Fee Fi Foe Film: Colorado Offense

Submitted by Ace on September 14th, 2016 at 3:00 PM

not bad.

After finishing 99th in offense S&P+ last year, Colorado needed a new approach, and they've found one after bringing in co-offensive coordinator Darrin Chiaverini, the former Buffs receiver who spent the last two years on the Texas Tech coaching staff. While the holdover at OC, Brian Lindgren, still calls the plays, Chiaverini's influence is obvious; some staple Texas Tech plays have becomes integral parts of the gameplan, and Colorado has gone from a high tempo team to a ludicrously high tempo team.

I watched/charted the first three quarters of their opener against Colorado State—it was 37-0 Colorado heading into the fourth—and I've got Pro Football Focus's full grades from CU's first two games to assist me in breaking down their offense.

Personnel. Seth's diagram [click to embiggen]:

Colorado is experienced at the skill positions, but not so much up front. We're not sure if Jourdan Lewis will be back this week; if he's held out, expect to see a lot of Tyree Kinnel.

[EDIT: Seth is on a plane and we didn't catch the errors in time; mentally remove a DL or ILB to get a legal, 11-man lineup for Michigan when they go dime. WR Bryce Bobo weighs 190 pounds; he is not a house on wheels.]

Spread, Pro-Style, or Hybrid? Every non goal-line snap I charted was from the gun or, on a few occasions, the pistol. This team is about as spread as spread gets.

Basketball on Grass or MANBALL? Mostly zone with some gap blocking mixed in, most notably on QB powers that CU likes to run in short-yardage situations.

Hurry it up or grind it out? As mentioned above, Colorado is an extreme high-tempo team. They currently rank third in adjusted pace, per SBNation's Bill Connelly. Michigan's greatest challenge in this game will be avoiding busts/misalignments and keeping contain against a team that wants to move as fast as possible and get to the edge. Here's CU getting three plays off, resulting in two first downs, in a 40-second span:

The announcers mention that Colorado's tempo is a significant change even though they were 19th in adjusted pace in 2015; that may seem crazy, but it's correct.

[Hit THE JUMP for the rest of the breakdown.]

Quarterback Dilithium Level (Scale: 1 [Navarre] to 10 [Denard]): Sefo Liufau is 6'4", 230, and very much a part of the run game; many of Colorado's runs are zone reads or run-pass options. Liufau is more of a power runner than a speed/finesse guy. He can cover ground quickly with his long stride but he's not liable to juke a guy; on the other hand, he doesn't shy away from contact and usually ends his runs falling forward. Liufau is currently grading out slightly negative on PFF as a runner (-1.1) despite averaging 5.9 yards on his non-sack carries; his two fumbles are the likely cause of that.

Liufau is a senior with plenty of experience, and he didn't miss many reads in this one. On the play below you get to see a bit of everything. Colorado motions a receiver and runs a screen/draw option with Liufau reading the third defender from the top; when he commits to the screen, giving CSU more defenders than blockers up top, Liufau keeps and has a big lane when CSU's LBs vacate the middle of the field. Liufau makes the right read and shows some athleticism trying to go over the top; he also fumbles and is fortunate a Colorado lineman ends up on the ball.

I'm giving Liufau a 7 here. His power and ability to make the correct read covers for a lack of blazing speed and wiggle. He fumbled three times on 84 carries last year, so ball security appears to be an ongoing problem.

Dangerman: Shay Fields is the team's leading returning receiver, and while he's only been targeted eight times through two games, he's hauled in five catches for 157 yards—yes, he's averaging over 30 yards per catch. He is a fast man:

Colorado runs a ton of short stuff in the passing game, including more screens than I think I've ever charted in one game, and those throws usually target slot bug Devin Ross. When they go downfield, though, Fields is their best big-play threat. At 5'11", 180, he's not a traditional jump-ball guy, but he can run right by a defender in man coverage—and sometimes the safety help, too—if they're not careful.

Zook Factor: Nothing of note here.

HenneChart: While Liufau isn't the most accurate quarterback on downfield throws, Colorado's offense mitigates that issue with short passes and screens. Like, a lot of screens.

