In the weeks leading up to the Crimson and Gray game, we've been presenting an Air Raid playbook series. The hope is that you'll get a better understanding of how the offense works and why it's conceptually able to exploit defenses, and if you're able to apply that to enhance your enjoyment of watching the Cougs, all the better.
The Air Raid has been in the college football spotlight for a little over a decade and many of these pass concepts have been covered elsewhere on the internet. For a history of the Air Raid offense, I would suggest (seriously cannot link to this enough) Chris Brown's Air Raid Opus. I'll dedicate a post to the the all external links I used to compile these at the end of the series, but for now I'll link in text to the source of the diagrams I didn't create.
I'll be pulling some concept diagrams from not only that article, but a few others I've stumbled across. What should make this a unique X and O series for you, the WSU fan, is that I've included diagrams of plays we saw in games for each concept. We'll be supplementing the rudimentary scheme guidelines with some in game examples, so you can see how these different concepts work in a game situation, not just on the chalk board.
Coach Leach, along with his mentor Hal Mumme, used the BYU offense of Lavelle Edwards as a basis for their Air Raid offense. Shallow crossing routes, run under five yards from the line of scrimmage, are a major part of this offense.
At BYU, the mesh looked like this.
BYU pass concepts with reads by Norm Chow LINK
The mesh Coach Leach now runs at WSU is a little different from this BYU starting block. The post route on the outside was changed to a corner route, and the depth of the mesh is a little more shallow. It now looks something like this.
In Coach Leach's mesh the Y receiver will set the depth, typically around 3-4 yards, or right on the toes of the linebackers. H will run underneath (closer to the line of scrimmage) Y, so close they can touch. This concept is actually practiced with the receivers high-fiving to get used to the spacing.
The read progression starts on the outside, with a peek at the corner route. Anytime you see a corner route diagrammed for an Air Raid play here, know that the receiver will run to open space, not follow any strictly defined path (i.e. count steps and break). He is free to push the depth a little, or flatten it out depending on where the space is.
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.
Zone coverage is also tested with a triangular stress. We briefly covered how a defensive zone is vertically and horizontally stressed in the first post of this Air Raid series (LINK), and Chris Brown details much more about triangle stresses here.
The running back swings to the flat. His route places vertical stress on the corner, and horizontal stress on the corner/backer. The second progression moves to the H on the shallow crossing route. He will sit in an open zone, or continue toward the sideline and angle upfield against man coverage. The third read is to the running back. If the corner is covered deep and the mesh is covered inside, it stands to reason the running back will be able to get some yardage. From there it moves to the Y crossing route then X along the back sideline.
This play to Bret Bartolone in the first quarter of the Apple Cup perfectly demonstrates a triangle stress concept.
The Sam, or strong side linebacker is highlighted in red because he will be the player read by quarterback Jeff Tuel. Corners are playing deep, around 7 yards off the ball and the two high safeties are deep inside the hash marks. Everything about this alignment signals Cover 4, meaning Sam (#41) will be responsible for the flat.
You can see where Carl Winston at running back draws him toward the sideline with his swing route, creating just enough space for Bret Bartolone to sit and Tuel to find him.
Below, we look at another mesh play from the game against Cal. We see where the corner (primary) route is targeted by Connor Halliday. Isaih Meyers (Z) gets some decent separation and breaks it off toward the sideline, past the first down marker.
Jeff Nusser also described a mesh play from the Cal game using a sweet electronic whiteboard. In his breakdown, you can again see the outside linebacker being drawn to the flat and creating space for the mesh route to sit.
This play, as Jeff describes in the video, should be one of the easier plays for you to identify on television because everything happens so close to the line of scrimmage. It's versatile, being able to exploit both man and zone coverages and can target the sideline just as easily as the middle of the field. Expect to see the mesh play a lot.