Previously: Colorado Offense
Colorado's defense has allowed only 14 points through two games, though opponent caveats apply: Colorado State was 60th in offense S&P+ last year and Idaho State is a I-AA team. Still, the Buffs look to have a truly impressive secondary, and Jim Leavitt's aggressive 3-4 scheme wreaked havoc in their dominant win over CSU. I'm using film from that game and grades from Pro Football Focus to take a deep dive on the Colorado defense.
Personnel: Seth's diagram [click to embiggen]:
We somehow managed to piece this together despite Colorado's best efforts to obscure their real depth chart. A couple of personnel notes: Laguda plays all the snaps despite being listed as a backup on the (last week's) depth chart; when CU goes nickel or dime, he shifts into the slot and Ryan Moeller enters as the free safety.
Corner Chidobe Awuzie, who's going to be discussed extensively in a moment, lines up all over the place. He'll play corner against two receivers, often shifts inside to the slot against three- and four-wide sets, and will drop back into a rover/safety role on occasion.
Base Set? This is another true 3-4 team, and when they go to nickel they usually lift the nose tackle. In dime, they'll pull one of the OLBs—usually McCartney, who's less of a pass-rush threat than Gilbert.
[Hit THE JUMP for the rest of the breakdown.]
Man or zone coverage? Mostly two-deep zone, and even when in man CU rarely pressed at the line.
Pressure: GERG or Greg? Definitely more Greg than GERG. Leavitt likes to bring the heat, especially on third down, and he'll bring it from a lot of different spots. Laguda is often employed as a blitzer off the edge. Even when CU rushes four, it's often hard to tell who's coming and who's dropping into coverage.
Dangerman: I made the call to give Chidobe Awuzie a shield; he entered the season ranked second among senior safeties by Mel Kiper and he looked like a first-rounder in this game. PFF has graded him out at an excellent +3.5 in coverage so far this season and they had him excelling in all phases of the game last year:
Awuzie is a versatile, physical and productive defensive back. He graded positively in coverage (+9.5), in run support (+4.9) and as a a pass rusher (+4.6) and his +18.0 overall grade ranks No. 3 among returning FBS cornerbacks. Awuzie has the coverage ability to play slot corner or outside and the physicality and tackling ability to play either safety position. Awuzie will hear his name called in the 2017 NFL draft.
Colorado didn't use him much as a pass-rusher in this game, but his Peppers-like ability was still apparent against CSU. In addition to the pick at the top of the post, he showed great instincts on an early PBU:
And this destruction of a WR screen will remind you of a certain Wolverine defender:
Awuzie will rival Desmond King as the best defensive back Michigan's receivers will face in non-practice situations this year. This game didn't provide an opportunity to see him play much man coverage; he looked great doing everything they asked him to do, and his ability to make plays on the ball from off-coverage is special.
OLB Jimmie Gilbert is CU's main edge-rusher and he's also capable of playing in space. CSU's blocking on this strip-sack is sub-optimal, but the play still shows off Gilbert's explosion off the snap:
PFF grades Gilbert out at an impressive +4.2 on the year, and most of that is from pass-rushing.
Let's start with the good: this appears to be an excellent secondary. Awuzie was great no matter where he lines up, CB Akhello Witherspoon was all over the deep throws CSU tried to hit on him, and the safeties were aggressive and physical without letting much get over the top. The versatility of Awuzie and Laguda lets CU comfortably match up against a variety of looks, much like Peppers and Delano Hill allow Don Brown to get creative for Michigan.
Laguda had a couple dead-on-arrival stops against the run, and strong safety Tedric Thompson also had some impressive plays in run support, though a couple bad angles were mixed in there in his case. Despite making plenty of plays in the box, the safeties maintained discipline against the pass; this wasn't like UCF's safeties selling out against the run on seemingly every play. This is easily the biggest test for Michigan's passing game so far, though I'll be curious to see who matched up with Jake Butt; he should be able to box out these safeties, and putting a linebacker on him is always a risky proposition.
CSU had success in the run game; with sacks removed, they rushed for 5.6 YPC on 33 attempts, and a lot of that went straight up the gut. Colorado's safeties had to get involved quite a bit, and they were good enough to prevent chunk gains from turning into home runs, but they were involved more than they should've been. That's because Colorado's front seven had a tough time getting off blocks unless a CSU blocker comically fell over—these are three different plays that all went for solid gains:
That last one is particularly telling: the linebackers are nowhere to be found, and the playside defensive linemen are still engaged with their blockers when the running back is two yards behind them with a full head of steam. CU was lucky the back cut upfield into the free safety instead of taking this to the edge. 330-pound nose tackle Josh Tupou (+3.4 vs. run on PFF) is tough to move off the ball (though he can be sealed off from the play), but size and ability drop off quickly after him at NT, and the ends were regularly sealed off to create good running lanes. I also thought the linebackers, while good on blitzes and in coverage, did a poor job of filling those lanes.
On this play, CSU doesn't really hide that they're going to run on 3rd-and-3—they had no passing game to speak of in this one anyway—and CU essentially has nine defenders in the box, but the relevant linemen can't get off blocks, the MIKE (#31) inexplicably hop-steps away from the play, and the box safety eats a block to open up a big gain down the sideline:
The jury is still out on Michigan's run offense after last Saturday, but they should utilize a whole lot more of the playbook than they have so far this season, and if CU sells out against the run like UCF did they'll be more likely to air it out than be content to run into stacked fronts. If M can fix some of the mental errors that occurred against UCF—and, ideally, find a left guard they're comfortable playing the whole way—they should be able to consistently gain yards on the ground.
While CU's secondary has looked very good so far, they were a sub-par group last year (64th in pass defense S&P+), and CSU doesn't have close to the talent Michigan does in the receiving corps. This will be a tougher matchup than those M has faced so far; it's still one they should win, though they may need to avoid Awuzie to do so.