A belated note about my methodology in this series: I watch the most recent two games of the opponent, sometimes a third if I need to, and chart every play prior to garbage time. The clips I select in these videos are always representative - I don’t cherry-pick the most exciting or encouraging plays, but the most illustrative ones of trends I’ve observed. There will never be a play in one of these videos that I didn’t see a dozen more examples of and that I left on the cutting room floor.
Coach Leach’s well known air raid offense has found quite possibly the perfect quarterback for it in #16 QB Minshew. He’s got a great arm, terrific decision-making even under pressure, and a level of mobility that keeps his sack rate extraordinarily low despite having to deal with every conceivable kind of pass rush.
Here are some plays that illustrate the basic concepts of the air raid and how it’s so successful (reminder - you can right-click or long-press to play any of these videos at 1⁄4 or 1⁄2 speed):
On the first play, we’re seeing the fundamental proposition of the offense - occupy every member of the defensive backfield and something will break down … there’s so much space for #32 RB Williams to take this checkdown that it doesn’t matter that the pressure pushing back the line forces Minshew to lob the ball. On the second play (at :16), pre-snap motion re-aligns 10 defenders onto the boundary side so the weakside backer can’t cut underneath to take away #1 WR Martin’s leverage, which would have been the only way to defend this quick slant. On the third play (at :23), we see more confusion in the zone coverage - there are enough defenders in the middle of the field to handle the RB’s wheel and the double-crosser, but they don’t hand them off to maintain their zone responsibilities and leave #12 WR Patmon open, so Minshew can get this off under duress and let him make a play on the ball. The last play (at :40) illustrates what makes this version of the offense so much more dangerous than in previous years - Minshew’s excellent judgment even under pressure, and dynamic athletes like Williams who can dodge tackles.
It is possible to properly cover these complex routes, but it requires discipline and communication:
The first play is one of the rare opportunities to see the entire set of route concepts and what needs to be done to defend them - taking away leverage on the intermediate routes, safeties not taking the bait early, and keeping linebackers in position to quickly crash onto dumpoffs and checkdowns. The second play (at :23) shows the difficulty this offense can have in the red zone, as the routes get compacted and coverage can play off a bit with time to react; here, letting Minshew see an open slot receiver on a stop route in the middle of the zone, but still being able to jump into the throwing lane. On the third play (at :28), pressure is again forcing a quick throw, but in the red zone it’s easier for the linebackers to stay on top of the crossers, letting one of them legally hit the RB behind the line to shut his route down and another to get a hand in the throwing lane to tip the pass meant for #6 WR Calvin. The last play (at :46) demonstrates the importance of pressure on the QB to cut down on the available options - we can see on the wide angle that there are multiple deep downfield receivers who are open, but Minshew really only has Williams on the checkdown that he can hit and he’s going to get creamed anyway.
This offense is not entirely made up of downfield passing; about a quarter of all playcalls in the three games I watched were screen passes or runs. Some examples:
The first play is intended to be an inside shovel, which I saw several times but never worked; in this case because the RG collapses almost instantly and is pushed into the back … but since this is a forward pass, such failures aren’t fumbles so this is relatively low-risk. The second play (at :12) is one of the best executed tunnel screens to #8 WR Winston I’ve seen in a while - there’s nothing schematically novel about it and the way that it should have been defended is obvious (the RT isn’t letting you past him because he wants to go get some Gatorade, USC #45) but it’s so pretty I had to include it. The third play (at :28) shows how the rare handoff works in this offense - the QB checks into it on reading the defensive structure, in this case he has the RPO to a flanker screen on his right (getting the ball to the receiver behind the LOS would have made the o-line blocking downfield legal), but every defender except the CB getting blocked at the bottom of the screen gets sucked over to the boundary side as he rides the mesh, leaving a clear lane for #21 RB Borghi to beat the safety to the sticks - and a powerful hit takes him past and into the endzone. The last play (at :40) isn’t a screen but it acts like one - this wheel route is Wazzu’s blitz-beater, with the twins meant to run off the remaining defenders, but one of the CBs identifies it and stays home.
I think the above videos have illustrated throughout that the offensive line tends to give up a lot of pressure. Here are some examples of how to make it pay off:
I won’t annotate these as I trust they’re obvious, except to say two things: first, fewer rushers are better - they can slip in between or around the o-line without a lot of difficulty, and leave the defense with more men in coverage to take away the easy outlets; second, on the last play watch USC #51 at about :44 … he gets excited about the prospect of a sack and takes an inside cut instead of staying outside to contain a scramble, which blows up in USC’s face - this reminded me of what I noted about Oregon’s missed opportunities with backfield penetration on Tuesday.
