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Air Raid Offense Series: Understanding Defense and Offensive Line Play

The Air Raid is just like any other offense — it all starts up front.

North Texas v Rice Photo by Thomas B. Shea/Getty Images

This is the second installment of our Air Raid series and will focus on the offensive line. To read up on the history and basic concepts of the offense, catch back up on our recap.

In an offense that centers around the pass like the Air Raid does, pass protection is key. With defenses able to key in on rushing the quarterback, Air Raid pioneers Mike Leach and Hal Mumme had to be creative in protecting the quarterback. To understand the strategy behind the offensive line, we need to take a quick crash course on defense.

Defensive fronts come in all shapes and arrangements but follow several general rules. The below chart contains sets of numbers/letters. The top portion represents techniques or positions the defensive linemen will align in, while the bottom letters represent gaps a defender is responsible for covering.

Once the defense calls out the offensive formation’s strength (determined by the formation, placement on the field, offensive alignment), the defensive linemen and linebackers will get into position. Zero and even techniques line head up on the offensive linemen, odd numbers line up on the outside shoulder, and an even number plus “i” (for inside) aligns on the inside shoulder. They are also assigned a gap to cover in the run game, depending on that alignment, or a gap to rush in the passing game.

When you hear about a three-tech defensive tackle, this is a reference to him typically lining up on the outside shoulder of the guard. A nose tackle will line up as a zero technique -- head up on the center. A wide-9 end will line up outside of a tight end, whether the tight end is lined up there or not. Linebackers also will line up based on the techniques, usually with a “0” suffix. A linebacker lining up as a 00 would be dead over center while a 20 would line up over a guard, for instance.

The letters on the bottom half of the diagram refer to gaps. A defensive player is responsible for every gap in the run game, and gaps also indicate where a player blitzes to or the lane in which to rush the passer.

A defense can add pressure in two forms -- the blitz and twists. Blitzes are straightforward -- an extra rusher is taken out of coverage to attack the quarterback. Twists, however, cause pressure by attempting to confuse the offensive line.

In an end-tackle twist, the tackle penetrates and occupies the guard while attempting to pick the offensive tackle. Meanwhile, the end “twists” around high of the tackle. This creates confusion on the line as the guard may choose to stay with the defensive tackle in a man-blocking scheme, or not recognize the twist until the end has crossed his face in a zone/area blocking scheme.

A tackle-tackle twist is the same concept but utilizes the interior defensive linemen. A tackle penetrates up field to occupy a guard and the center while the other tackle delays his rush for a second to twist high of the other defensive tackle. The strategy is to again confuse the guards and center into not blocking the twisting tackle.

With so many means to attack an offense, Mumme and Leach needed to get creative and simple on the offensive line. The first step was to increase the split, or distance between the linemen.

In a typical set, linemen are about a foot or so away from each other. In the Air Raid, linemen are set 2-3 or more yards from each other. If a defender is lined up as an odd technique -- meaning lined up to the outside shoulder of a player, the player would increase the split wider. This created several advantages. The first was that defensive linemen were spread further from the quarterback and thus had to cover more distance to get to the quarterback, which means the offense had more time to pass. Defensive linemen attempting to twist had to cover a greater distance, allowing the offensive linemen more time to recognize the stunt and pick it up.

With traditional narrow splits, linebackers were packed into the middle of the field over the ball. With offensive linemen spread wide in the Air Raid, the linebackers had to spread out as well, which created more passing lanes. This also helped identify blitzes and man coverage based on the linebackers’ alignment pre-snap.

Leach also suggested “fanning” the linemen out which means aligning the front foot of the guard on the back foot of the center, and the front foot of the tackle on the back foot of the guards. This staggered position allowed the tackles more space and extra time to kick back into a pass blocking position against quicker ends.

Finally, the pass protection scheme itself was simplified to a man scheme with a simple concept -- “BOB”. A size matchup occurs when running backs attempt to block larger ends or, worse, defensive tackles. There was also a potential speed and agility mismatch for tackles against quicker linebackers. “BOB” had two concepts with the first being “Big on Big”. This meant that offensive linemen were to first block defensive linemen before looking for linebackers. It also referred to “Backs on Backers”— running backs and H-backs looking to block blitzing linebackers and defensive backs.

To determine who was blocking whom, Leach and Mumme deployed counting rules based on how a defense lined up. A central defender would be marked as 0, with each player moving away from that 0 as 1, 2, and 3. The zero is always either a lineman heads up on the center, or in the absence of that, a linebacker over the center of the offense. In instances where the 0 is a linebacker, the center will check to ensure he isn’t rushing, then slide to the closest 1 to help in protection. This principle applies to the guards whose 1 is a linebacker, sliding to either the 0 or 2 to help.

The center would block 0, the guards taking 1, and the tackles take 2. If the 3 rushed, the running back or H-back would stay in to block him. If they did not rush, they would look to chip the 2 and/or release to the flats.

In this standard 4-3 alignment, there is no zero technique so the central most player would be designated the 0. Working away while staying on the line of scrimmage would be the defensive tackles as the 1 and ends as the 2. If the 0 blitzes, the center stays to block him. If not, the center will slide to help either guard with their 1. If the 3’s blitz, the running or H-back will stay in to block. If neither blitz, then the back will release to the flats or run a designated route. If both blitz and there are not enough backs to block, then the quarterback will throw to the hot route which we will cover later.

In this 3-4 alignment, there is a zero-technique lined up on the center which he will block as the 0 man. The 1’s are linebackers lined up off the ball. The guards will check for blitzes from these backers before proceeding to help with either the 0 or 2 man. Finally, the tackles will block the 2 ends and the running and H-backs will pick up the 3 linebackers.

One of the more common defenses the Air Raid and modern offenses will see is the nickel 4-2, allowing the defense to put more defensive backs on the field to counter the spread-out receivers. Once again, with no defender over the center, the 0 will be declared as a linebacker off the line. The variance in this is how the 3 is handled. With only six men in the box, the first 3 will be the second linebacker but the last 3 will be the closest line defender outside of the box.

In instances in which both 3’s rush, or there are more rushers than linemen and backs, the quarterback is responsible to throw to the hot route.

These simple guidelines and rules allowed the Air Raid to dominate a quarter century of college football, and its basic principles remain in use today. The next section will cover skill positions and route responsibility.