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Golden Spotlight: Arizona Wildcats Airraid Offense

Nick Foles and the Arizona Wildcats are looking for revenge for last season's upset.
Nick Foles and the Arizona Wildcats are looking for revenge for last season's upset.

Cal fans will always be a little skittish when they hear the word "Airraid". This was the infamous offense Mike Leach debuted in the 2004 Holiday Bowl and pummelled the Cal defense to pieces in an embarrassing defeat. This is not an offense you want to deal with as little as possible. With the Arizona Wildcats now displaying a mature form of the Airraid under Nick Foles, I decided to revisit all the key elements of the Airraid and how its passing attack makes it go.

The system is designed to minimize the decision-making of the quarterback, and thus manage the risks by taking advantage of minimal coverage, either one-on-one or open. The quarterback doesn't need to be very accurate because the receivers are so well-trained and able to adjust on the fly. There aren't many quarterbacks who can make the pro leap because they're never asked to make too many difficult throws. And of course, the offensive line should give decent pass protection, at least long enough to make sure the guy they're protecting can get the ball out.

After the jump, we examine the favorite pass patterns the Airraid features, and how exactly they could be utilized against Cal's pass defense. Warning: So much Xs and Os coming up. Your brain will be bleeding with knowledge afterwards.

Note: These plays are not illustrations of what's going on in the accompanying videos. They provide an overall picture of the general intent of the play.


This is probably the bread-and-butter Airraid play. There are many iterations, but basically one of the slot receivers (Y) will angle 90 degrees at the snap and run a horizontal route right behind the defensive linemen.  When facing a 3-4 defense, if the inside linebackers stay outside and stick with the guy running behind them, the quarterback will target the shallow route. If they bite inside to get to Y, the quarterback will try and target the secondary receiver running behind the route (labelled by 2 below). If the linebackers manage to ably cover both with the help of the safeties, he'll throw a fade route to the outside receivers, or dump it off to the running back.

Seems tough to cover, right? It is.




Shallow (via avinashkunnath)

In this play, you see Foles catching the linebackers off guard with play action. They back up on the play to scramble and cover their zones. Only problem is they let the underneath man slip under them and he runs right past them. Keeping a man draped in front of the shallow receiver is essential to preventing big pickups on the shallow route.

ShallowHybrid.wmv (via avinashkunnath)

This play shows how the shallow route doesn't necessarily have to target the horizontal receiver to be effective.  The underneath outside receiver #18 runs a shallow route; if the linebacker (in this case, Mike Mohamed) stays in his zone, Foles will dump it to #18 who should turn upfield for the first down. If the linebacker bites on the read, Foles can throw it to Antolin, who sneaks out of the backfield and runs a little under route. In this case Mohamed bit and Antolin snares it for a big gain.

Crossing route



Similar to the shallow route, except the receiver is much more pronounced in moving downfield. The receiver will usually do this when the linebackers shade toward one side of the field or the sidelines, leaving the area between the hashmarks wide open.  This could be a deadly play, especially if Mohamed isn't 100% for this one.

Option play (click here for the play image)

Option (via avinashkunnath)

Pretty much like the cross, except the receiver stops over the middle and receives the catch. Not too much different, usually happens when the linebacker is coming across to try and make the tackle and the receiver is content with the yards he's picked up already.




Sounds exactly like what it's called. All the wide receivers run straight up the field; the ones down the sideline streak and attempt to catch fade throws from the quarterback. The slot receiver has the option of sitting in the zone (which is what happens in the clip above), or streaking downfield. The tight end/fullback provides the final option if all the coverage drops back.

Foles will probably test the corners/safeties in this one (he's thrown deep balls into good coverage, including Iowa), especially if the Bears send extra pressure.




Screen1.wmv (via avinashkunnath)

When the cornerbacks play well off the ball, this will leave the defense susceptible to screen passes. The quarterback will usually take a one step drop and deliver a pass sideways to the split end.  In the play above, instead of going for the safety, the slot receiver (Y) blocks out the cornerback with no safety nearby to diagnose the play. This allows a quick gain.

Fake Screen (via avinashkunnath)

When the screen game is successful, they'll go ahead and use multiple iterations to draw the defense out and exploit another weakness. Here's an arc playfake where the slot receiver comes back as if preparing for a screen, but is really baiting the defense to move toward where Foles is looking. That leaves the other side of the field wide open to one-on-one coverage, and when Foles sees everyone playing one way, he curls back for a first down throw to the open receiver.

