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Know Your Enemy: Previewing Washington State's Air Raid Offense

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The Air Raid returns a third year quarterback and the deepest WR corps Mike Leach has had at Wazzu. Hold onto your butts.

Just another day in the Mike Leach era in Pullman.
Just another day in the Mike Leach era in Pullman.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

As exciting as the past two Cal games have been, this Saturday's game could top both.  We're taking on Sonny Dykes' mentor Mike Leach and his Air Raid offense.  Leach's Cougs have improved year after year and grown from conference doormat to a bowl team.  The third year of the Air Raid could be the most explosive iteration yet, even if the record does not necessarily imply that.  In 2013 the Air Raid was a grind-it-out offense that slowly but steadily moved down the field.  It was not an explosive offense.  Things have changed this year.  Washington State's 104 plays of 10+ yards lead the nation and they're in the top-15 in number of 20-, 30-, 40-, and 50-yard plays from scrimmage.  They were pretty good at generating 10+ yard plays last season, but merely average at producing longer plays.  This is helping Washington State average over 100 yards per game more than they generated last year and increase their yards per play by an impressive 1.2 yards.  However, the Cougs have only turned this additional yardage into an additional 3 points per game.  Will the Cougs put everything together and explode for 50+ points this weekend?

Passing

As the Air Raid name suggests, passing is a major component of Mike Leach's offense.  The Cougars pass on 75.6% of plays.  As I mentioned in the intro, this is a much more productive Air Raid attack and for good reason.  The offense is anchored by Connor Haliday, who is in his third year of the offense.  He has several experienced receivers to throw to, as 9 of last season's top 10 receivers return.  Let's take a look at how this Air Raid takes flight.

Scheme

First, I'd like to recognize the terrific efforts of our SBN brethren at Coug Center.  If you do not check out Coug Center on a regular basis, you are missing out.  Despite being a small-market team that hasn't enjoyed much success over the past ten years, the staff at Coug Center runs a fantastic site that is usually among the Pac-12's most popular sites on SBN.  Thanks to their efforts, this preview practically writes itself. Their multi-part series on the Wazzu Air Raid is a fantastic introduction to the Cougs' offense. Several of the concepts I describe today are pulled directly from the abundance of posts in that series. Secondly, Smart Football has an equally impressive history of the Air Raid offense. If you have not read it in the past, bookmark it and check it out when you get some free time.

A master of the spread offense, Mike Leach wants to stretch the defense both vertically (downfield) and horizontally (across the field). This will be a common theme throughout this section. To learn more about schematics of spreading the field check out this article by Smart Football.

Now, let's dive into the Air Raid playbook. I'm following Coug Center's example by highlighting several concepts. While the exact combination of routes may vary from play to play, these are some basic constants we should repeatedly see on Saturday.

Mesh

The mesh is a staple of Mike Leach's Air Raid.

Mesh_uwplay1_medium

As the image above illustrates, it is characterized by two extremely shallow crossing routes. The Washington State receivers pass each other closely enough that they could high five (and they occasionally do so during practice). The strong-side inside receiver (Y) usually goes slightly deeper, with the weakside inside receiver (H) just under him. Meanwhile the outside receivers head downfield to pull the cornerbacks (and a safety or two) down the field. If the defense devotes too many players to defending the crossing routes, the deep routes will be wide open. Meanwhile, the RB on wheel route may sneak into space. Coug Center explains why this is such a reliable play:

The mesh concept works so well because of the stress it puts on both man, and zone defensive coverages. Shallow crossing routes are extremely difficult to guard in man coverage, not only because of the typical speed mismatch of an inside receiver on a linebacker, but also because of the sheer chaos that exists that close to the line of scrimmage. Even referee positioning comes into play because of the cluttered mass of bodies.

