Desert Heat: The Air Raid Invades the NFL – Pt. 2

Part 1 talked roster building. Part 2 talks scheme. What will this look like in the NFL?

In the first part of this series, we explored the Cardinals’ roster, which is the most important part of this Air Raid-to-NFL experiment. There are pieces in place to make the transition to running the Air Raid scheme go relatively smooth in the desert. One main factor will be the initial success of Kyler Murray and keeping continuity along the O-line (something the Cardinals lacked in ’18). The roster is a blend of players that have come from Air Raid schemes or fit the mold of a player needed for the offense to find success.

Many will turn to the lack of success by Chip Kelly and his “spread-to-run” tempo attack. Arizona Head Coach Kliff Kingsbury’s offense is a little different. Kingsbury will tempo the ball as much as he can, but it isn’t the focal point of his offense. His pass-first mentality is something of the norm in a QB led league that focuses on breaking down coverages and blitz schemes. The run game will obviously need to become more robust than it was in the Big 12, but the key parts are there. In short, the roster, at least on the offensive side, is built for early success if everyone stays healthy and the young players progress. Again, and this cannot be stressed enough, Kyler Murray has to stay healthy and find success.

Behind Kingsbury is a wealth of success from his Air Raid “family.” You could say, Kingsbury, is the first to get his NFL “shot.” Former Mike Leach QB, Graham Harrell, played four years in the NFL, three under Aaron Rodgers and current Arizona Cardinal Passing Game Coordinator/QB Coach Tom Clements, and replaced Kingsbury’s short tenure as USC’s Offensive Coordinator. The hiring of Clements, who worked 11 seasons in Green Bay, gives a legitimate voice in the meeting room and a proven QB coach.

Washington St. Head Coach Mike Leach has always clamored about the NFL being too stuck-up to run the scheme. In a recent interview for KJR-AM in Seattle, Leach was very clear about his system having success in the league, Any notion that ‘anything you can run in college, you can’t run in the NFL,’ that’s just NFL arrogance and lunacy.” Though Kingsbury is his own man when it comes to ownership of his scheme, there are a lot of eyes around the country betting on Kingsbury to succeed.

Maybe the most important relationship of all will be between QB1 Kyler Murray and Kingsbury himself. The exchanging of ideas will be crucial because Murray also has ties to another elite Air Raid guru from the same tree, Oklahoma Sooner Head Coach Lincoln Riley. In Part 1 I alluded to the meshing of concepts from Riley’s high-powered Sooner attack and Kingsbury’s bombs-away offense. Especially the use (and addition) of TEs into Kingsbury’s scheme. In his last season at Tech, Kingsbury began using more TEs and H-backs for run support in his offense. At the NFL level, he will need to rely on this heavily. It is rare to see a true 10 pers. formation outside of long-yardage or obvious pass situations.

You would be hard-pressed to find anyone that would argue Lincoln Riley’s offensive schematics not working in the NFL. Many will argue if Kingsbury has instant success, many in the NFL will be knocking down Riley’s door in 2020. Where Kingsbury is an Air Raid purest, choosing to base out of four WR sets, Riley has transitioned into a 12 pers. based Air Raid onslaught with a power running game to boot. Not ironically though, Kingsbury’s first snap as an NFL Head Coach in practice came from a four-wide 10 pers. set (see below).


So what are some concepts that Murray, having played under Riley could help introduce in Kingsbury’s NFL system? The most obvious is the use of a TE. Though Kingsbury has used an H-back in recent years, it hasn’t become a staple of his offense like it has for Riley in Norman. The use of TEs brings people into the box. As defenses crowd the box for the run, this opens up lanes down the field. Kingsbury has a pass-first mentality, something the analytics crowd is excited to see come to the NFL (you know, the RB is dead truthers?).

Author’s Note: I will never forget when Art Briles switched to an 11 pers. base at Baylor. The offense exploded! When RG3 was the QB, the offense mainly ran from a 10 pers. base. This was great, but it allowed defenses to sit back. The addition of a TE (and those WR splits) forced defenses to decide how they wanted to die. Flood the box and die fast, or sit back and die “slow.” TEs in the Air Raid can do the same thing while beefing up the run game.

Lincoln Riley’s ability to use a pass-catching and traditional TE together to attack defenses on all planes of the field (horizontal and vertical) is something Kingsbury will need to utilize in the NFL. In Kingsbury’s scheme, the role of TE has usually been left to a “larger” WR. In 2013, presented with an NFL talent in Jace Amaro, Kingsbury used him to create mismatches down the field and a solid blocker on perimeter screens. Here’s a look at Amaro aligned at the #3 WR spot in Trips running a Deep Out (Sail) for a first down (…and yes that is Baker Mayfield throwing the ball).

