When Sonny Dykes came to the California Golden Bears, he talked a good deal about his offensive philosophy. He said that there are a bunch of different ways to fool people. Pre-snap, you can use formations, motions, and shifts to get the defense out of their alignments. You can also use trick plays and post-snap misdirection to spring guys open. A third option is to use tempo to keep the defense from subbing and getting new calls in. This last option is, obviously, the approach favored by Dykes and the Air Raid guys.
New OC Beau Baldwin hasn't made similarly explicit claims about his approach to offense. He says that his offense is “multiple,” but that by itself doesn't really tell us anything. In this post, I'm going to try to provide some answers with Sonny's quote in mind. In particular, I'm going to look at how the Eastern Washington Eagles used formations and alignments to create favorable matchups for their star receiver, Cooper Kupp, in their upset victory over WSU, and I'm going to compare these strategies with the Bear Raid in order to expand on how Baldwin's offensive philosophy will change the look of our offense in the post-Dykes era. If you're into this sort of analysis, I've also written a report breaking down several key matchups from the EWU-WSU game and showing how those different matchups all tied together, which you can preview and get here for $5.
Stretching the Defense with the Air Raid
There are a bunch of different ways to think about calling an offense, and different coaches and systems conceive of play design in different ways. For example, when Tony Franklin was our offensive coordinator, our plays were largely designed to spread the field and to use multiple receivers to force defenders into tough choices, and then to make them wrong no matter what they did. For a classic example of this, let's look at an Air Raid staple called Y-Stick. Here's the basic concept:
On this concept, the Z receiver takes an outside release and runs a Go route down the sidelines, the Y receiver runs a slant, and the RB runs a flat route out of the backfield. This combination of routes attacks the WLB (to the right of the diagram). That's who the QB is going to read. If that WLB sits inside to defend the slant to Y, then the RB will be able to outflank him and get big yards down the sidelines:
If he jumps outside to cover the RB, then it'll open a nice window for the slant to Y:
Without a little help, that WLB is in a bind and can't make a good decision. This play also puts the CB in a similar bind. If he comes up to defend the flat route, then we can hit Z in the hole behind him:
No matter what these two defenders do, they're going to be in trouble, because this combination of routes is designed to stretch zone defenders. The WLB and CB both have to choose between two receivers, and the QB can make sure that their choices are wrong no matter what. This is the kind of thing that the Air Raid does incredibly well.
Now, notice what I didn't talk about in that description. I didn't talk about any receivers having to beat their defender. When you think about offense in this way, talent discrepancies between your players and theirs can be minimized. The burden is (1) on the OC to call plays that stress the defense as much as possible, and (2) on your QB to read the defenders' movements and to throw to where they aren't. The receivers have plenty of coaching-points, to be sure. They can't do just anything. In this system, however, lightly recruited guys like Stephen Anderson and Chad Hansen can come out of nowhere to have big seasons as long as they're open to coaching and can understand their role within the offense.
For similar reasons, positions in the Air Raid are incredibly specialized. Kenny Lawler was the right outside receiver. Trevor Davis was the left outside receiver. With very, very few exceptions, those guys didn't line up anywhere else. They also didn't run very many kinds of routes. They were lined up outside and it was their job to give us a presence down the sidelines, period. Lawler caught slants, curls, and back-shoulder throws. Davis caught go-routes. If we wanted to attack between the hashmarks, then that was someone else's job (Anderson or Treggs). The theory behind this is that if each of your receivers only runs a few routes, then they'll get thousands of reps with them. The defense only gets one week to prepare for you, and so they won't be able to run their plays as well as you run yours. Additionally, this specialization lets young receivers get on the field fast, and explains why we could have so many productive receivers; each guy only had to be good at one thing in order to see the field. Throw in some tempo to keep the defense from re-grouping, and you have an offense that can put up some points even if it's less talented than its opposition.
Of course, if Lawler is always going to be the right outside receiver, then the defense knows exactly how to set their coverage to take away the few specialized routes that he runs well, and you know where to put the CB that's best able to cover him man-to-man. This kind of offense thinks about the game with a bird's eye view, and prioritizes using multiple receivers to spread out the defense instead of using formations, motion, and playcalling to create favorable one-on-one matchups. For this reason, our offense slowed to a crawl against teams that played good man coverage. If a team plays man coverage against Stick, then the concept doesn't work as designed:
Above, I said that Stick worked because it forced defenders to choose between two receivers, and made them wrong no matter what they did. If the defense just locks a man on a man, however, then every defender has only one possible job. They don't have to make any choices, and you can't make them wrong. When the defense does this, the offense has no choice but to win their one-on-one matchups, and that's something that we couldn't do consistently under Dykes.
