What makes the Washington State offense so dangerous
Fans of college football over the past decade have become accustomed to hearing about Mike Leach’s “Air-Raid” offenses while he has been head coach first at Texas Tech and now at Washington State. That high-powered passing attack is what makes the Cougars an intriguing team – bordering on top-25 status – entering the 2016 season.
A version of the Air Raid offense began back in the early 1990s with head coach LaVell Edwards at BYU, but the Mike Leach offense could begin to be seen in his days working on the Kentucky coaching staff with head coach Hal Mumme and quarterback Tim Couch. Many of the routes that Couch used at Kentucky to shred defenses, rise to stardom and eventually become the Cleveland Browns’ No. 1 overall pick in the 1999 NFL draft are still used today by Leech and his current Cougars quarterback Luke Falk.
The most basic example of this is the wide receiver tunnel screen. Take a look at this one from Couch at Kentucky …
… and compare it to this one from Falk last year. They are essentially identical.
But what does the “Air Raid” actually mean? Let’s take a look at what makes it work so well, and why we can expect a big year out of the WSU offense this year.
1. It makes things easy on his quarterback and pass-catchers
What is unique about Leach’s offense is that it breaks from the traditional group-think coaching philosophy that quarterbacks must read the specific coverages a defense lines up with. Instead, Leach asks his quarterbacks and wide receivers to do a simple thing: Identify whether the defense is in man coverage or zone coverage.
If the opponent is playing man, the receivers will keep running their routes as drawn up, and the quarterback will go from one progression to the next (most of the time, his progressions are all on the same side of the field, making things even easier on him) and simply identify the open man and throw to him. If the opponent is playing zone, the receivers will cut off their routes and instead settle down in soft spots in the zone, again allowing the QB to solely focus on going through progressions and hitting open targets, not worrying at all about the specific coverage the defense is in. This makes for a very QB-friendly system, with simple reads, wide throwing lanes and a lot of shorter, high-percentage throws.
- Many of their route concepts are coverage-beaters
Two staples of the Air Raid that have been adopted by many different offenses in both college and the NFL are “mesh” and “four verticals.” The “mesh” route combination has two receivers, lined up on opposite sides of the quarterback, run intersecting shallow crossing routes 5-6 yards downfield. The receivers are instructed to slap hands as the cross each other – that’s how close they need to be. What this does is create a pick play against man coverage, whereby the defenders run into each other or one of the receivers, freeing one or both of them, and against zone coverage, the receivers can simply sit down in the open spots in the zone after crossing each other.
Here’s an example of the “mesh” concept:
“Four verticals” is set up to beat both man coverage and schemes designed to take away the many shorter routes that the Leach offense runs. The concept calls for four receivers to run deep vertical routes, but in doing so to be looking back for the ball at any time. That allows the quarterback to identify the open receiver based on the coverage and find them at any point in the route. Thrown against man to man or coverages with less than four deep defenders, verticals allows for receivers to have favorable openings in the coverage.
- Washington State’s offensive line play is very good
Arguably the most overlooked aspect of Washington State’s offensive success is the play of its offensive line. Washington State’s offensive line is far and away Pro Football Focus’ highest-graded pass-blocking unit in college football. The rate of hits, sacks and hurries allowed is fantastic, and this is a credit to the large splits they employ along with their patience in pass protection. Here’s an example of their effectiveness in pass protection:
But perhaps the biggest evolution of Leach’s offense through the years, and a significant reason why Wazzu’s offense is so difficult to defend, is in its ability to run the ball. Washington State had a run-blocking grade in 2015 that was surprisingly even higher than that of Alabama. On film you can see why. Leach uses large splits on run plays as well, and Washington State’s line is proficient and efficient at the outside zone play.
- Luke Falk benefits from Leach’s system – but he has better tools than the average “system” QB
This is the most raised question as it pertains to Falk, one of the nation’s most prolific passers last season and one of the better-known returning QBs in the country. Is he a product of the system, that benefited guys like Couch and, more recently, Johnny Manziel, who ran Kevin Sumlin’s variation on the Air Raid at Texas A&M? Or is he more than that?
When you watch him on film, there is no question that Falk is helped by Leach’s system, and his raw numbers are inflated because of it. But it’s also clear that he has the talent and skill set to be successful in any pro-style or spread scheme, something that is backed by the PFF grades – he earned the 12th-highest passing grade among returning QBs last season. In our opinion, if he were the starting quarterback at LSU this season, the Tigers would be the favorite to win the SEC.
Leach’s Washington State offense works to use every inch of space on the field, from his wide offensive line splits and heavy dose of wide receiver screens (which essentially work as running plays, in this offense) to his shorter route concepts like “mesh” and his deep “four verticals” patterns. That system, when executed by a very talented QB in Falk, a productive returning offensive line and a WR with high potential in Gabe Marks, should make the Cougars a very intriguing team in the Pac-12 this season.