There are multiple ways this play can succeed.  Here is one example:

Ba-cal-gif---mesh-q1-12

The outside receiver has a pretty easy catch in one-on-one space, but that's not the biggest issue here. Watch the inside receivers on the crossing routes. The one running towards the top of the screen is WIDE open. When the outside linebacker blitzes, that part of the field opens up.  The DB covering the inside receiver at the top of the screen follows him towards the bottom of the screen but no one picks up the other inside receiver who runs towards the top.  The middle linebacker and outside linebacker at the bottom of the screen drop back into coverage.  The only person who can make a play on that wide open receiver is Avery Sebastian (#4), but he's 10 yards down the field.  You're probably getting tired of reading this after the last few weeks, but it's key for the Cal defense to keep track of all these receivers, particularly on intersecting routes that create traffic among defenders.

The following gif illustrates what happens when you lose a receiver on the shallow crossing route.  This isn't quite the mesh I described above; it's a shallow cross concept (the boundary side outside WR runs the cross) with the RB running a sit/option.  The outside receiver running the crossing route loses his defender when his route crosses the RB's route.  Because the LB cannot simultaneously defend two people going in opposite directions (NFL scouts would love that), he releases the outside receiver and picks up the RB.  This leaves the receiver wide open.  The outcome is unpleasant.

Eleventhimage_medium_medium

Did you notice how far the deep route at the top of the screen stretches the defense vertically? Again, these horizontal and vertical aspects can open huge holes in the defense.

The linebackers, particularly, have a lot to keep track of during the mesh play.  In this next clip, watch the poor outside linebacker near the top of the screen. First he has to keep track of one inside receiver on a mesh, then he sees the RB running a wheel route, then he has to come back and try to tackle the other mesh receiver.

Q1-353-full_medium_medium

Defending the mesh takes mental discipline.

Here we go again: The outside linebacker goes after the RB's route while Michael Lowe and Avery Sebastian run into each other at the mesh point.

Sixteenthimage_medium_medium

Who needs wide receiver blocking when you can have defenders block each other?

Wheel

The Wheel is a play the Cougs like to run in the red zone. Fundamentally, it's a pretty simple concept. The inside receiver runs a wheel route while the outside receiver usually runs a slant (pictured below) or a curl.

Wheel_double_medium

Simple, yes. Simple to stop, no. Coug Center explains:

Coach Leach likes to use the combination of a wheel route with a curl by the outside receiver. We've seen the other routes vary in some plays, but this particular combination is used heavily, regardless of what the other routes are doing. Any time two receivers cross, man coverage is susceptible. Using the wheel in combination with a curl also allows the route to exploit zone coverage by vertically stressing the sideline zone.

Here the Cougs execute the wheel in the red zone. Michael Lowe falls step behind amid the intersecting receivers and gives Bartolone just enough space to haul in his second touchdown of the day.

Ba-cal-gif---wheel-q4-7

Once again, Mike Leach uses traffic against the defense by putting too many bodies in one place at one time (the point at which the routes cross).  That split-second delay turns into a Wazzu touchdown.

Four Verts

As the name implies, the Four Verticals concept has all four receivers charging down the field. Coug Center explains the details of spacing in the four verts.

Wide outs will outside release and run upfield just outside the numbers, or on them depending on which hash the ball is spotted. This allows a receiver space to "fade" to the outside on a deep ball. From the top (inside) of the numbers to the sideline is around 9 yards; about 6 yards is needed for the quarterback to drop in a fade over the defender or for the receiver to create some separation on a break.

Inside receivers get down the hash. This creates equal spacing among the deep routes, which translates to a sideline-to-sideline coverage by the defense. The running back is the outlet, setting up in an open pocket underneath.

Fourverts_diagram_medium

On these routes the QB has two throwing options. He can throw a back-shoulder pass so the receiver catches it in stride or he can throw it so the receiver curls back for the ball. If the receiver gains separation from the defender, the QB will throw the back-shoulder pass; otherwise, he'll throw to the curl route.

Here is the curl version:

Ba-cal-gif---shoulder-q2-12

Although Steve Williams has great coverage on the receiver, there's not much he can do to defend this. If the pass is underthrown, he has a great chance to intercept it. Otherwise, he has to wrap up after the catch and prevent any yards after catch.

I think the following was supposed to be the back shoulder version, but it's underthrown, which forces the receiver to break stride to catch it.

Ba-cal-gif---shoulder-q4-4

If the defense isn't paying attention, the RB can easily run into the huge gap between the LBs and the DBs.