The TE in Kingsbury’s 2013 scheme mirrors what many NFL teams do with their Joker or Hybrid TEs. Think Gronkowski for the Patriots lining up as the single-WR on one play and then moving to the #2 WR in a flexed position, only to come back to an inline TE on the third play of the series. With Amaro, Kingsbury moved him around to get an advantage either in the pass or blocking on the perimeter.

Here is Amaro in his traditional #3 spot in Trips:

GF Twist Op (Y-3).png

… and now as the #2 WR in Trips:

GN Rack Op (Y-2S)

Part 1 explored how the TE spot was split into two parts, with one side of the room as inline TEs that can block and catch, while the other side can be used as a Joker/Flex TE (or glorified WR). The ability to carry both inline and flex TEs adds fluidity in the scheme and forces defenses to defend different personnel groups. This also opens up Kingsbury’s playbook for more formations than the typical 10 pers. and Y-off sets he has been using as a college coach.


The WR room will be split as well. The inside WR in Kingsbury’s offense is a critical piece. The modern offense has moved inside. It used to be the “X” WR was the best WR. He was a big physical freak that could run. A jump ball extraordinaire. As passing has become more efficient, the jump ball has fallen out of favor and the Slot WR has become a focal point in the modern offense.

The Patriots have been killing the NFL with speedy slots for a while now (Julian Edelman, Wes Welker, Deion Branch, Danny Amendola… you get the picture). Players like Edelman, Tyreek Hill (Chiefs), and others that occupy the Slot, run routes that challenge defenses by forcing them to double team or place a slower player on them creating a mismatch. The use of motion is also an added bonus for this position. Let’s not forget the Slot Choice, which has been killing offenses since Briles made it popular in the early ’10s.

To counter the smaller Slot, the scheme needs deep threats. These WRs work on the outside and push the secondary deep. This opens holes in coverage where the Slots can find space to work. Without deep threats on the outside, teams can compress the middle of the field by keeping their Safeties near the box, double the Slots (who have become the center-point for the modern passing game), or layered in zones to combat the numerous Over and Crossing routes seen in the scheme. The Air Raid on the surface looks simplistic, but the scheme is rich in layers. Kingsbury, for example, maybe an Air Raid purest in choice of personnel, but he is vastly more complex than Leach on game day.


The Pass Game

Schematically, Kingsbury has a foundational knowledge that will bring new ideas into a league that has only begun to scratch the Air Raid surface. When studying Kingsbury at Texas Tech one will notice multiple different concepts are being run from week to week, some only used to take advantage of a defense’s coverages. The illusion of complexity hinders a defense’s ability to correctly identify key concepts and tendencies.

The ability for Kinsbury to identify each WR’s strengths and put them in a position to excel even if it means tweaking his own system is what makes him an elite offensive mind. Week to week, the playbook may change. The negative in this thinking is the lack of consistency, but at the NFL level, this shouldn’t be a deterrent to success. When looking at Kingsbury’s passing schemes there are four consistent concepts seen throughout his game, the rest are variations for that week.

Middle High-Low

KLIFF 01 Mid-Hi-Lo

This particular play is usually run from a formation into the boundary set with a slotted TE. Formation into the boundary (FIB) refers to the passing strength being placed into the smaller confines of the boundary. One thing Kingsbury will have to adjust to is the lack of boundary in the NFL. The NFL is a 7-on-7 OCs dream, with everything coming in the middle of the field. Below is the exact play from the diagram above. The QB uses a leverage read and attacks the field CB on the Sail (10 yard Out).

The Middle High-Low concept comes in a variety of different shades and focuses stress on the middle of a defense. Against a single-high defense, the TE (Y) will sit underneath the deep thirds defender while the shallow crosser (S) targets the eyes of the LBs. If man, the Slot (S) will keep running through the zone to the other side of the field. Versus two-high, the TE’s route targets the safeties and their communication. Since the TE is going under the LBs, there is a chance the Safety sitting on top may release him and zone off. The Shallow coming from the opposite side will trigger the Safety to the two WRs to rob #1. That puts two defenders on the deep Curl and no one on the TE if the Safety works to deep Sail by “X.” A simple play, but a lot of carryover versus multiple defenses.

Slot Fade/Choice

KLIFF 02 Slot Choice

This play has two different concepts in it and both are favorites of Air Raid disciples. To the left is the Slot Fade or “Choice.” This summer I heard newly appointed Texas State Head Coach Jake Spavital (Dana Holgorsen‘s OC at West Virginia) talk about his “Strom Check” or Slot Choice series and how they attack space. It is not surprising that this simple route combination can be weaponized. It is great against single-high because it forces the seam defender to take the Slot man-to-man.