Colorado State 2 10 (10) 2 4** 1 2 -- 3 -- 63%

Liufau consistently put his receivers in a position to run after the catch on those. On the downfield stuff, he had a couple really impressive throws, including this bomb on a free play that featured an even more impressive catch by Bryce Bobo:

He also had a couple ugly misses. I filed this as an INX—he's got Bobo open between zones and turfs it a good two yards behind him:

He's tough to predict from throw to throw; sometimes he makes NFL-caliber throws, sometimes he's very off for no discernable reason. Pressure is the key to forcing bad decisions; CSU rarely got to him, but forced a bad read when a blitz hit home, and PFF backs that up: Liufau is grading at +5.0 when not pressured and -0.5 when under pressure.


This first chart you can take without a grain of salt; Colorado is a true spread team:

Formations Run Pass PA
Gun 31 24 10
I-Form -- -- --
Ace -- -- --
Pistol 4 0 --
Heavy 2 -- --

This next one comes with a caveat:

Down Run Pass PA
1st 17 8 6
2nd 13 8 4
3rd 7 8 --

This looks like a team that is split relatively down the middle in terms of run/pass, but so many of those throws were behind the line of scrimmage; Colorado uses their short passing game to augment the run, and their downfield passing game is used as a changeup, often with fake screens incorporated into the play. PFF notes that of Liufau's 48 attempts this year (not counting throwaways and spikes), 33 were thrown either behind the line of scrimmage or less than ten yards downfield.

The Buffs really look to spread the defense thin before even attempting to run up the gut. On the opening play of four different drives, they ran a quick toss to RB Phillip Lindsay, who PFF says has graded out best and produced his best YPC on runs outside the left tackle. Lindsay has the speed and quickness to make that work well, and while his interior runs found more resistance, he turned nothing into something on a couple of occasions by fighting through tackles at the line.

While four of the five starters on the O-line grade are grading out well on PFF, I noticed some weakness up the middle; left guard Gerrad Kough got blown up a few times despite facing an undersized CSU defensive line, and lo and behold he's the lone starter to grade out negatively so far this year. While CU's OL is grading out very well in run blocking, I get the feeling competition quality is playing into that quite a bit; CSU's rush defense was bad last year and they lost a large chunk of their two-deep on the DL. Michigan's line should be able to overpower these guys up front; the challenge will be in maintaining discipline on the edge when CU runs read-options, as Liufau doesn't miss many opportunities when opponents lose contain.

The biggest key for Michigan will be defending the screen game. Having Jabrill Peppers is a huge help; as you'll see in the play breakdown, some of Colorado's screen plays essenatially require a defense to have a Peppers-level screen killer to have any hope of stopping them.


Brian posted this play in our slack chat earlier this week and it spurred a lengthy discussion on how we want Michigan to steal it. Colorado starts in a four-wide, 2x2 set, then motions a slot receiver to make it a 3x1:

At the snap, Shay Fields (#1, lone receiver to the bottom) runs a drag route and, importantly, stays very close to the line of scrimmage—this is as far downfield as he gets, and he in facts bends his route back behind the LOS. Note that the innermost slot receiver isn't running a route; he's setting up to block:

Fields running his route behind the line—or, if you're nitpicky, close enough to it that no official is going to throw a flag here—makes it legal for the other receivers to block downfield. The other outside receiver simply goes deep to run his man out of the play. The other two are already engaged when the ball is in the air:

This play is set up to go down the sideline. The innermost slot receiver seals off the linebacker, while the other slot (#2, the motion man) looked to be running a route to the sideline, then turned around and sealed off his man from the outside. Even though the linebacker gets off his block, he has no hope of catching Fields:

The other receiver has taken his man so far out of the play that he doesn't appear again until Fields has picked up 13 yards and an easy first down. Full video:

This is an extremely difficult play to defend given how Colorado uses the rules in its favor; this is a long-developing screen with no need to get linemen out to block downfield, and the underneath defenders can't jump the drag too quickly or they'll risk allowing easy pitch-and-catches to the slot receivers if they've guessed wrong.

The key is Peppers. That linebacker for CSU doesn't possess a quarter of Peppers's explosiveness, so when the receiver gets in his way, that's all she wrote; CU ran this again later in the game and picked up a big chunk on a third-and-forever. The ability of Peppers to dodge blocks and close to the ballcarrier in a flash is M's best chance of stopping this kind of stuff.

If Michigan can shut down these shorter throws and maintain edge discipline against the run, they shouldn't have too much trouble with Colorado, but the Buffs are on a different level offensively from what the Wolverines have seen so far this year.



