After the 2021 season, Colorado had questions at nearly every position but the front seven. Nate Landman was moving on to the NFL but Quinn Perry, Terrance Lang, Robert Barnes, Guy Thomas, Jalen Sami and Na’Im Rodman were returning. Then in late April, Josh Chandler-Semedo announced that he would be joining the Buffs via the transfer portal. It seemed like Colorado’s front seven would be the unquestioned best unit for CU again this year.
Then the games started.
Through four games, Colorado has the worst rushing defense in the country and it’s not even close.
To put in perspective how bad the Buffs run defense has been, UCLA rushed for 249 yards on Colorado’s defense last week, yet CU’s season average for rushing yards against went down.
Currently, the Buffs average 323.3 rushing yards allowed per game. The next worst program is Hawaii which averages 260.8 rushing yards per game and they’ve played five games.
What the —- is going on and who is to blame?
This week in the Buffs Film Room, we break down plays from Colorado’s last two games against UCLA and Minnesota to figure out why the Buffs can’t stop the run.
To get things started, we’ll address the biggest and most salvageable issue the Buffs are currently facing and that’s tackling.
Learning how to tackle is a core fundamental for every football player of all ages. While the players are the ones on the field, playing the game and attempting to make tackles; the coaches are the ones that usually decide how well of a tackling team you are.
Take Pete Carroll and the Seahawks for example. In the Legion of Boom era, Seattle had one of the most fearsome defenses in all of football and while they had good players across the field, more importantly, they were a good tackling football team. Carroll’s “rugby tackling” has not only produced tremendous on-field results and accolades but it’s made the game safer.
While the Buffs may not have the best players in the country on defense, their lack of fundamentals when it comes to tackling has greatly contributed to their lack of defensive production.
That being said, everyone on the defense needs to start tackling and playing better in order to see results in the run game.
On this third and one, Colorado actually plays this run pretty well for the most part. Chandler-Semedo identifies the run but on his way to the ball carrier he isn’t able to keep his feet and he’s left grabbing at the back’s feet. The running back steps out of the tackle and is able to stumble forward for a first down.
The linebackers need to be more disruptive and have to play better overall which is a theme we will get to, but the tackling beyond the second level on this play is poor.
There’s no reason this run should be a touchdown. Again, the linebackers need to play better as Chandler-Semedo overpursues his gap and gets completely washed out of the play. Besides that fact, three Buffs’ defenders have a chance to finish this tackle but Ibrahim racks up the yards after contact and scores from 18-yards out. Ideally, Jeremy Mack Jr. and Nikko Reed make better attempts to tackle also.
Since they are already becoming a common thing, let’s take a look at the linebacker play.
The Buffs miss Nate Landman
Nate Landman’s presence for the Buffs went beyond the football field but when you take a look at the film and the quality of play that the 2022 CU linebacking corps has been producing, it’s glaring how much Colorado’s defense misses Landman.
Head coach Karl Dorrell flat out said that the linebackers were the issue in his Monday press conference after the UCLA game.
“It’s not really the front, it’s [the] backers,” Dorrell said. “We’re trying to stay in our proper gaps, make sure we understand that you have a primary and secondary read in terms of your linebacker play.”
Let’s take a look at the film.
It’s tough to say exactly what is going on in this play as the Buffs have a breakdown in execution. UCLA has an error of their own on this trap play. UCLA’s center is aiming right at Jalen Sami playing 3-technique but the play side guard blocks down on Sami also. Either way, the Buffs have no one filling the play side A-gap. Chandler-Semedo gets caught behind a block and Mister Williams is unable to fight back over to the A-gap after working down to the B-gap that Sami is slanting towards. It’s a mistake by UCLA but an even bigger mistake by the Buffs which leads to the back being untouched until he’s at the first down marker. At that point, poor tackling rears its ugly head again and it’s a UCLA touchdown.
Chandler-Semedo gets sucked in by the motion across the formation and all of a sudden, once the back takes the handoff, Chandler-Semedo is reeling back to his gap. It makes for an easy block for the guard climbing to the second level and this run results in a seven-yard gain on first down.
Chandler-Semedo overpursues this run and is blocked all the way to the first down marker. Chance Main makes the tackle from the backside end position but it’s a six-yard gain for UCLA on first down.