If there are Smash Rules involved in single-high coverage, the sit down now puts the CB in the precarious position to work back into a bending route (remember, the line drawn is not where the route has to go – run to SPACE!). Versus a two-high scheme, the Slot can attack the Safety and either run by him (Seam), bend out from inside leverage (Corner), or bend underneath the Safety (Dig/Bender). That leeway is crucial and hard for defenses to defend because it counters their coverage. Against Houston, Tech uses the Slot Fade concept for a huge gain.

The route combination to the right is referred to as a Whip/Dig concept and is a favorite of Kingsbury’s. The Whip/Dig is a High-Low concept that attacks zone coverages or plays on match-ups in man (Noticing a trend? There are multiple uses in all these concepts). The Whip can have a devastating effect on a man defender and like the Slot Choice reads the reaction a zone defender. In fact, the Patriots major in the concept (Hoss Y-Juke).

Kinsbury combos the Whip with a Dig or Bender back into the MOF. This high-low stretch adds layers and again, is multiple versus the various types of coverages. Versus a single-high team, the seam defender is stressed and the Dig runs between the seam defender and the thirds player. the QB has a simple high to low read and throw the chosen WR into space. When defenses match up in Quarters, the Whip is isolated on the overhang. In a Cloud concept (CB has flats), the Whip now pulls the CB down putting the Dig isolated on the Safety. If the overhang keeps working with the Whip, you now have two on the Whip and a Safety working top-down to cut the Dig. Everyone has to be on point defensively. What Kingsbury has done, is put two big-hitting route combos together in a single call.

Double Post (Choice)

KLIFF 03 Dbl Post (Choice).png

In the Double Post (Choice) concept Kingsbury again has taken two dangerous and versatile concepts and meshed them together in one call. Outside of the Whip/Dig, the Out/Burst Corner (speed Corner, not the traditional one – find SPACE!) is another favorite combo for Kingsbury to use. The same concept is used as the Whip/Dig, but the WRs are now running away from coverage. When teams attack in single-high, the Out occupies the low defender and the Corner runs to space under the thirds player. Quarters again is tested whether true Quarters or Cloud coverage.

To the left is the Double Post concept that many are familiar with. This is not your father’s Double Post though. The inside WR is running a true Post and not a Dig (though it can bend flat if needed). The option is there but relies on reading the coverage of the defense. In Quarters, both WRs will run the Post, trying to isolate each secondary player on a speedy WR. The Sail to the outside can be used to bait a CB on triggering down, only for the WR to run a Corner-Post right by him. Again, leverage of the defender is key and this will be crucial in the NFL as coverages change each snap. Either way, a secondary defender is getting isolated.

Empty (A-Out) – Y-Corner/Levels

KLIFF 04 Empty Y-Corner.png

Motion to Empty in the NFL is a critical piece to an offensive scheme. It does two things: 1) it alerts the offense to what kind of coverage the defense is running, and 2) it gets the RB or a WR in a favorable matchup. The Cardinals have a proven WR at RB in David Johnson and the particular play shown above is a concept Kingsbury used in numerous occasions to gain advantages on the defense. Staying with the trend of multiplicity, both concepts in this split-field look can be run on their own and from different formations.

The concept to the left is a Quick Game favorite of Kingsbury. The Out/Spot is a universal combination that works great against all coverages. In single-high, the Spot or Snag route holds the overhang while the Out plays on the leverage of the CB. The Snag can easily turn into an Out creating a Double Out concept. If the CB is bailing the in a Cover 3 or Cover 1 look, the Out runs right underneath him and the Snag holds the overhang. Quick and efficient completion. Versus a two-high scheme, the Out occupies the CB and the Snag can option off the overhang. The Quarters Safety is negated because he is deep. As always, run and throw to space.

The concept on the right-hand side is called Y-Corner in Air Raid lingo. The “Y” will run a Corner, while the #1 WR and the other WR (or RB in this case) will run a rub route. This concept again works versus man and zone. The Corner can even be tagged to run a Dig, creating a Levels concept. This concept is a favorite in Spread offenses and can be run in multiple ways. Place the RB in the backfield and he runs a Flat or Flare route to play with the push rules of the defense. Singl-high or Quarters, man or Zone, this concept has been proven to work and can be used in various formations.

One aspect of Kingsbury’s passing game that cannot be overlooked is the use of the RB out as a WR. David Johnson will be looking to get back to 2016 form where he rushed for over 1,000 yards and had over 800 through the air. At Tech, Kingsbury used clever screen designs to take advantage of defenses and to get the ball to his RBs in space. Below is a simple Flare Screen to the RB from a Pistol set. Oklahoma was showing blitz and the Kingsbury used the aggressiveness against the Sooners to gain a 1st Down.

Where Kingsbury earns his money in his use of screens where he combines motion and play-action. In the clip below, Tech motions from a simple Pro Twin formation to a Trips-nub formation. This gets three WRs to one side. The play relies on Boot-action. The left Guard pulls deep to simulate Boot. The QB rides the mesh with the RB to sell the play-fake and boots to the field. The O-line allows the defenders to get inside their blocks creating a wall. At the last second, the QB throws back to the RB sitting near the sideline. The resulting wall seals the defense to the field and the RB scampers for a TD.


