Roll On: Previewing The Colorado Defense

Before we get into the usual personnel/stat breakdown, allow me to go on a related tangent focusing heavily on Colorado’s defensive performance against Hawaii and the challenges of preparing for the first game of the season.

Thanks to a late Hawaiian start time on ESPN2 Cal fans were given the chance to preview the changes Jon Embree has made in Boulder.  In an effort to get a sense of what the Colorado defense can do I watched play on ESPN3’s archived stream of the game and charted the entire performance.

My conclusion?  Goodness, the Buffalo are aggressive.  Colorado ran a 4-2 or a 3-3 defense against Hawaii and they sent a blitzing linebacker with impressive frequency.  While charting the Colorado defense I noted the result of the play and assigned a grade.  A  zero is a play that finished evenly and neither the offense or the defense clearly won the battle.  Your typical 3 yard run play, a short pass that is reasonably well defended, etc.  If the defense makes a good play, like a run stopped for no gain or a pass defended, they got a +1.  If the defense makes an excellent play, like a sack or an interception, it’s a +2.  If the defense gives up a decent but not huge gain it’s a -1.  If the defense gives up a huge play and/or makes a major mistake (missed tackles, blown assignments etc.) it’s a -2.


If you add and subtract everything up (not including garbage time plays) the grand total was +1.  That's a bit subjective, but not a great score since a defense needs to be successful more often than not to get an offense off the field.  But what's more interesting is looking at when Colorado was highly successful, and when they were highly unsuccessful.

Nearly every single play that resulted in a +2 or a -2 was a Colorado blitz, with five defenders rushing the quarterback.  Intuitively, that makes sense, because blitzes are by definition high-risk high-reward.  Colorado’s one forced turnover came on a forced fumble on a blitz.  They sacked Bryant Moniz an additional five times, and that typically required an extra pass-rusher.  But whenever they didn't get to Moniz he either found a wide-open receiver or found tons of space in the middle of the field vacated by linebackers.

This raises two questions.  #1 Was/is this a sound strategy for Colorado to use against Hawaii and Cal, & #2 Will Colorado be similarly aggressive against Cal?

Let’s focus on question #2.  Hawaii runs the run and shoot offense, and essentially every play they ran had the exact same personnel – four wide receivers and one running back lined up to the side of a quarterback in the shotgun.  If you watched the entire game you might guess that Hawaii doesn’t have a tight end on the roster.  With only five blockers on each play, Colorado’s coaching staff perhaps felt that mixing in frequent blitzes would both help upset the timing of Hawaii’s short passing attack and result in sacks.

Was Colorado’s blitzing game plan a one-off response to Hawaii’s run-and-shoot or is it something opponents can expect to face every week?  That’s hard to answer in part because Colorado’s defensive coordinator, Gary Brown, has only been a defensive coordinator for two years, and last year he was only a co-defensive coordinator at Arizona.  Working as a secondary coach in college and the NFL, there isn’t a ton of evidence to suggest was his preferred defensive style is.

As for question #1:  Blitzing might not have been the worst strategy against Hawaii if Colorado believed that their front four would be unable to get pressure on Moniz by themselves – given time, a quarterback of Moniz’s talents will pick apart most defenses.  Just ask USC!  But there was something Colorado wasn’t counting on.  In 2010, Bryant Moniz played in 14 games and ran for just 104 yards, or about 7.5 yards/game.  And that’s a player that dropped back to pass 555 times last year!  For whatever reason, both designed runs and scrambles weren’t a part of his skill set.

So Colorado brought a game plan I can only assume was designed for a pocket quarterback and promptly saw that presumed pocket passer run for 151 yards (without subtracting negative sack yardage) and three touchdowns.  Two of those touchdowns came on a zone read and an option play respectively – hardly staples of the run-and-shoot playbook.  Check out this excellent article from CUBuffs.com:

Still, Brown and his defensive staff believe if containment is kept and assignments followed, Moniz can be neutralized. After all, in CU's eventually lopsided (31-13) win a year ago in Boulder, Moniz ran six times for minus-5 yards. He was a run-and-shoot QB first, a passer by choice.

But on UH's first possession of Saturday night's second quarter, which has the Warriors at their own 43-yard line, Moniz takes the center snap, sticks the ball in the belly of tailback Joey Isofea, reads the Buffs linebackers, then deftly pulls the ball back and runs virtually untouched for a 57-yard touchdown.

Brown blinks . . . and blinks again.  Zone read option?  What?

In watching hours of tape and charting nearly 1,000 Hawai'i offensive snaps from last season, UH had run the zone read three times - with Moniz' backup running it twice. It simply wasn't in the Warriors' 2010 playbook . . .

This is why I’d never want to be a college football coach and why I’m not very sure that Bryant Moniz’s success as a runner means Zach Maynard should see similar success.  Cal was able to show plenty of new wrinkles against Fresno St., but Colorado can review that tape and try to learn from it.  Will Jeff Tedford be able to surprise Colorado’s defense the way Hawaii did?  Or will it have to be a matter of hopefully superior Cal players out-playing and out-executing the other team?