All Curl

Next, we'll cover a play that initially looks like the four verts...until the receivers all stop running their routes. This is the All Curl.

The all curl has a few distinct advantages; all receivers will be facing the quarterback, present stationary targets and be scattered across the field sideline to sideline. The receiver will push the first steps of a curl route, selling a vertical to drive the defender deeper before breaking off in an open zone.

Allcurl_uw2_medium

The goal here is to bait the defense into thinking these are vertical routes. When inside receivers make the transition from being covered by linebackers to being covered by safeties, they stop and find that seam in the zone defense. Meanwhile, outside receivers can simply stop while their CBs keep flying downfield. This creates enough space for an easy reception.

H and Y [inside receivers] will typically inside release and find the soft spots in the coverage zones between the outside and inside backers on either side, settling in front of the safeties. X and Z [outside receivers] will sell verticals and break at 5 yd, turning inside toward the quarterback. Unless the coverage allows them to be a little greedy.

This is a great short yardage option (3rd downs, particularly) because it's such an easy completion. Ideally the receiver will have a bit of space and it's a quick throw.

It's less useful in the red zone because the field is shorter, which means the DBs are less likely to be baited into stretching the field vertically. It also offers limited potential for yards-after-catch. Another disadvantage is that it's an easy pick six if the pass is late, but that requires the DB to get in position very quickly.

Screens

In our final concept I will introduce Randy and Larry.  This is simply code for a wide receiver screen.  If it's thrown to the right, it's a Randy.  If it's to the left, it's a Larry.  Washington State has two variants of the screen: one with three receivers and one with two receivers.  First up is the three-receiver screen:

At its best, a wide receiver screen will leave the ball carrier one-on-one with just a safety -- who is more than five yards off the ball -- to beat for daylight. At its worst, a corner or outside linebacker blows the whole thing up in your face. (Think Damante Horton on Marquise Lee at USC last season.) They're usually reliable for some small chunk yardage, and always hold the better than good possibility of busting loose for something major at least once during a game. (Think Dom Williams on the winning drive against USC.)

Short passes -- these screens in particular -- are said to be a "run game substitute" in the Air Raid because, in essence, they attack boundary defenders the same way a toss sweep would. As such, WSU puts in work at practice, to the tune of about 70 reps daily, in a WR blocking drill called "Block It Up."

Wrblocking
The drill pits three wide receivers against two defensive backs, with one of the receivers catching the screen and the other two working man-to-man blocking. The quarterback running the drill decides which receiver gets the ball, signalling to the three*. The technique for man-blocking as a wide receiver is simple: Get your hands inside and drive your feet. Whichever way the DB wants to go, let him, and drive him out of position that direction. This helps avoid the holding calls that'll happen when a back gains position and the receiver fights to turn him.

If Wazzu only has two receivers, it will solicit some outside help from the offensive line. At the top of the screenshot below Wazzu has two receivers and will throw a screen to the outside receiver.  Without the third WR around the block, the receiver will rely on blocks from the offensive line.  The tackle blocks the inside DB and the guard motors downfield to block the safety.

Randy_sg_scribbles

Here is the play in action.

Screen-gif

The blocking assignments from the offensive linemen will vary depending on the alignment of the defense.

This week will feature the fifth variant of the spread offense our defense has seen.  Although each offense has its own unique take on the spread, they have all utilized similar concepts: spreading the field, creating numerical advantages, and forcing defense to communicate well and know their assignments.  Let's hope they've ironed out the problems from the last five quarters.

Statistics

As we will see, the Air Raid is flying high this season.

  • 480.8 passing yards per game (1st)
  • 152.90 QB efficiency (30th)
  • 8.0 yards per attempt (44th)

Washington State was one of the most productive passing offenses in the nation last year, in part because they throw the ball 58 times per game.  Although they're throwing more per game this year (60 passes), they are much more efficient.  Those QB efficiency statistics and yards per attempt stats are much improved over last season's numbers.   Here is a comparison of Halliday's stats last year and this year.

