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:
This next one comes with a caveat:
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.