The flipside of this coin is that bringing five or more pass rushers is almost always a mistake. If Coach Leavitt is reading this -- and esteemed podcaster Aaron Schroeder assures me that he is -- my advice is do not blitz, as this is exactly what Wazzu’s offense wants:
On the first play, the safety blitz almost makes it home, but Minshew is too sharp - the pass goes right to where the safety vacated. On the second play (at :20), the defense’s jailhouse blitz leaves only four in coverage and no one in the middle of the field, and it’s too easy for Patmon to use his leverage for an easy catch on the first read before the blitz arrives. The third play (at :32) illustrates a peculiarity - even though this o-line is quite porous against 3- or even 2-man rushes, they are paradoxically very good at standing up one-on-one blocks against 5+ long enough for deep routes to develop. The last play (at :57) shows that even exotic blitzes are not the answer, as Minshew is so mobile that he will usually just outrun them to the vacated side.
I’m not sure I’ve ever seen so many fast, hard-hitting athletes on a defense at the same time … it’s like Wazzu is playing 11 free safeties. The base defense is a 3-3-5, and their speed makes them excellent at defending outside runs:
On the first play, #41 LB Sherman quickly recognizes the play and cuts under the RT, while #47 LB Pelluer draws the block high to create that lane but still comes off it to help with the tackle. On the second play (at :07), we’re seeing the late d-line stemming that Wazzu’s defense has become known for as well as their speed to stay ahead of this stretch play, as #45 DE Tago gets around the block to make the TFL. On the third play (at :15), #30 DE Oguayo gets off the line so fast that he cuts under the TE’s block and disrupts the LG’s pull across the formation, which is why Pelluer has a clean shot to close the cutback lane. On the last play (at :23), #26 DB Dale backs into nickel coverage but is fast enough to reverse direction, beat the TE’s block outside, and make a great wrap-up of the RB’s legs.
However, Wazzu’s speed advantage comes at the expense of size up front, and this creates a major vulnerability to inside rushing:
I don’t have any intelligent commentary for these plays, other than to say that these are representative of more than one third Wazzu’s defense against all plays - my tally sheet’s chock full of the line getting clobbered, tackles getting broken, and multiple defenders lying on the ground as powerful backs bowl them over. Even USC and Utah, whose OCs were far too pass happy at the beginning of the year, altered their run-pass balance to take advantage of this vulnerability.
In pass defense, I wasn’t too surprised to see some of the problems in deep coverage, as teams with recruiting challenges often have to field corners who need to play soft:
On the first play, Dale is bailing out too much considering that the LBs are coming up to bite on the play-action and #2 CB Harper is blitzing. On the second play (at :15), Harper just can’t run stride-for-stride with a blue-chip receiver, and only an underthrown ball from USC’s super-freshman QB gives him a shot. On the third play (at :38), even an OSU receiver blows by #3 CB Molton and he has to grab his jersey to save a TD and gets a pass interference flag (I don’t like to include penalty plays in videos but this sort of thing happened a lot - it’s not an accusation of cheating, just a recognition of the reality of this coverage situation).
What did surprise me, however, was the extent to which opposing offenses were able to turn Wazzu’s tricks against them in the short passing game:
The first play is a well executed break into a slant that sends Harper reeling, and there’s no safety help against his leverage because of #22 S Singleton’s blitz. On the second play (at :12), we’ve got a simple comeback route - #13 LB Woods is supposed to take the flat since #25 S Thomas is blitzing, but he’s slow to get over. On the third play (at :20), Molton is playing the out route way too soft, letting the receiver catch even a poorly thrown ball with plenty of time to gather himself, and then he hesitates on coming up for the tackle and surrenders a first down.
What makes up for all of this is that Wazzu is very effective in slipping between linemen to get into the backfield, and they’re so fast they reliably turn this penetration into sacks:
The first play is incredible to me, there’s so much speed in it … standouts include #58 LB Fa’avae for jumping the snap instantly and #27 DE Taylor as the rush end who prevents a very fast QB from escaping. The second play (at: 09) shows the effectiveness of Wazzu’s delayed blitzes - they bring both backers after the o-line has engaged the slide block, overwhelming the single back, and can afford to do so despite the quick pass opportunities because of the LBs’ speed. The third play (at :21) is a terrifying jailhouse blitz … these are often very high risk gambles even if you’re bringing more than the offense can block because, as we saw earlier, it leaves you with only a few defenders in coverage, but with this much speed the QB is overwhelmed before he can take advantage. The last play (at :36) shows a very effective T/E stunt, where the defensive tackles have engaged the center and LG and Taylor comes around the formation where the unengaged LT can’t help, and it’s Taylor’s speed that lets him pull it off.