Cal's corners have been playing pretty close up the past few weeks, so don't expect too many screens. But when you see that cushion emerge, know that Foles has the ability to deliver that ball with confidence.


One aspect that's been used more and more has been the smash concept. The bullet point summary is that you line up two receivers on one side of the ball, have one run a deep route (either inside on a post or outside on a corner), while the other receiver runs a short route (like a hitch, shallow, or regular in route). This takes advantage of either the safety biting too far in (which usually means big gain for the offense) or one of the cornerbacks (usually the nickel back) playing too far out (which usually means big yards after catch for the offense).

Arizona loves to run smash, especially against zone coverage--it only requires the quarterback to read one side of the field, he only has to read one defender (the freed cornerback) and generally it's a very safe throw if you do it right. Because Cal is still primarily a zone coverage team, the Wildcats have used smash concepts to exploit blanket coverages, and you can expect to see a little smash tomorrow night. More on that in the matchup post coming up in a little bit.

I talked a little bit about smash concepts earlier, and Arizona went to them time and time again to get their offense moving on Saturday night.

Iowa at Arizona (via DailyWildcatTV)

The analysis does a decent job (I mean, for a student newspaper it's really good--where's our Daily Cal Hydrotech???) what's going on between receiver and defensive back. I'd like to point out the things Foles does.

0:14: Foles recognizes the side of the field with less coverage--right side, 2 on 3. He instantly reads to that side in what looks like a smash route variant. What usually happens in a smash route is the inside receiver heads to the corner of the end zone, the safety bites and double covers him, leaving the outside receiver to run shallow and try to get inside position on the now out-of-position cornerback. Foles makes the right throw in a tight hole.

2:44: They run the same shallow route, but Iowa was ready and sagged the defensive end back to prepare for it, getting the pick six. I think Arizona ran this play all night, so I can't put too much of the blame on Foles for this one.

3:44: Smash concept variant. The outside receiver runs a hitch again, but the inside receiver runs a straight vertical, fakes to the post and continues on an up route and Foles delivers. The defenders seem to get caught reacting for much of the play; they're so used to the actual smash play that they aren't expecting anything else.

4:10: Arizona makes an adjustment to their bread-and-butter play. Instead of , they have him stop halfway and run a little in route. THIS is the actual smash route, and there's nothing much Airraidish about this one. The receiver draws the corner and the safety on the outside, and the running back runs straight down the field to take out another defensive back. This gives the flat receiver a WHOLE lot of real estate. Foles does a good job looking his receivers on the weak side (remember, Foles almost ALWAYS throws to the side of the field with less cover men) before coming back to his flat receiver, who picks up a huge gain and sets up the game winning score.

There are plenty of other patterns the Wildcats and other Airraid offenses run (curls, hitches, options, fades, sticks), but this probably covers about 90% of what you can expect to see on Saturday night. The fact is Nick Foles is comfortable with throwing many of the big passes, and he has the receivers necessary to reach in and haul the football in. It's a dangerous combo and one the Bears will have all sorts of trouble containing.

5:03: Outside receiver runs something resembling a hitch. Inside receiver runs corner. I think I've seen this play before.

What about the game-winning score? Well, it's the play you've all been waiting for.

Mesh route



If the shallow route I started with is the bread and butter, the mesh is the peanut butter and Nutella. It's a lovely play, one that's almost impossible for defenses to stop if done right. You don't see it often, and usually only in either short-down or red zone situations, but it can be deadly effective when executed properly..

5:18: The game-winning score is the elusive mesh route! Running back draws out the linebackers and leaves the inside receiver with one-on-one again. Foles does a quick three step drop and delivers the ball perfectly.

Unfortunately, this is in the end zone, so you are spared the always comical sight of two defenders running into each other when two receivers cross by each other on their routes. Here are some more interesting versions of this play.

Helpful Links

If you want links to most relevant Airraid articles, start with this amazing cornucopia of links from Smart Football exclusively dealing with the Airraid. Enjoy the rest of your day, because that's how long it'll take to read half of the stuff there.

Smart Football details the smash concept in painstaking detail.

Trojan Football Analysis wrote 14 parts on particular Texas Tech Airraid concepts, mostly stemming from Hal Mumme's staple Airraid plays

Preparing for Houston's Airraid: Bruins Nation

Videos: Nick Foles vs USC 2009, Part 1 and Part 2