The Buffs get caught blitzing the weak side of Minnesota’s formation on this strong-side wide-zone play. Quinn Perry is unable to fight across the formation and embraces contact rather than fighting to the ball carrier. The Gophers gain 15 yards on third and two.
Minnesota is running outside zone here and Chandler-Semedo is the key defender on this play. JCS and the running back are playing a game of chicken. The Buffs linebacker has to mirror the back with a slight trail so that when the runner cuts upfield, he can clean up the run from the backside if no one else is able to defeat a block. Instead, Chandler-Semedo overpursues and it’s an incredibly easy block for Minnesota’s right guard. JCS is unable to make the tackle now from the play side and the poor tackling from the Buffs continues.
Both linebackers are a non-factor on this play and the back has a free run to the first down marker where Jeremy Mack Jr. makes the tackle.
Football is a numbers game
The Buffs are lacking when it comes to impact players on the defensive side of the football. Because of this, it makes it even more difficult for Colorado to make plays in the run game when they are equal in numbers.
When you factor in a good dual-threat quarterback like who UCLA has in Dorian Thompson-Robinson, the Buffs are really in trouble.
When the quarterback is a dangerous player in the run game, football becomes a numbers game very quickly. Playing 11-on-11 in the run game and putting defenders into conflicts with a quarterback read exploits the defense’s scheme, speed and ability.
Football becomes simple math.
Minnesota is spreading the field on the Buffs. CU has to match Minnesota in terms of numbers on the perimeter, so there are three defenders outside the field-side hashes leaving the Buffs five-on-five up front. The Buffs are also in a two-high shell with the safeties way off the line of scrimmage playing the pass. Reasonable since it’s third and 21. Terrance Lang is able to slip the right guard’s block but gets tripped up as he gets upfield. Minnesota’s center latches on to linebacker Mister Williams who is not able to impact the play. The back goes untouched until he’s 13 yards past the line of scrimmage, then the Buffs miss another tackle. Colorado gives up a 34-yard run on third and 21.
Colorado matches numbers on the perimeter but goes into a one-high shell to load the box for third down. UCLA goes with a simple weak-side read option on this play. It’s third and one and Guy Thomas gets trigger-happy once he reads run and completely crashes down on the edge. This is an easy pull for DTR and just like that he is one-on-one with Isaiah Lewis in the open field who is able to make the tackle. The Bruins gained 19-yards on third and one.
Colorado has six players in the box with Trevor Woods lurking just outside the tight end. UCLA has six blockers and since they are executing another read option, one of Colorado’s box players gets eliminated. You would like to see Jalem Sami work over into the play side A-gap or Josh Chandler-Semedo work over to stop this run before it reaches the secondary. The back makes it through the first and second level untouched, forces a missed tackle and UCLA breaks this game wide open.
The Buffs need to find a way to level the playing field back to their advantage when put into numbers conflicts. Colorado hasn’t shown an ability to defend dual-threat quarterbacks with the use of scrape exchange at a basic level. These situations have the potential to be devastating for the Buffs throughout the season as they continue to face spread offenses.
Can CU fix their issues defending the run?
The scores have been ugly in all of Colorado’s first four games and they enter this weekend’s game against Arizona as 17.5-point underdogs. Karl Dorrell has received a majority of the blame for the quality of this year’s football team and rightfully so since he’s the head coach but the players have to start playing better.
Tackling is a combination of technique, effort and a mentality of being the hammer rather than the nail. Coaches can teach technique, and in some ways, they can teach effort and mentality, but in order for CU’s run defense to see massive improvement multiple players need to start upping their quality of play.
That being said, the coaches recruited the players. But also when it comes to the defensive scheme, and/or the teaching of the defensive scheme, it is not hitting home with the players.
Dorrell hit the nail on the head in his final words before leaving Monday’s press conference after UCLA.
“I think we need to be more diligent and be more proactive in our preparation to understand the skill sets of everybody and putting guys in position to do those things that fit their skill set,” Dorrell said. “That’s the key right now. And that’s the detail that we need to get ourselves to play better.”
To say that Dorrell is on the hot seat is an understatement. If Colorado’s defense doesn’t see improvement this week or after the bye week, Colorado could be starting their off-season early this year.