How the Air Raid Offense has Given Josh McCown Life
What is and is not a “college” offense is semantics. NFL offenses are running many of the same concepts found in prominent, or even unique, college offenses. There are tweaks here and there, and NFL teams operate more often under center, but the passing concepts remain constant. At the end of the day, offense is offense.
The Air Raid is a common system ran at the college level. In short, the Air Raid is designed to throw often and throw aggressively; it stresses defenses both vertically and horizontally. Four and five wide receivers sets are commonplace, and most play concepts require all five eligible pass-catchers to run routes, or at least have the option to. The offense is ran almost exclusively out of shotgun and/or pistol formations.
It is a unique offense. Air Raid offenses consistently rank near the top in “pass play percentage,” meaning what portion of their overall plays are passes. Most offenses just do not throw that often, nor do they operate with four and five wide receivers like the Air Raid does. The uniqueness of the offense has birthed a reputation that the system is gimmicky or unfit to translate to the pro level. That is simply untrue. While the Air Raid may package things a little differently, many of the core concepts are NFL-friendly.
That brings us to the New York Jets. Believe it or not, the Jets are at the forefront for opening up the modern NFL offense with Air Raid concepts. First year offensive coordinator John Morton is piecing together a wonderful offense, even if the Jets do not have the horsepower to accomplish anything. Morton spent the previous two seasons under Sean Payton’s tutelage in New Orleans as a wide receivers coach. For the four seasons before that, Morton was in San Francisco during the Jim Harbaugh era, also as a wide receivers coach. The influence from both Harbaugh and Payton can be seen in Morton’s offense, but it is the shades of Payton and the Air Raid that are more intriguing.
In all reality, the Saints are also an Air Raid offense — at least as close as the NFL is going to get to a true Air Raid. Morton has brought many of those principles to New York, as well as some of his own. The aggressive, wide-open concepts have given veteran quarterback Josh McCown some life as he finishes out the back-nine of his career. Let’s take a look at the Air Raid offense and how the Jets are utilizing it…
Hitch + Seam
Let’s start with an Air Raid staple that Morton has committed to through the first half of this season. A “Hitch” + “Seam” combination can stress one-deep and two-deep safety looks alike. It can stretch vertically as well, as it provides a quick game element, if the quarterback feels the “Hitch” is open.
To the bottom of the screen is a “Hitch” + ”Seam” combination in its simplest form. The outside receiver pushes to about five yards, then stops and shows hands to the quarterback. The slot receiver runs a straight vertical down the seam, hence the name of the route. Versus Cover-3, as in this example, the flat defender has to either wall the vertical initially or immediately sprint to cover the “Hitch” route. If he carries vertically, which he should and often will, then the “Hitch” will be open. If not, the “Seam” player can sit between the two deep-thirds and be open there.
McCown knows the “Hitch” will be open if the coverage is Cover-3, as indicated pre-snap by the one-deep safety and cornerbacks in a deep, hips-open alignment. Once the ball is snapped, McCown quick peeks to the back side. The back side receiver is running a stop-n-go, so McCown peeks to him for a second to see if the cornerback will bite. McCown quickly sees that the cornerback does not bite. Without hesitation, McCown turns and fires the ball to the “Hitch” player for a solid gain.
It is easy to add to the “Hitch” + ”Seam” combination, too. An additional play-side route can be added without disrupting the core concept. Likewise, the north/south nature of the concept allows for the back-side of plays to run an entirely different concept because it will not interfere with the play side.
“Stick” is a staple of the Air Raid. A “Stick” route requires the receiver to stem to about five yards, then make a decision based on the coverage. Versus zone coverage, the receiver will stick his foot in the dirt at the top of the stem, turn around and show hands to the quarterback. Versus man coverage, the receiver can either turn it into a quick “out” route or a “pivot” route, where he plants inside and breaks back outside. Morton likes to attach a “Stick” route to the play-side of his “Hitch” + ”Seam” concept.
Here is an example of being able to run an entirely separate back-side concept. A “Dig” + “Flat” combination on the back-side is typical of an Air Raid offense. The “Dig” can feast over the middle once linebackers have vacated to the play-side. A “Flat” route as an emergency option is viable for most any passing concept and works well here. In this example, McCown liked the back-side matchup and found the “Dig” player for a big gain.
Another core Air Raid concept is “Scissors.” “Scissors” features a deep “Post” route and a deep “Corner/Sail” route that intertwine. Both routes stress vertical and force the secondary to make a snap decision as both routes break off in separate directions at the same time. It is primarily used to beat two-deep coverages like Match Quarters and Palms/2-Read. “Scissors” can also give aggressive Cover-3 cornerbacks some trouble.
