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Duck Tape: Film Analysis of Colorado

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A preview of Oregon’s week 7 opponent in Autzen

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Colorado v Oregon Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images

Offense

Colorado has one lethal weapon: #18 WR Brown. In their past two games on which I did film study, the Buffaloes ran 145 meaningful plays; twelve were downfield passes targeting Brown. The results:

  • 12 Brown passes: 224 yards, 18.7 yards average
  • Every other play: 624 yards, 4.7 yards average

When throwing to Brown, #12 QB Montez, a tremendously frustrating quarterback to watch, develops impeccable mechanics and delivers jaw-dropping rainbow passes which require no explanation:

Outside of those dozen throws, however, the passing game is quite inefficient: 18 successful plays to 30 failed ones, given the down & distance, plus an even split of 8 vs 8 in the screen game (and half those successful screens were mostly, in my opinion, due to lousy tackling and should have gone for a loss).

The reasons for these inefficiencies run the gamut: bad play design, a patchwork offensive line that allows through a lot of pressure, early scrambling and checkdowns even when there’s not pressure, inexplicably poor throwing mechanics, and inconsistent receivers not named Brown. Here’s a representative sample:

(Reminder - you can right-click or long-press any of these videos to play them in ¼ or ½ speed)

  1. :00 - This ball is higher than it needs to be given that the receiver has beat the DB on the comeback, but this is typical of the five drops I observed in two games.
  2. :16 - I don’t believe this is a designed screen pass due to the absence of any blocking, and I’m not even sure it’s a checkdown given that Montez doesn’t appear to look anywhere else than his running back. The weakside backer has no other responsibility or conflict on this play once the receiver goes in motion; it’s like it’s designed to lose yardage.
  3. :22 - Here’s a line stunt in which the 3-tech and OLB cross and the other DT loops around, confusing the offensive line and interrupting the back leaking downfield. Reader, do you know of any team that likes to run confusing stunts?
  4. :31 - At long last Montez has a clean pocket to step up into, but he is unfamiliar with the experience and rushes his footwork, resulting in an inaccurate throw.

The rushing game is more efficient, 39 successes to 30 failures. It’s virtually always zone-blocking, only using power for very short yardage situations. They use a fairly even mix of under-center, pistol, and offset back alignments … none are more effective than the others, though the under-center runs are always inside and the other two are a mix of inside and outside. I think the efficiency numbers are chiefly on the hard running of two promising young tailbacks, #1 RB Mangham and #8 RB Fontenot:

  1. :00 - A weakside run to the boundary, this could be better blocked … #78 RT Sherman is giving up outside leverage, #3 WR Nixon disengages, and #65 RG Pursell is delayed in sealing the tackle. But Mangham patiently gets through it and runs through two DBs at the end.
  2. :08 - A couple of nice cuts here by Fontenot, first to get to the C-gap when the backer fills the A-gap, then another to get outside of the block that #51 LT Hambright is throwing.
  3. :24 - #56 C Lynott and backup #70 RG Roddick are resetting the line of scrimmage here, though not really opening a big gap. Mangham just powers through it for a first down.

However, the offensive line simply isn’t opening holes on a regular basis to run through, and Colorado isn’t getting very many big runs. Excluding a couple of sweeps (that don’t rely on OL blocking so much as WR speed and perimeter blocks), the designed rushing average I charted was only 3.65 ypc. I think the Buffs have definitely improved at the o-line compared to last year’s debacle, due to focusing on a single lineup and bringing in the highly respected OL coach Kapilovic, but they’re still a pretty error-prone group and they’ve had three different guys play right guard due to injuries and penalties. Some examples:

  1. :00 - Last week previewing Cal, I remarked that I’d never seen a play in which all five linemen lose control of their blocks at once … apparently these things come in bunches.
  2. :06 - I don’t think I’m seeing any positioning errors here, I think they’re just getting out-muscled by Arizona’s 3-man defensive front without any linebacker help.
  3. :13 - Roddick shouldn’t be letting the tackle through so easily, but I can’t figure out how the rest of this play was supposed to work. There’s no way that the TE could get to the unblocked OLB fast enough. My guess is that it’s a miscommunication where the LT thinks his side has the read instead of the right, and if so that’s one of seven blocking mix-ups I observed.
Arizona v Colorado Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

A few other comments about Colorado’s offense:

