the quarterback and attempt to throw on the Bearcats secondary. The pressure placed on the back line is evident. The UC coaches know it. The Pitt coaches know it. And most assuredly, the UC DBs know it.
Check that -- the UC DBs love it.
"I don't think it is pressure, I think it is a means of opportunity," junior safety Drew Frey said. "It is going to be a hostile environment; they got to throw the ball and we got to try to take it away. That is what football is all about."
Boasting the nation's second-best run defense, Cincinnati forces opponents to beat them through the air. The only two teams topping 16 points against UC racked up more than 400 passing yards apiece to do so.
The latest being South Florida. The Bulls game served as a hiccup for a secondary starting one senior that appeared to be developing into an opportunistic group of veterans. With the phrase "snap and clear" more prevalent than "Beat Pitt" around the football meeting rooms, this group of defensive backs stand firm in the belief their ability to shut down opponents didn't go anywhere.
"Yeah, I'm confident, you got to be," CB Camerron Cheatham said. "It is just about lining back up doing what we know we can do. Games are won in the back end. That is just the nature of the beast."
The scary element for UC remains avoiding chunk plays. The Bearcats are tied for seventh in the Big East allowing 13 pass plays of 30-plus yards this season. Their four pass plays of 50 or more yards ties for last in the conference.
Containing those 20-yard passes to no more than that and avoiding the deep ball over the top has been the key to slowing defenses during the five games where opponents couldn't reach the 20-point plateau.
"I think people look purely at statistics, passing yards, I think you get an assumption that our defensive backs aren't' playing well," Frey said. "A lot of times we give up big yardage it is two or three plays. It is a 40-yard gain here, a 50-yard gain there, but we just need to limit the big plays. If we limit their yards after catch it should be a different story."
The latest chapter will come Saturday. Without Ray Graham, the Panthers must rely on the arm of Tino Sunseri. Coming off a 400-yard passing game against UConn, Pitt feels he's finally found the ignition switch in new coach Todd Graham's High Octane Offense.
Sunseri's 10.1 yards per attempt in the 35-20 win against the Huskies was a full 3.6 yards better than any of the previous four games. Toss in 6-foot-5, 225-pound target Mike Shanahan on jump balls and the degree of difficulty increases.
"They're going to create situations where our secondary has to play in space," Butch Jones said. "We have to be great space players Saturday night."
Pittsburgh creates space through a wide variety of perimeter screens and quick throws that attempt to slow opposing pass rushes. It's been a necessity for a team that ranks dead last in FBS in sacks allowed (36).
This would seem to be the dream scenario for the Bearcats defense which has feasted on patchwork offensive lines this season and ranks tied for third in the conference in sacks per game. Specifically for Derek Wolfe, who ranks 21st nationally in sacks per game.
"In the back of our head, we are thinking they are not going to let us produce like that," Wolfe said. "They are going to keep up with their quick passes and screens and try to run the ball."
Whether by scheme or protection, at some point Sunseri will have time to throw. How the Bearcats defense responds to last week's step back will likely determine if UC takes another step toward a third Big East title in four years.
Dominique Battle was starting for the first two. Take into account UC will be without his services the rest of the season due to an ACL tear and the challenge grows.
Cheatham said the defense now plays for its injured teammate. Coincidentally, the greatest impression he made might be the key to forgetting the 409 passing yards allowed in Tampa and moving forward successfully.
"The biggest thing Dominique taught me was to always keep my composure," said sophomore Deven Drane, Battle's replacement. "I used to get mad. He taught me the best corners are the ones that know how to snap and clear."