With the birth of the Air Raid offense under Hal Mumme and its expansion under Leach, the Air Raid concept has flourished alongside the advancement of the spread in modern football. The Air Raid offense, in particular, is married well with the no-huddle concept and can be run out of multiple formations even with the added effect of tempo. True Air Raid offenses base out of 20, 10, and 11 personnel sets. Many of the concepts needed to run the offense utilize 2×2 and 2×1 sets to put pressure on the defense’s back seven.
The Air Raid offense and its vast offshoots still boil down to several basic concepts. The key to any Air Raid offense is the use of “triangle” and simple high-low reads. The offense has been used to rewrite many record books and its concepts are present in most modern spread offenses. The main way Air Raid teams attack a defense is the soft middle of the field left by vertical pushing routes with the outside wide receivers. This vertical push forces the safeties in a two-high look to climb with the outside WRs. The zone dropping linebackers are left to defend WRs coming from the opposite way behind their view. These simple crossing routes are deadly to a defense that cannot get support from the backside safety or simply spot drop. One way a defense can counteract the Air Raids propensity to attack the soft middle vacated by the boundary safety is to run “Steal” coverage.
Unlike “Read” Coverage that takes advantage of the offense attacking the front side triangle (think pick/flat/corner), “Steal” coverage uses the boundary safety as a “robber” for the crossing routes. Much like its sister versus Trips coverage “Solo,” Steal uses the boundary safety as a spy on a front side WR. The main objective of the DS in Steal is to read the crossing route and hold his ground in the window vacated by the Will LB. The diagram below demonstrates Steal Coverage:
To the front side of the formation, the players are aligned in a Two-Read look. The main difference between a Cloud concept and Steal is the Cover Safety and his eyes. The CS is aligned on the outside “eye” of the slot receiver. His main objective is to protect the middle of the field from the double post and to help with the vertical of #1 if it is a fade. The outside alignment by the CS allows him a better angle on #1 and ensures he will be able to “top” the route. In most Air Raid concepts, the #2 WR is working across the field and the CS will work to “top” the #1 WR if going vertical. In the case of three verticals (Air Raid terminology is Shakes), the CS will play the top of any vertical by #1. The CB to the front side is playing underneath coverage like he would in Two-Read or a true Cover Two. This makes the CS turn into a pseudo-thirds player verse three verticals if the slot decides to run right up the seam. If the slot bends his route back into the field, the CS can work back on top of #1 and trust that the DS will climb to “top” the strong-side slot (much like he would in Solo coverage versus Trips). Steal coverage is designed to eliminate crossing routes by the #2 WR (a staple in Air Raid offenses). A defensive coordinator must work the Divide route (Shakes) to train the eyes of the DS and make sure he climbs with the vertical by #2.
If the offense runs a deep switch, the corner must carry the underneath post with help from the Sam LB and a robbing DS if it reaches to the middle of the field (this must be worked in practice because it is different than Y-Corner which will be discussed later). The Sam LB is holding the curl just like he would in two-read, pushing late on any flare route (which is prevalent in most Air Raid offenses). The Mike, as always, is relating the #3 WR and pushes on any flare route by the back.
The back side players in Steal are locked onto a man. The CB will take all of #1 and the Will must cover #2 weak. If the #2 threat is in the backfield and pushes to the front side, the Will must push with him much like he would in regular Quarters coverage. The CB will have late help underneath from the DS if the offense runs #2 strong on a corner route (Air Raid terminology is Y-Corner). The DS’s eyes are squarely on the #2 WR. If he climbs to him (Y-Cross), or runs and under route (Mesh), he is responsible for cutting off the route. Much like Read coverage, the DS is working to the middle of the field (MOF). If the offense decides to run Shakes or three verticals (Divide), the DS must climb and intercept the vertical of #2.
One issue with Steal coverage comes when a team runs a pro-style spread or 11 pers. If the offense comes out with the RB, TE, and Z into the boundary [FIB], the Mike and Will must “banjo” the RB and TE. This scenario will also play out versus a 10 pers. 2×2 set that has the RB into the boundary. The “banjo” call tells the Will he can push with the RB if he flares or works out to the flat. The Mike will slide over to the TE or #2 WR. This plays much like any Two-Read coverage.