Creating Matchups with Cooper Kupp
With Eastern Washington's offense against WSU, we see an entirely different philosophy. To be sure, EWU had some zone-beating, multiple-receiver concepts, but their offense was based much more around spotting favorable matchups and alignments when they arose, and on using formations and motion to create those matchups wherever possible. We can see this in EWU's use of Cooper Kupp against the Cougars. EWU was in an interesting position, because Kupp did pretty much everything better than any other receiver on the team. His coaches used him accordingly. Throughout this section, be sure to pay special attention not just to the fact that Kupp does lots of things well; be on the lookout for the points about how EWU's formations work to maximize his ability on a wide variety of routes, and in a wide variety of situations.
Let's start with alignment. The only thing that was consistent about Kupp's alignment against WSU was that he (usually) lined up off the ball. Aside from that, he could appear at just about any position in the formation. Here he is in the slot to the left:
Slot to the right:
Here he is as a flanker to the TE-side of the formation:
And as the inside receiver in trips:
As we’ll see below, this formational diversity gives your playcaller a lot more control over Kupp’s match-ups. While Lawler was always going to be matched up on a CB, and Treggs was always going to be on a S or NB, Kupp can be matched up against anyone, and can run routes that are specifically designed to exploit each of those different matchups.
As I mentioned above, by aligning Kupp in all of these different positions, EWU gave him access to the entire field and let him run a variety of routes against all sorts of defenders. Here, for example, is a TD that he scored in the third quarter against WSU:
EWU is using a 2-TE formation here. By putting two TE's in the game, they draw WSU's safeties in tight to the core of the formation. You can also see that one TE (Y) is running a route directly at the SS, which holds him in the middle of the field. This isolates Kupp 1-on-1 against a CB with no safety help, and takes advantage of his body control and balltracking abilities in the end zone. TD Eagles. Here's another of Kupp's TD's from this game:
This play is almost the opposite of the last one, in that it pulls the safeties out wide and then attacks straight down the middle of the field. Here EWU is going with an empty set, and making Kupp the third receiver in trips to the left. To the right of the diagram, a vertical route pulls the FS away from the middle of the field. To the left of the diagram, the two receivers outside of Kupp do the same to the SS. These split safeties leave the middle of the field wide open, and isolate Kupp on a slant-and-go against the MLB, which is a horrible matchup for WSU. The MLB is completely frozen by the slant fake, and Kupp is untouched from the snap to the end zone.
Several times against WSU, EWU took advantage of Kupp's speed by attacking the heart of the defense with shallow crosses:
On this play, EWU is distracting the WOLB on the right of the diagram with an intermediate route by F, coming from the right. Because of this, that WOLB doesn't see Kupp on the crosser until it's too late, and is unable to drive on the ball and make a play.
Kupp's last catch was one of my favorite playcalls of the game, and took advantage of his ability to find zone windows in the intermediate range. Let me set the scene for you: EWU is leading WSU 38-35 with 2:25 left in the game. The Eagles have the ball at the WSU 48, and it's 3rd and 8. Everyone in Martin Stadium is on their feet going nuts, because they know that if WSU can get a stop here they'll get the ball back with a good chance to score. At this point, EWU dials up a variant that they hadn't yet run in this game:
Kupp runs the 12-yard dig and finds a window between two LB's. The QB drops it in to him for the completion and the first down, and the crowd goes silent. On the very next play, EWU's QB runs a Zone Read through the stunned Cougar defense for a 37-yard TD, putting EWU up 45-35 with 1:47 left in the game.
Kupp is a great player, to be sure, and there's a reason that he's going to get drafted out of an FCS school. It takes more than a great player to put up the stats that he does, though. Over the years EWU's offensive coaches have moved him around and used formations and other players' routes to manipulate the defense so that they can maximize Kupp's many talents. In the plays that we've seen, he's run a fade against a CB on the outside, a shallow cross, an intermediate dig, and a slant-and-go right down the middle of the field. In the rest of the game he caught slants and curls, got involved in the play-action and roll-out game, and even ran some sweeps. This all suggests that, under Baldwin, if a player can do more, he will do more. The benefits of this system won't necessarily be felt immediately. It takes a lot of experience to be able to run all of these routes well and to get into and out of all of these alignments. A young guy won't necessarily be able to come in and do all of this right away. On the plus side, he doesn't have to; there's no reason that Kupp's production couldn't be split between several less-versatile receivers. Over time, however, this system will develop more well-rounded receivers at the top of the depth chart, and their versatility will get us out of some of the matchup difficulties that we had under our previous coaching staff. Go Bears!