Offensive Line: Pass-Pro and the Run Game

The NFL is a passing league. We’ve established this. Most defenses are concerning themselves with eliminating receiving threats through coverage and pinpointing weak spots in the pass protection schemes. Most run fits are consistent throughout the league depending on front structure and backend coverages. One area where Kingsbury will need to add fire-power is in pass protection and developing a powerful run game.

Looking at Kingsbury’s pass-protection schemes, you will notice that you can fit them on one sheet. They are simple for a reason, speed. Kinsbury also likes to run screens and they are a big part of the Air Raid scheme. Those protection schemes are at the bottom of the image below. At Tech, Kingsbury really only carried a few protection schemes. To be successful in a league that schemes protections more than any level of football, the O-line will need to come together quickly. In steps Sean Kugler.

Tech Pass Pro

Kugler is a proven O-line coach in the league. Previous to Arizona he was the O-line coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers (’10-’12), Head Coach of UTEP (’13-’17), and the Denver Broncos (’18). In Denver, Kugler saw the undrafted rookie Phillip Lindsey rush for over 1,000 yards. Kruger was even able to cut Denver’s sack totals 52 in 2017 to 34 in 2018. Regardless, the addition of Kugler might be Kingsbury’s most important hire.

Kugler’s success in the NFL and his experience with different schemes both pro and college will give Kingsbury a knowledgable voice in the room. Developing a more robust pass-pro and run game will lie on Kugler and Kingsbury working together to develop a gameplan that can attack the ground. Even analytic pundits will admit, you can’t throw every down and to be successful in the NFL, a run game must be created. Especially with a young QB. Those Air Raid wide splits on the O-line, they aren’t going away either.

One thing is clear, there is trust now at the NFL level with running the QB on “read” plays. Something that was seen as a gimmick just a few years ago. Colin Kapernick under Jim Harbough was utilized in QB designed runs, even getting the 49ers to the Super Bowl behind his legs in 2013. Fast forward five years and teams like Dallas and Seattle are using timely QB runs to get 1st Downs or keep the ball in the QB’s hands in the Red Zone (below).

One concept I am interested to see if Kinsbury utilizes with Murray’s legs is the BAsh or “Back-Away” schemes that are widespread in college football. The BAsh concept uses spit-flow to confuse defenders. Split-flow refers to the backfield. In the clip below, the RB is running a Stretch Lead play to the field. His fast and flat path plays on the flow read of the ILBs. To the field, the defenders have to fit the Stretch. While the flow of the RB is going one way, notice the left Guard pull to the boundary. This also plays on the reads of the ILBs. The clip illustrates how difficult this concept is for defense. With a QB like Murray, I would expect to see something like this used in 2019.


Conclusion

In short, no one really knows what this offense will look like in the NFL. One thing is clear, it will definitely have an Air Raid feel. Will it be an infusion/meshing of schemes, or “screw it, we are going four-wide“? As Kyle Odegard for ArizonaCardinals.com stated in his Twitter post, the pre-season will be pretty vanilla. The foundational formations and concepts will be there and Kingsbury will probably put in some plays for defenses to sweat about. In an interview with ArizonaCardinals.com, RB David Johnson was quoted saying, [Kingsbury is] not letting anyone know, including (the media)… We’re not going to show our cards right away. Week 1 can’t get here fast enough.

 

A couple things are clear, the RB will be heavily involved in the passing game. Look for starting RB David Johnson to have a big year on the ground and in the air. Kinsbury has always had a knack for creating unique screens and RB targeted throws to get is RB in space. Don’t forget Kyler Murray can run too. At Oklahoma, Murray had designed runs that created problems for defenses. Much like the Cowboys and Seahawks use timely QB runs to get Prescott and Wilson into space, look for the Cardinals to do the same.

Kingsbury understands that things aren’t going to be as wide open as they were in college, but that being said, there is a lot of trickle-up coming to the NFL. The Kansas City Chiefs are a prime example of how Kingsbury’s offense might be able to succeed in the NFL. Kingsbury will obviously need to beef up the run game and pass-protection schemes. Those shouldn’t take away from what he is trying to do through the air. At Tech, Kingsbury was great at identifying what a player could do and get that player into space or open downfield. The use of TEs will be an added value to the overall scheme and not a deterrent. The roster is there and the scheme is getting worked out. Only time will tell, but it should be a fun ride.

Make sure to checkout Part 1 where we discussed roster building.


 

** Special thanks needs to go to Drew Piscopo. The man knows the Air Raid and helped me sift through the intricate Kingsbury system.

Go follow him on Twitter: @DrewCPiscopo

 

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