The Miami Dolphins look to be in Match Quarters or Palms/2-Read coverage here. Under the principles of those coverages, the play-side safety’s responsibility should be the No. 2 (slot) receiver if the No. 1 (outside) receiver goes vertical. The problem is that if the safety does that, the deep middle of the field is exposed. Only the cornerback playing outside leverage has a chance to defend the deep “Post” now. Given the cornerback’s wide pre-snap alignment and the wide receiver breaking inside for the “Post”, this was easy money for McCown and the Jets offense.
As a cherry on top, the running back runs to the flat area to create a 3-level read for the quarterback. The “Post” is the deep player; the “Corner/Sail” is the intermediate player; the running back in the flat area is the short player. Adding the running back out of the backfield forces the defenses to stretch itself thin vertically. The defense can not commit too early or too strongly to any one area without conceding another area. It is difficult to defend properly.
“Scissors” versus Cover-3 is a stressor on the cornerback playing a deep-third. In general, defensive backs are taught to prevent the most vertical route. However, “Scissors” provides two vertical stems side-by-side, so it is difficult to comfortably pick out which vertical threat to focus on. The deep “Post” is the more vertical route, which tends to make aggressive or uncertain cornerbacks bite on the “Post” to help take away the deepest route. That is the route cornerbacks will jump to in a panic.
If the cornerback bites, the “Corner/Sail” route should be wide open. Again, there is a flat player being run under the “Scissors” combination, forcing any underneath defender to remain down low. The relationship between the flat player and the “Corner/Sail” player is very similar to a “Smash” concept.
On this play, McCown wants the deep “Post” route. He tries to slide around and buy time for it to become open, but it never does. McCown realizes that if the cornerback is trailing the “Post” player, then the “Corner/Sail” player should be all by his lonesome. McCown heaves a pass across the field to a wide open receiver for a chunk play.
3-level reads of all sorts are the heart of the Air Raid. Morton has incorporated that principle into his offense, too. In addition to a 3-level “Scissors” concept, Morton likes to feature a 3-level “Wheel” concept. The concept features a deep, intermediate, and short player just like his “Scissors” concept. “Wheel” does not always incorporate a 3-level read, but Morton likes to run it that way.
Though it looks like a “Curl” route, the inside route in this combination is more of a “Dig” route. The difference is “Dig” in this concept will sit down in open space. It is the first read because the idea is that the defense will go vertical with the “Wheel” route. The quarterback reads the “Dig” first, then the “Wheel over the top”, and has a final option to check it down to the flat player, typically a running back.
New England’s defense did a good job of taking away the first read in this example. The cornerback clamps down on the “Dig” from the outside and the linebacker underneath stays tight to the inside of it. McCown could have tossed the “Wheel” over the top, but opted not to. McCown instead checked the ball down to Matt Forte for a 12-yard gain.
Here is another variation of the same concept. McCown throws a bullet to the “Dig” player on this one. Both play side defensive backs trail up the field with the “Wheel” player. The middle linebacker is caught peeking down low toward the running back leaking late out of the backfield. With every defender in the area occupied, McCown has no issue finding the open receiver for a completion.
This “Wheel” concept in particular is collegiate in nature. Teams all across the country use it, and have for decades now. Below are a couple examples of college teams running it: Texas Tech in the early 2000s (first) and Clemson in 2016 (second).
In the Texas Tech example, the running back goes opposite of the core concept, making the “Wheel” only a two-man combo. Clemson ran the concept with a roll out. Clemson also used a back side crosser as the third option in the progression. Morton’s 3-level version of “Wheel” is slightly different than these two examples, but the idea is the same.
College Offense is NFL Offense; Time is a Flat Circle
The handful of Air Raid concepts above are not the only staples of the system. “Y-Cross” (a.k.a. “Weak Flood”), various screens, and other quick-game concepts are also vital to the overall construct of the Air Raid, as well as Morton’s offense. That being said, the concepts covered in this piece are proof that the Air Raid can work in the NFL. Teams all around the league are running these concepts. Some, like Morton, choose to lean on them more than others, but you can find these concepts in any NFL offense. True collegiate Air Raid systems packaging those concepts differently does not make them different concepts.
A key difference between college Air Raids and NFL interpretations is NFL teams can not fully commit to the system. The talent level in the NFL, both in regards to players and coaches, requires offenses to be multiple in their approach. That is not to say teams can not and do not have core principles, but they simply can not fully commit to any one thing the way college teams can. That aspect alone may be what skews the perception of college systems in the minds of many.
Nevertheless, college offense is NFL offense. There are only so many ways four or five players can run on a field with set boundaries. The gap between the two leagues is starting to bridge together faster now more than ever.
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