One of the perceived limitations of so-called "spread" offenses is that they tend to struggle finishing drives in the red zone. The conventional wisdom is that as the field shrinks, the amount of space available in which the offense can stress the defense vertically is limited, which gives the spread offense's athletes less room to operate. Much of this consternation with spread teams is Gilmorian, in the sense that just because wisdom is conventional, that doesn't make it correct. However, space is an issue in the red zone, and the Air Raid is certainly all about creating space in the defensive backfield. Let's take a look at how the Air Raid handles the red zone by dissecting one of Leach's favorite calls when he's down close. It combines two well-known elements of the Air Raid: Mesh and Wheel. We'll also focus on the receiver who, while he is really really good at wide receivering in general, is really really REALLY good at the route he runs in this particular combination.
Quick note: a working knowledge of the Air Raid basics would probably be helpful with some of the concepts I'll reference, but it is by no means a requirement. If you're interested in the Air Raid as a whole, I would direct you to Brian Anderson's excellent break down in the Air Raid Playbook here at CougCenter.
Also, thanks to Something Snazzy for the super great GIF work.
Mesh/Wheel - Play 1
First let's jump in the WayBack Machine and head to
Albuquerque and the 2013 New Mexico Bowl.
Space is about as compressed as it's going to ever be when you're at the one yard line. The offense essentially has a ten yard by fifty-three yard box in which they have to operate. You can't really stress the defense vertically, so the majority of the stress is going to have to come horizontally, stretching the defense from sideline to sideline. But at the same time, there is still a vertical stress implemented by creating levels.
WSU Offensive Formation
Early (Trips Right, with the Y on the LOS)
This particular combination will always be run out of either Early or Late (Trips Left). Or theoretically out of the Empty look, though I can't recall seeing it out of that formation.
In this case, Connor Halliday checked into Mesh/Wheel, as the X, Dom Williams, adjusted his split closer to the ball. Mesh can take some time to develop, and when space is compressed everything happens just a little bit quicker, so the closer the two meshers are to the ball, the faster they cross, and the easier life should be for the quarterback. Also, Jeremiah Laufasa is going to check-release, meaning he's responsible for a sixth rushing defender if he comes, then releases to the flat if he doesn't. Dom's tight alignment allows for Laufasa to get outside the edge defender a step or two sooner.
Colorado State's Defensive Front
Nickel Personnel, 42 Double A, Cover 1 Shell.
Let's talk goal line defense for a moment. Very broadly speaking, there are two types of goal line defenses: 1) Man press across the board, send the house and get to the QB or RB before he gets going (essentially what CSU does here), or 2) play Cover 7, where you drop every non-DL about four yards deep in the end zone and play a flat zone all the way across, forcing the QB to find a tight window. Pros and cons to both, clearly. Lots of pressure when you bring the house, but you're susceptible to rub routes. Tougher throws for the QB if you sit back in zone, but he gets all day unless a DL makes an individual play. If I'm the OC, I'd much rather see man than zone down here, simply because of the space man defense can create. Plus I almost always like my guy to beat your guy one-on-one.
CSU is going to bring pressure here, but they don't do it particularly well. The strong inside linebacker lines up in a 00 and runs smack into Elliot Bosch, and the Double A-gap alignment of the tackles allows for an easy pick up for the two guards. The edge rushers never get home because the ball is out of Halliday's hand very quickly, and the extra rusher is occupied by Laufasa. Everybody is accounted for.
River Cracraft and Williams are going to Mesh from the Y and X respectively. Cracraft really makes this play work. He beats his man inside, and that defender follows him, of course. But his win also makes the Free Safety hesitate and step towards the line of scrimmage, holding him for a moment before he can get wide to cover the route that will end up getting the ball.
Rickey Galvin runs the wheel, and Gabe Marks runs a slant/post route and simply gets inside leverage on the corner and runs away from him. It's a subtle jab step to the outside that frees him up, then quickness that keeps him free. He uses the space that Cracraft created by influencing the free safety and Halliday delivers the ball on time. Touchdown GOAT.
By drawing the free safety down to the Mesh level, Cracraft has freed up Marks at the Slant/Wheel level. There's your vertical stress placed on the free safety; he's worried about two different areas of the end zone.
Mesh/Wheel - Play 2
Flash forward to 2015 down in the desert. The Cougs led 38-35 with just over 2 minutes to play. A touchdown here really puts the game away, making it two possessions for Arizona to win. Hindsight shows us how important this TD was, as the defense didn't do much to stop 'Zona from scoring one more time. Clutch situations call for clutch players running your best plays. Here we go.
WSU Offensive Formation
Early. Notice Dom's alignment again. Nice and tight.
Arizona Defensive Front
We talked about the two main defenses played on the goal line, but out at the 10, there is a bit more room, so that's not as much the case. Arizona plays a more traditional defense here, although there still isn't really a deep safety.
33 Stack. Man up on Dom, and I think they're playing some sort of pattern match man-zone combo on the trips side. But, oh man, they do not play it very well. Falk could have had four different touchdowns on this play.
It's a hot mess. They have four to cover three on the trips side, which would make me think the OLB over Jamal Morrow has him in coverage, but he doesn't move when Morrow wheels past him. The corner over Dom trails him but runs behind the linebackers, and he's so far away from Dom he might as well be in a different zip code. Nobody actually goes with River on his side of the mesh. The OLB there tries to wall him off and fails miserably, and then they're apparently guarding him with the free safety who is eight yards away from Cracraft and I don't know any more this hurts to watch and I don't even like defense.
Look at this:
That was not good defensing, Arizona. I'd like to say it gets better for you, buuuuuut...
Yeah, Dom was wide open. He rubs off Cracraft, who, again, has the attention of the free safety and pulls him away from the window that the GOAT will fill.
Mama, there go that man again.
The two defenders covering Robert Lewis and Gabe Marks actually exchange when the two receivers cross. The problem is that now you have a defender who is essentially standing still while the GOAT is running full speed across his face. Advantage Marks, and he blows right past the defender. Touchdown, Cougs.
Oh, and Morrow's still open.
Notice how, on both plays, Marks catches the ball almost directly under the uprights. He is stretching the field as much as is physically possible, all for the purpose of creating more space for Falk to throw into.
On the GOAT
So what makes Gabe Marks so good at this particular route? In my opinion, it's two things. First, he just has a knack for understanding where windows are going to be. Part of that is experience in the system and with his QBs, which always helps. But Marks has a preternatural ability to anticipate when, where, and how Connor would and Luke will throw him the ball. Second, while he's not the fastest player on the field, Marks may be the quickest. He's very sudden - to borrow an NFL Combine term - coming out of his breaks, allowing him to quickly create space between him and his defender. And as we've seen, space is at a premium, especially in a compressed area of the field.
So commence the hand-wringing about having to fill that role when Gabe graduates right? Not so fast, my friend. Keep an eye on Tavares Martin, Jr. in the same area of the field. I don't know if he and Gabe have been trading notes, but T-Mart is almost as good on the Slant/Post as Gabe is. He caught the same route (out of Late instead of Early, since Martin is the X) against Arizona a couple weeks ago and it looked like a carbon copy of Marks.
Come Friday afternoon, if you see the Cougs line up in a 3x1 formation, and that lone receiver is tight, keep your eyes on Gabe if it's Early, and T-Mart if it's Late. Dollars to donuts, Mesh/Wheel comin'.
Thanks for reading, and as always, Go Cougs.