  • QB #12 Connor Halliday (2013): 353.6 yards per game, 6.4 yards per attempt, 62.9% completions, 34 TDs, 22 interceptions, 126.52 QB efficiency rating
  • QB #12 Connor Halliday (2014): 463.6 yards per game, 7.8 yards per attempt, 67.2% completions, 20 TDs, 7 interceptions, 149.74 QB efficiency

What's most frightening about Washington State's improvement is that everyone is sharing the yards; this isn't a case where one receiver is having a breakout season.  The leading receiver averaged 62.1 yards per game last season and none of these returning receivers had more than 50 yards per game.  Now Wazzu has four receivers averaging more than 75 yards per game.  That's an incredible improvement.

  • WR #88 Isiah Myers: 95.6 yards per game, 7.2 receptions per game, 5 TDs
  • WR #1 Vince Mayle: 88.0 yards per game, 8.0 receptions per game, 5 TDs
  • WR #21 River Cracraft: 101.0 yards per game, 8.0 receptions per game, 3 TDs
  • WR #80 Dom Williams: 77.8 yards per game, 3.8 receptions per game, 6 TDs
  • WR #5 Rickey Galvin: 47.0 yards per game, 4.0 receptions per game, 2 TDs

Part of this improved production is due to Wazzu's absurd yards-after-catch numbers.  Check out this chart from CougCenter.

Yac_w4_medium

THIS is why Wazzu is enjoying a huge increase in its number of 20-, 30-, 40-, and 50-yard plays.

Now let's meet Halliday and his incredibly deep crew of receivers.

Personnel

Senior quarterback Connor Halliday is an Air Raid veteran.  The 6' 4", 201 lb quarterback is averaging 60 passes per game.  His 4,597 passing yards last season set a Washington State record and was second in conference history.  He is currently on pace to break 6,000 yards this year, which would set an NCAA record.

Halliday had his best performance of the conference schedule against Cal last year (who didn't?) with 521 yards and 3 TDs.  He's been inconsistent throughout his career, however.  A week after his stellar performance against Cal last season, Halliday threw 3 interceptions and only 248 yards against a below-average Oregon State defense.  It's not unusual for him to throw interceptions (in part because he throws the ball so often).  He only had one game last season without an interception and had 6 multi-interception games last year.  He has one game this season without an interception (Oregon, surprisingly enough) and 3 multi-interception games.  Other than a 389-yard, 1TD, 2 interception game against Nevada, he has had several strong performances this year.

Halliday is enjoying the best wide receiver corps of Mike Leach's tenure.  The only receiver being replaced is Gabe Marks whose 807 yards and 7 TDs led the team last year. Several of their receivers are large enough that our DBs might be at a disadvantage in certain situations.  The 6' 3", 219 lb Vince Mayle and 6' 2", 190 lb Dom Williams could be a handful.  Williams is the team's best deep threat and hopefully will not pull an Austin Hill on us.  Mayle caught 4 passes for 113 yards and 2 TDs against us last year while Williams was mostly held in check with 1 reception for 7 yards.

Isiah Myers (6' 0", 189lb), River Cracraft (6' 0", 199lb), and Rickey Galvin (5' 8", 173lb) are all more manageable sizes.  None of the aforementioned players had a strong performance against Cal last year.

While Washington State returns plenty of talent in the passing game, its offensive line underwent some changes this offseason.  The Cougs are replacing the right tackle, right guard, and center and losing 90 collective starts among those graduating players.  The left side of the line is anchored by guard Gunnar Ekund and tackle Joe Dahl who share 33 starts between them.  Fortunately for the newbies, Wazzu's distinctive wide splits among linemen and quick passes make pass protection easier.  Washington State's sack numbers are about the same as they were last season.

Rushing

Should I even bother to talk about Washington State's running game?

Worstrbever_medium

Washington State is breaking in a pair of new running backs.  Last year's leading RB Marcus Mason does not have a single carry this season.  I am not sure why this is.  The team's second-leading RB started at safety against Rutgers earlier this year and has since left the team.  Of course, this does not have a huge impact on the offense as Wazzu runs on only 24.4% of plays.

Scheme

LiffeyBear covered all the main aspects of the Wazzu running game yesterday.  If you have not yet read his piece, I strongly recommend it.  It's okay, I'll still be here when you're done.