Personnel


Defensive Line: Jr. LDE Will Pericak, Sr. NT Conrad Obi, So. RDE Chidera Uzo-Diribe

Pericak is the only returning starter, as Obi and Uzo-Diribe both saw very limited action.  Despite very limited snaps as a freshmen, Uzo-Diribe was surprisingly productive and might be the most talented player on the line, at least in terms of rushing the quarterback.  His matchup with Mitchell Schwartz and/or Brian Schwenke will be a good one to watch.

Nick Kasa is the first lineman off the bench and actually got more playing time than two players starting ahead of him.  Curtis Cunningham also saw lots of time on the line last year but has fallen down the depth chart to start 2011.

Linebackers: Sr. OLB Josh Hartigan, Jr. ILB Douglas Rippy, So. ILB Derrick Webb, Jr. OLB Jon Major

The Buffs ran a 4-3 system last year and lost two starters, including team leading tackler Michael Sipili.  Major and Hartigan are the most experienced of the new starting foursome – both played roughly half of the available snaps in 2010, while Ribby and Webb only saw spot duty.  Hartigan was actually a lineman last year and led the team in sacks - thus he will likely be filling the hybrid rush linebacker role this year.

Webb actually saw very limited action against Hawaii’s run-and-shoot because Colorado spent the entire game in their nickel package.  He’ll undoubtedly see the field more this week.  All of the linebackers blitzed at different points in the game last week.

Secondary: Sr. CB Travis Sandersfeld, Jr. FS Ray Polk, Sr. SS Anthony Perkins, Fr. CB Greg Henderson

Polk is by far the most productive returning starter on the defense, and he’ll be expected to anchor a secondary trying to deal with the loss of first round draft pick Jimmy Smith and 4th round draft pick Jalil Brown.  They acquitted themselves reasonably well against Hawaii, but will be dealing with bigger, more physical receivers in Marvin Jones and Keenan Allen.

Parker Orms is the nickel back, and nearly led the team in tackles.  It’s possible he’ll see more time on the field in place of freshman Greg Henderson.

Against the run

2010 stats: 4.0 yards per run, 55th in the nation

Hawaii had zero success running the ball with their running backs.  That's not a surprise - it's not something they really try to do with any kind of frequency, and most of their attempts came in garbage time as they killed the clock.  So kudos for Colorado, though I don't think that performance is necessarily predictive of anything.  And we've already covered my thoughts on mobile quarterbacks.  The Buffs will be preparing for it this week, so it's tough to say with any certainty.

But even though Colorado wasn't preparing for Moniz to run the ball, the way they lost contain, took questionable angles and overpursued makes me think there's a little more to this weakness than just lack of preparation.  Cal has players that excel when they get in space to the outside - Isi Sofele on pitch plays, Allen or Jones on reverses, or Maynard on designed runs or improvised scrambles.  If Colorado gets out of position against Cal the way they did against Hawaii the Bears have the athletes to take advantage.

Against the pass

2010 stats: 8.4 yards per attempt, 102nd in the nation

A bit counter-intuitive, no?  A team has two seniors in the secondary bound for the NFL but finishes 102nd in the nation against the pass?  And then, in their first game without them, holds Hawaii an offense known for piling up tons of yards through the air, to just 178 yards and 5.2 yards/attempt?

It's like the Chewbacca Defense.  It just doesn't make sense!

It's not like Hawaii had a bunch of tiny WRs that got shut down physically, and there weren't a bunch of drops or errant throws from Moniz either.  It was just a good, solid effort in coverage from the Buffs.

Likely some of the explanation is that Dan Hawkins was pretty good at not getting the best out of the talent he had last year, but it's still a pretty surprising result.  This just might be a stiff challenge for Zach Maynard and company.  For what it's worth, both Keenan Allen and Marvin Jones have a couple of inches and a little bit of weight on everybody in the Colorado secondary.

Stats of Dubious Value

A section for a variety of categories that may or may not be statistically significant, but impact games nonetheless.  All cited stats are from the 2010 season, since one game of data is pretty meaningless.

Turnovers


19 forced turnovers, good for 79th in the nation, with an even split between fumbles recovered and interceptions

3rd Down

The Colorado defense allowed opponents to convert 41% of the 3rd downs they faced, 72nd in the nation

Red Zone

Colorado's opponents had a scoring rate of 83.33 and a touchdown rate of 61.11, good for 68th and 62th in the nation respectively

Conclusions

 

While the big, fat 34 on the scoreboard looked ugly, Colorado's defense played better than that.  Good field position and an utter lack of any offensive support played a part in that.  Still, Colorado struggled to put pressure on Moniz without bringing a blitzing linebacker, and Cal's offensive line was generally solid in pass protection last week.  Cal's success on offense may very well come down to Maynard's ability to either hit the hot read or escape with his legs.  If you think he can do that Cal should be able to score some points.

For those disappointed in the production from the running game the Buffs will be a tougher test for the line and Isi Sofele than Fresno St. was.  I like our chances running to the outside on pitches and stretch plays more than pounding it outside, because it plays to our strengths and potentially their weakness.

And while Tedford may not be able to spring a surprise on Colorado the way Hawaii did, I think we were all pretty pleased with the diversity of plays and formations last week.  Let's hope they have plenty ready for Boulder.

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