Steal versus 11 pers. Pro Twin and 10 pers. Doubles:
Pro Twin –
One adjustment to Pro Twin when running Steal is going from a “Cheat” look (plus LBs to the two-speed side) to a “Squeeze” alignment (LBs plus to the TE and Sam folds into “B” gap) when the RB and TE are into the boundary (FIB). If the two-speed side is into the boundary, the coverage can easily be adjusted back to base or a Cloud concept (Two-Read).
The only differences from 11 pers. to 10 pers. 2×2 is the Will’s alignment. Since the Will is locked on to the #2 WR he will need to cover down. The CB and Will need to be on different levels to counteract rub routes. The DS will still remain stacked on the OT and will read the field side slot. If the split of the field side #2 WR is too wide for the DS to get there the defense can easily check to base coverage (Four or Two-Read).
- To any set that is FIB, the defense needs to check out of Steal and into base coverage.
- To 3×1 sets, the defense needs to check to “Solo,” which is its sister coverage for 3×1.
- “Banjo” the Mike and Will if there is a 2×2 set and the back is set into the boundary.
- WR motion does not affect the coverage if it comes from the man side. To adjust, the Will must push with #2 weak (CB is still locked).
- RB motion will push the Mike and Will (would be a natural post-snap adjustment anyway).
Y-Cross (Double Post/Curl)
The key versus the Y-Cross is the Sam LB. He must get hands on the WR and force him off his path. As the Slot climbs vertically, the Mike must meet him and force him to “run the hump.” This elongates the route and throws off timing. The DS will slide across the formation and meet the cross at mid-field. This brief window is where the QB will try and hit the route.
The front side of the coverage treats this like it would in regular Two-Read. The Mike will work to the pick route and align on the near hip. The corner route by #2 runs right into the CS who is already aligned to the outside. The CB sinks like he would in Quarters coverage to assist underneath the corner. The DS will work across the field and ensure the pick route doesn’t shoot to the middle of the field. This route, in particular, is a favorite of Leach and many Air Raid OCs. In typical Quarters coverage, the Mike would be left alone to defend the stutter route by #1. In Steal, the DS should be there to top the route. If the pick route sites, the DS will work to the MOF and cover his third, assisting on the post working his way from the back side.
Shakes, or Divide, places a vertical route in each third of the field. Like in Read Coverage, the DS will work to the MOF and top the route of the slot. The CB and CS to the front side will double team the vertical (CB taking the comeback and CS “topping” the fade. The Sam again, will get hands on #2 and make him work horizontal before he can climb. This helps the timing of the DS working across while disrupting the timing for the offense. If the Mike can, he needs to get hands on the vertical route and sink underneath.
Shallow (Middle High-Low)
The main objective of Steal Coverage is to force the offense to throw the deep crossing route. By doubling the most dangerous throw (post to the field), the defense is able to bait the QB into throwing the ball across the middle. In the concept above (Shallow), the offense is creating a vertical stretch in the middle of the field. With the formation set into the boundary, the Mike and Will “banjo” the RB and TE. As the back releases to the flat, the Will zone over his route and the Mike works to force the TE down into the LOS. The Sam to the field works to widen the slots dig route, forcing him to go underneath and climb or “run the hump” to elongate the route. The DS works to the MOF and intercepts the dig. As the Mike takes the TE, the QB should see the void left in the middle hole. This will give the illusion that the dig is open.
The pass distribution against Mesh is similar to Shallow. The Mike and Will “banjo” the boundary and the Sam works to flatten the slots route. The DS is working to the MOF and will cut the over route off. The Mike must work to flatten the TE’s route to assist the Sam, The deep post is double teamed as usual.
On passing downs, and 3rd Down, in particular, the defense must have a plan to defend the Air Raid offense and the multitude of crossing routes. One way to defend the concepts presented by the Air Raid offense is to use the boundary safety as a mid-field robber. Steal Coverage is designed to eliminate crossing route and bait the QB into throwing the ball into a bad situation. By double teaming the deep route to the field, the defense is forcing the QB to read the crossing route (where the DS should be cherry-picking). Steal Coverage is a great change-up for defenses that run Quarters coverage and need to defend an Air Raid attack. There are few adjustments, and the coverage blends well with a split-field scheme. If the offense lines up in Trips, the defense can easily adjust by checking to “Solo.” When defending the Air Raid it is important to understand the offense is based off several foundational concepts. Steal Coverage plays on those foundational concepts and gives the defense a way to attack the offense with coverage. When using Steal it is important to remind the LBs to get hands on WRs and disrupt routes and timing.
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Air Raid Resources by Chris B. Brown (Smart Football):