September 14th, 2016 at 3:24 PM ^

Does the fact Lewis isn't listed as an injured starter mean you have information indicating he's 100% (or at least real close to 100%) and going to play Saturday?

Phil Brickma

September 14th, 2016 at 3:26 PM ^

That drag screen will show the difference between 2014 and 2016.

Hoke's teams wouldn't have a clue on how to defend it, yet I'm extremely confident that not only will Harbaugh's team be ready for that play, they will be smart enough to add it to their own offensive repertoire.


September 14th, 2016 at 3:40 PM ^

That's a mesh concept (see the Air Raid section here). Perry and the TE (can't tell who from the video) are running drag routes going in the other direction, which is a way to pick off defenders in man coverage. No receivers are blocking downfield, unlike the Colorado play. Colorado's play is a true screen; there's really only one receiver in a route unless you include the guy going deep to run a defender out of the play. The play above has multiple reads, though Darboh is the primary receiver.


September 14th, 2016 at 3:29 PM ^

This sounds like a real game with competition and stuff.  Ace got the anxious pregame juices flowing early.   

My prediction is Jabrill Peppers has the kind of breakout, blow your mind type of game that blows him up nationally.  Brown is going to unleash his anti bubble Jabrill package.   13 tackles, 7 TFL, FF, Int, TD.    Raback It.


September 14th, 2016 at 3:39 PM ^

The thing that concenrs me is that Don Brown had Peppers in the box almost exclusively vs UCF and more than a few times had McCray and Gedeon covering slot receivers. Why? I have no idea, but it made no sense. 

Pepto Bismol

September 14th, 2016 at 3:55 PM ^

Anxiously awaiting the UFRs.  After Hawaii, Brian pointed out that Peppers and Hill appeared to be interchangeable hybrid space players (if I read it correctly).  If motion flipped the offense, Hill would come down and Peppers would fall out to a more traditional safety. 

That doesn't sound like what we saw with McCray and Gedeon taking on slot receivers against UCF.

My pea-brain doesn't know the difference in what defense was run and what they were trying to accomplish or defend against, but I hope the reasoning behind it was brilliant. 


September 14th, 2016 at 3:57 PM ^

Rashan Gary runs the 40 a tenth faster then their QB. I think we cover spread but not by much. Our defense has the speed and sound technique to shut down screens and "cutesy" plays and force them to throw downfield or run at our line. Both of those options are bad news if you're Colorado.


September 14th, 2016 at 3:57 PM ^

Nice job Ace. Will be interesting to see this week how Don Brown chooses to defend the WR screen. You and Brian have both pointed out how we we outnumbered on the outside against UCF. I'm guessing (hoping) it was just Don Brown tinkering or not wanting to show anything.


September 14th, 2016 at 4:05 PM ^

Obviously huge levels of talent disparity but I think early in this game we will learn a lot about whether Don Brown actually knows how to best utilize his players to beat a spread.

The Reeve

September 14th, 2016 at 5:01 PM ^

Am I alone feeling sheer terror at the thought of facing this offense? This offense is every Appalachian State, Dennis Dixon Oregon, Kevin Wilson on steroids spread ninja freak out all rolled into one terrifying package. And facing Jim Leavitt on defense, a guy we wanted for our DC, to prevent Michigan from piling up points. I can see this team easily scoring 35 points: a series of three and outs, touchdown, two more three and outs, touchdown, touchdown, more three and outs, touchdown, touchdown. Comfort me someone.

Sent from MGoBlog HD for iPhone & iPad


September 15th, 2016 at 12:39 PM ^

To be honest I NEVER ONCE felt that way before Sept 1, 2007...

It was a World changing event, unfortunately repeated on several different levels since.

And that's not even counting games we actually WON that were terrifying... Air Force, UConn, a few against Indiana............there were others I've blocked out Thank God!


September 14th, 2016 at 10:04 PM ^

After reading this, I feel much better about the 4 or 5 breakdowns we had last week. Brown can use the footage to make the adjustments. I will not be surprised if we give up less yardage than what we did last game.

M Ascending

September 15th, 2016 at 6:50 AM ^

"Colorado runs more screens ... than I've ever charted in one game.". But, we have the human screen buster-- Jabrill Peppers. The LBs, however, will have to be on high alert and cover a lot of ground.