Another point worth mentioning is that Washington State has involved its running backs heavily in the passing game.  The Wazzu RBs were targeted for 131 passes last season (compared to 212 rushing attempts).  Look for them to be involved via wheel routes and an occasional 5-7 yard route on an all-verts type of play.

Statistics

Is anyone surprised that Washington State is the least productive rushing team in the nation?  And it's not merely because they rarely run the ball.  Their efficiency numbers are terrible.

  • 52.20 rushing yards per game (125th)
  • 2.69 yards per carry (119th)

Wazzu's 19.4 carries per game are the fewest in the nation, with 26 being the next fewest in the nation.  The Cougars are one of 5 teams with 1 or fewer rushing touchdowns.

Washington State's poor yards-per-carry numbers are deflated by sacks, as their RBs are reasonably efficient when running.

  • RB #25 Jamal Morrow: 33.6 yards per game, 0 TDs, 4.2 yards per carry, 8 carries per game
  • RB #23 Gerard Wicks: 29.6 yards per game, 1 TD, 4.35 yards per carry, 6.8 yarries per game

Of course, with only 15 combined carries per game among them, their modestly efficient carries do not amount to much total yardage.

Personnel

The Cougars' two freshman backs have combined for 74 of the team's 79 carries.  5' 8", 187lb Jamal Morrow and 5' 11", 211 lb Gerard Wicks will lead the Cougars' rushing attack.

Finally, I think's important to reiterate this point I made earlier on:

Worstrbever_medium

Miscellaneous

And now for the bits and pieces we could not tackle earlier.

Total Offense

The Cougs are generating many more yards per game than they did last season but their points per game has not changed much since last season (31.8).  Of course, I said the same thing about Colorado last week and they seemed to find a way to light up the scoreboard.

  • 33.8 points per game (53rd)
  • 533 yards per game (14th)
  • 6.70 yards per play (24th)

Those yards per game and yards per play numbers are up from 421 yards and 5.48 yards, respectively, in 2013.

Conversions

The Cougs are pretty good at converting 3rd downs but their red zone possessions have not been as productive as they would hope.

  • 47.30% third down conversions (30th)
  • 60.71% red zone touchdowns (74th)

As we saw with Cal's offense last year, a one-dimensional passing offense will generally struggle in the red zone as the field gets increasingly congested with defenders.  The end zone limits the offense's ability to stretch the field vertically.

Negative Yardage

This may help explain why the Cougs' increased yardage is not necessarily turning into points.  They find themselves moving backwards far too often.

  • 2.40 sacks allowed per game (92nd)
  • 6.00 tackles for loss allowed per game (74th)
  • 62.6 penalty yards per game (88th)
  • 11 turnovers (109th)

Actually, 62.6 penalty yards per game isn't bad for a team that has to suffer through Pac-12 refs on a regular basis.

Clock Management

Fortunately the Cal defense will probably not face a third-consecutive game with 100+ plays from the opposing offense.

  • 29:40.20 avg. time of possession (66th)
  • 79.6 plays per game
  • 22.36 seconds per play (fast pace)

The seconds per play number should be taken with a grain of salt, as Wazzu does not run the ball very often.  Teams that run the ball often tend to burn through the clock faster because the clock will be running more often between plays.

Conclusion

To wrap things up, we turn to Brian Anderson's poignant summary of Wazzu's philosophy on offense.

In the Air Raid, the pass plays are concepts because each route works in conjunction with the others in an effort to maximize open space. The vertical opens the shallow cross, the swing opens the mesh to the inside, and even triangle concepts work with three or four receiver routes.  It is a field read for the quarterback, not a half field read, or single defender read.

Everything eventually boils down to a choice: One defender somewhere is going to be forced to defend one route over another, no matter how many coverage defenders you have on the field.  Teams have opted for man coverage to limit that very weakness, so now you have to exploit the defender in man coverage that has no business trying to defend that route, which is only slightly more difficult.  That's where the receivers need to up their game.

Ironically, if we allow 521 yards and 44 points to Wazzu like we did last year, we may be in a good position to win this game.  Strap in, Cal fans.  It's going to be a thrilling Saturday night in Pullman.  Don't forget to take your heart medication.