We hear it all the time with the Air Raid offense: spread the field, find the gaps in the defense, exploit the space, put your playmakers in the open field and let them run. But the opposite concept can be effective as well. If you bring everybody down closer into the box, it brings a whole host of problems for the defense. You have a lot of bodies in a limited amount of space, and you force the defense to have to have very good eye discipline to maintain a proper read on their keys. The opponent for Washington State this week, the Colorado Buffaloes, are generally a spread team, but they will run about fifteen to twenty snaps from a tight formation where all eleven offenses players are within about a five yard radius of the football. They will sprinkle in some pre-snap motion and misdirection to hide the ball from the defense, and they will use the alignment of both the offense and the defense to create natural rubs to help free receivers.
Colorado runs the ball a fair amount out of this formation, but it’s pretty standard fare: Inside zone, outside zone, with the accompanying slice blocks by the H-back to protect the backside and set up the zone read. But they are much more effective while dropping back to pass, and particularly out of the play-action series from the Ace Tight look. So we’ll forgo establishing the run and get straight to the good stuff.
A very simple pass concept to start with. All four receivers will run to a spot five yards off the line and hook up. The receiver to the top of the screen will run a speed out due to the placement of the ball on the near hash. All Colorado is trying to do here is spread the defense horizontally. By aligning in the tight formation, that forces the second level defenders in a bit, making them have to react a bit harder to the spread of the receivers. That should widen the gaps in the coverage just enough for QB Steven Montez to find some daylight. Here he hits Brady Russell, the H-back with the distinctively coiffed hair. As an aside, Russell is somewhat of a key to their offense. Following him will often take you to the ball, particularly in the run game.
Colorado will also show this look and run verticals from the two inside receivers, hoping to pull the safeties in as they expect the hitch routes in front of them.
Everybody Air Raids™.
This is the version of the Mesh that we’ve seen in a couple different instances, most notably Minnesota in the Holiday Bowl way back when. It has a third receiver sit in the soft spot of the mesh point. In this case, it gives the receiver crossing from high to low a double rub. The benefit of running Mesh out of the tight formation is that it gives the secondary a whole bunch of traffic that they have to sift through to locate the receivers, particularly if they’re playing any sort of man concept. The defensive back charged with chasing the receiver that catches the pass—Tony Brown, who might be Colorado’s best receiver since Laviska Shenault has been unable to remain healthy—has to fight through another receiver going vertical across his face, then the double rub, then has to chase Brown to the sideline. Invariably, he’s going to bump into somebody.
Let’s jump to the play-action stuff. Colorado will try to hide its H-backs/tight ends some with this formation and slip them out into the flat or the seam to try to catch the defense over-committing to the run and losing integrity. In the play below, they’ll give Nebraska a heavy run read, showing inside zone to the offense’s right. They’ll then slip Brady Russell into the flat on the backside. Nebraska isn’t fooled in the slightest.
It’s very good patience on that particular Husker defender’s part, and playing a man under concept helps keep him home. It would have been easy for him to have read zone and flowed to the bottom of the screen, and it wouldn’t have taken much more room for Russell to win the race to the sideline for a chunk play.
Here’s another play-action look, this one coming off the outside zone play. In this play, Colorado will flood the top of the screen, running a corner route and a drag route from the two receivers, and then sliding the H-back across formation—mimicking the slice block that he often does—and slipping him into the flat. Montez will show the outside zone then boot back to the short side of the field and look for one of the three options.
This time the Nebraska linebackers do take a read step in the direction of the flow, but they’re able to recover pretty quickly. The corner at the top of the screen does a really nice job baiting this throw from Montez. He slow plays the drop to the corner route knowing he has help over the top because of the roll out by Montez, then makes a nice grab for the interception.
Last but not least, let’s look at the speed sweep out of the tight formation. Colorado will bring a receiver—usually Shenault, if he’s on the field—in a short motion and give him the ball hoping to beat the defense to the edge. They’ll also do this out of shotgun and run the Bob Stitt fly sweep with the volleyball tap to the receiver. Colorado will also show zone action away from the sweep to try and freeze the defenders for a beat. That slight bit of hesitation is really all you need with a receiver running full tilt in the opposite direction.
By bringing everyone in tighter to the formation, it shortens the distance to the edge, forcing the defense to have to react even more quickly to effectively stop this play. Everything is a little bit hidden too; Montez has his back to the defense, so they can’t really immediately see who ends up with the ball, and the zone action really influences the linebackers. And of course, there’s always the possibility of faking the sweep and giving to the running back on the inside zone play to the offense’s left.
For the Washington State Cougars to come out with a Homecoming victory on Saturday, the defense is going to have make a couple of plays. (Yes, I typed that with a straight face. Why are you asking?) Against the tight formation that Colorado uses, that will mean maintaining discipline and not overpursuing, and not getting sucked down further into the box by play action and getting beaten over the top. Colorado has survived on chunk plays from Montez, so staying over the top of the offense will be of paramount importance.