Aside from being a pirate, a published author on the subject of Geronimo, and a proponent of the CJK5H movement, Mike Leach has put together quite a few prolific passing attacks. Wes Welker and Michael Crabtree have forged careers coming out of this system, and Graham Harrell still holds the record for most passing touchdowns with 134 over his three years as a starter. The Air Raid, as it is known, has made its way to Washington State and is gaining momentum, as Leach took the Cougars to their first bowl game in ten years. They come back this year with renewed optimism in quarterback Connor Halliday, after he threw for a school record 4597 yards last season. They open up their season Thursday against Rutgers, and in advance of that, here's how a few basics of the Air Raid work.
The Air Raid starts with the wide splits of the offensive line. In a conventional offense, splits between the offensive linemen are much closer, at about a foot or so apart. The wide splits are used to give the quarterback more time against the pass rush. Defenses will place their pass rushers outside the tackles for the purposes of containing any scrambling attempts to get outside the pocket, and spreading them out can stymie the pass rush. If a defense tries to take advantage of the larger gaps by calling an inside blitz with the linebackers, a diligent quarterback or play caller can take advantage of this by throwing a quick slant into the space vacated. As long as offensive lineman are playing their assignments well, the quarterback will be safe to throw all day. These splits are used even on the goal line, as seen above. It can help the offense spread out the defense in an area that normally seems pretty cramped.
I've picked out three staples in the Air Raid that are used pretty religiously, and can work against any scheme. The first of these is Four Verticals.
Four Verticals is everyone's favorite Madden play, and also a bit of a misnomer in this offense. For the outside receivers, it can turn into an option or a skinny post. The main target for the offense can also change depending on the coverage the defense presents. A famous example of this was the end of the 2008 match up between Texas Tech and Texas.
All four receivers run vertical routes, and the running back runs an out out of the backfield to act as a safety valve. Texas is playing man coverage on the outside, with safety help over the top. In Four Verticals, when the corner is staying with the wide receiver step for step, the quarterback is supposed to throw it flat to the receiver's outside shoulder. This turns the vertical into a comeback route. The receiver and the quarterback have to be on the same page, as this decision is made during the play. Michael Crabtree and Graham Harrell had this connection, scored, and Colt McCoy left disappointed.
When running a four verts play, usually they line up in a shotgun formation, two receivers on each side. Against man coverage or a Cover 4 scheme (zone coverage with 4 deep zones), the outside receivers will run either comebacks if the corners are staying with the receivers step for step, or the receivers will go deep if they have a step on them. Against cover 3 (three deep zones), the two inside receivers will run seams, forcing the one deep safety to pick a receiver to cover. With a good quarterback, that safety will be wrong every time.
Washington State ran a variant of this in their bowl game against Colorado State. I would assume that Colorado State watched the film and prepared for deep routes. On this play above, the Cougars come out with trips right, in the formation they call "Early." The outside receivers run verticals, but the two inside receivers run a drag and a hitch route respectively. This draws the attention of the safeties, who are supposed to be in a cover 2 alignment, but come up to try to make the highlight reels. Halliday sees this, and he sees that Vince Mayle has a step or two on his man. He hits him in stride in the gap between the corner and where the safety has recovered to, and it ends up as a touchdown for Washington State.
The next play is the mesh. It's usually used as a zone buster, as it utilizes inside receivers running crossing routes, one over the other. In the base two wide receiver to each side formation, known as "Ace" in their terminology, Washington State will run the right inside receiver over the left inside wide receiver. The running back will run a swing rout, and the outside receivers will run corners. Inside receivers can sit in between the zones to get open or they can keep going. This route combination places a stress on the defenders on the right side. The outside corner has to worry about whether they should creep up on the swing or stay with the corner until the safety can help. The slot corner or linebacker covering the inside receiver or that underneath zone has to worry about the crossing rout sitting in between the zones or going after the swing. Again, if the quarterback knows his reads, then the defense will always be wrong.
The variant on this play comes from another trips set, bringing the outside receiver in on the left side to run the crossing route. Colorado State's defense plays man, allowing the two crossing routes to get in the way of any defense getting to the quick slant route. All route combinations in the Air Raid can serve dual purposes depending on the situation.
The last staple I will talk about is the jailbreak screen. In light of their lack of a running game, the screen game has become their way of getting 5-6 yards quickly. This is a staple of many of the passing offenses seen today. In their Ace formation, Washington State will run the route to their outside receiver with the inside receiver blocking down. The tackle gets on his horse to block the corner, then the rest of the line picks up the next outside guy on the second level. The guard on that side will either go to the outside backer or to the safety. An example of this is below.
A variant of this uses a trips right formation, called "Early Rip," where the second receiver gets the ball. The other two receivers get in front of him, along with the right half of the line, and the receiver makes reservations for six. Of course, that play got called back for holding. This example is below.
Unlike a lot of other offenses, the Air Raid requires a lot of confidence in the quarterback, which Leach has in Connor Halliday. For their first game against Rutgers Thursday, they should have their fair share of success. Rutgers allowed 312 passing yards per game, in a conference that isn't known for prolific passing attacks. With another year of experience, Halliday should have a greater rapport with his receivers, which will at the very least lead to some huge numbers in the Air Raid.