  • Montez would make me tear my hair out were I a Buffs fan. He’s a senior who makes freshman mistakes, but just when I’d given up on him he’d throw a perfect pass, or pull off a cagey shovel pass, or scramble out of pressure nicely (no sacks in the games I watched). For more on what he can do at his best, check out Aaron Fentress’ recent article in the Athletic with lots of good film clips.
  • Keep an eye on #38 TE Russell - he’s easy to recognize with the long red hair coming out his helmet. He throws the key block on most outside plays, and in my statistical analysis, making his block was the single most determining factor on whether or not a rush play succeeded. Also, where he’s lined up pre-snap heavily indicates run vs pass: they rush on 67.8% of plays when he’s on the line or at H-back, but only on 17.2% of plays when he’s motioned out as a receiver.
  • Somewhat curiously, even though this is a zone-blocking rush offense and they have a mobile QB, there aren’t very many zone read plays or other designed QB rushes; it’s almost all straight handoffs. In a recent episode of the Quack 12 Podcast with Jack Barsch of Ralphie Report, we talked about the new coaching staff’s philosophy of very deliberately keeping Montez upright.
  • #2 WR Shenault, an absolute pleasure to watch last year, has been fairly quiet in 2019. He was apparently injured two weeks ago against Arizona St, though the play on which it supposedly happened didn’t show me anything obvious, and he was blocking on a few plays afterwards without looking slowed up at all. The next week was a bye and he didn’t play last week against Arizona, we’ve received no update on his status and the injury report just says “Undisclosed.” I don’t know if he’ll play tonight or not, but Jack and I both tended toward the opinion that he hasn’t been 100% all year and the team isn’t necessarily built around him any longer.
  • OC Johnson has called a couple of different trick plays in the last two games, and of course there was the game-changing flea flicker against Nebraska. Every time it’s been different and they usually succeed at them, so look out!

Arizona v Colorado Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Defense

The injuries to Colorado’s defense rival Homer at the Bat for absurdity, and include one player attacked by a giant military fan. In addition to by far their best linemen, #34 DE M. Johnson and #99 DT Sami, and two linebackers, #26 OLB Wells and #46 ILB Newman, they have also been out their entire starting secondary: #1 CB Abrams, #14 CB Miller, #2 S Onu, #9 S Maddox, and #25 DB Blackmon. Also, to literally add insult to injury, in this week’s SP+ listing the Buffs rank #113 in defense.

Jack tells us that four of those are definite scratches for tonight: Johnson, Newman, Miller, and Blackmon. I’m uncertain of the status of the rest; Maddox was apparently losing his spot anyway, Abrams has been injured on and off all year, and the rest we haven’t gotten definitive answers on and I tend to take anything less than full-throated declaration from coaches as probable disinformation.

As a result, I don’t really have much in the way of videos to show the reader. Just about every positive clip involves a probably injured guy as the key one making the play, and what’s left simply isn’t representative.

The other problem is that there just weren’t all that many positive defensive plays, even if they were all healthy. There are 20 successes vs 26 failures in rush defense and 31 vs 47 in pass defense. Without Johnson there’s really no pass rush to speak of, and without Sami (injured midway through last week) they have a hard time stopping any inside run.

To make matters worse, I don’t think DC Summers is getting his guys, whichever ones are available, aligned properly:

  1. :00 - There are only two downfield wideouts on this play, but three different defenders are sucked up by ASU’s star RB leaking out, including backup #3 S Rakestraw who’s late to cover his zone.
  2. :20 - CU drops eight into coverage against this empty set, but the linebackers can’t defend the middle of the field against this simple slant route, something I saw 14 times in two games.
  3. :34 - Arizona ran this play or an RPO variant of it at least a dozen times in the second half last week; CU defended it properly twice. This was the clearest camera angle (it actually shows all 11 defensive players, which is criminally rare) showing why: they’re trying to defend boundary trips with a read linebacker, a 15-yard deep safety, and one CB in zone. Even if everybody does their job right it’s an 8-yard gain at minimum. If the linebacker stays outside they run through the B-gap against a 5-man box.

The rush defense is less schematically unsound, but there’s just not a lot of lateral speed or depth to the defensive front and that creates gap problems:

  1. :00 - A single wide receiver takes out three defenders here: #20 OLB Taylor trips getting wide, #31 ILB Van Diest is overruning his lane, and Rakestraw is too busy hitting him to get into the tackle.
  2. :13 - There’s no contain here: #52 OLB Tchangam has lost all outside leverage, Miller gets so far inside that the WR meant to block him misses and goes to hit Onu instead, and Van Diest is real late to read the outside bounce.
  3. :32 - This is the sixth and final play of a hurry-up drive in which the offense won every time and the defense simply was not in their stances at the snap three times. The exhaustion and confusion from their inability to rotate or get the defensive call in promptly is evident.