The Air Raid Offense: Football’s Most Prolific Passing Attack

Overview of the Air Raid Offense

The Air Raid offense is a very simple offensive scheme that simply put values the pass over the run. The name ‘Air Raid‘ may make someone think this scheme (more like a philosophy) wants to throw the ball deep every play. Not quite. The Air Raid system utilizes many underneath concepts with routes that change based on the coverage, specifically the mesh route concept. The majority of the plays will come from a 10-personnel grouping, which means one back on the field, zero tight ends, and four wide receivers. Formations wise, the Air Raid may be the most simple offensive scheme in football, running mostly Ace (2×2), which is 2 receivers left and 2 receivers right, Early (3×1) which is Trips-Right, and Late (3×1) which is Trips-Left. These formations are used as the base sets, and then are ‘tagged’ to slightly change them. The thought process by using this choice of personnel and formations is to stretch the field to force the defense to cover the entire area of the football field, both horizontally (the entire 53-1/3 yards in width of the field), and vertically (from LOS to the endzone).

History of the Air Raid Offense

Before the Air Raid was ever called the Air Raid, and much before passing the ball was a popular idea in football, Brigham-Young University head coach Lavell Edwards, who coached BYU from 1972-2000, was the first to use the concepts that would later become the Air Raid, including the willingness to throw the ball more frequently and live with the results. The actual Air Raid, however, found its beginning at Iowa Wesleyan College, under head coach Hal Mumme and offensive coordinator Mike Leach. The first version of the offense was just a translation of the Lavell Edwards BYU offense with more passing, but the Air Raid’s evolution didn’t stop here. Over time, they changed which formations the offense would primarily be ran out of, they changed route concepts, and simplified it to where you wouldn’t need a 5-star quarterback to be successful. Together, Mumme and Leach eventually would take the offense to Valdosta State, but the offense didn’t get more complex, in fact they made the offense even less so by not having formations with right and left variations. This meant that the same receivers would always line up in the same place, and run their routes the same way, instead of having to know their position from both sides. After Valdosta State, they took the Air Raid to Kentucky University, which would be the last stop the two would have together. After being at Kentucky from 1997-1998, Mike Leach would split from Hal Mumme and take the offensive coordinator job at Oklahoma University for the 1999 season, and then take the Head Coach position at Texas-Tech in 2000. In his nine years at TTU, Mike Leach would help completely transform the philosophy of college football offense, especially the Big-12, making scoring 50 points on opponents, sometimes 70, a regular occurrence, and leading the nation in offensive production regularly. The Air Raid had officially arrived. The scheme (or idea) began spreading across the country with coaches that worked and played under Leach and/or Mumme such as Dana Holgorsen, Kliff Kingsbury, Kevin Sumlin, Art Briles, and many more taking the same concepts and implementing them with their own programs.

Who uses the Air Raid

Today, the Air Raid’s concepts are used at all levels of football from High-School to the National Football League. It would be easier to name the small amount of teams that don’t use the Air Raid concepts, if not the entire philosophy. The most notable usage of the Air Raid philosophy still comes directly from Mike Leach, who is now the head coach at Washington State University.

Air Raid Staple Formations

This is the trips right formation of the Air Raid. 3x1 and the Y receiver is on the LOS.
EARLY
This is the Air Raids version of TRIPS RIGHT (eaRly), it is a bit different than many trips formation variations because the Y receiver is on the line of scrimmage by default. A 3×1 formation like this can take advantage of the spacing that a defense must account for by having three receivers on one side of the field.
This is the trips left formation of the Air Raid. 3x1 and the Y receiver is on the LOS.
LATE
This is the Air Raids version of TRIPS LEFT (Late), Y receiver still on the line of scrimmage. Same principles apply to this formation as they do with EARLY.
This is a 2 back formation with a strength to the right. The Y is on the LOS.
GREEN
Unlike the Early/Late formations, this is a 20 personnel (2 backs) formation with a strength to the right (hence gReen). This formation is especially useful in situations where extra pass protection is needed, and great for screen packages. Many teams run this formation with a fullback and runningback, however, most Air Raid offenses are going to utilize two runningbacks instead in most situations. The Y receiver is on the line of scrimmage (notice a recurring theme?).
This is a 2 back formation with a strength to the left.
BLUE
Blue is the opposite of Green in the Air Raid offense. Same formation, with the strength to the left (bLue). The difference in Blue and Green is the H receiver is OFF the line of scrimmage, unlike the Y receiver who is on the LOS in Green.
This is a common formation in the Air Raid, it is a 2x2 formation with the Y receiver on the LOS.
ACE
This is the bread and butter of the modern Air Raid. It’s a 2×2 set, and is very versatile with receiver alignments and splits, depending on where the ball is located on the field. It stretches the defense to align horizontally pre-snap, which will likely leave the box with 5 or less defenders opening up the opportunity to run inside. Again, Y is ON the line of scrimmage. In the earliest versions of the Air Raid, ACE was under center with the Y and H receivers being Y and H tight ends.
RIP is a formation modifier. It moves the Y receiver off the LOS and the Z receiver on.
RIP
RIP is more of a “formation tag” (a word that is added to the play call that slightly alters the base formation) than a formation itself. When a formation is tagged with RIP, the Y receiver moves off the line of scrimmage, and the Z receiver moves on the line of scrimmage. The example shown above would be called “ACE RIP“.

Air Raid Playcalls

92 Mesh - The bread and butter of the Air Raid passing game.
92 or MESH
This is the staple of the Air Raid. Two crossing routes that adjust based on coverage, they shut the route down against zone and carry to the sideline against man. The Y receiver sets the depth with the H running underneath. This can create a natural pick/rub on the defense. The outside receivers running intermediate/deep routes to stress the defense, usually post to the backside and corner to the playside. To the read side the, you can create a “triangle read” by having the tailback run a flat route to that side.
94 Y-Sail - Another passing concept that creates stress at all levels of the defense.
94 or Y-SAIL
The Y-Sail concept is once again flooding one side of the field, in this case, the right hand side. The defense is being forced to defend three levels (flat = RB flat/intermediate = sail/deep = Z go) on the right sideline, but must also account for the middle (due to the X receiver running a crossing route), and the deep left half (due to the deep route by the H receiver). Against every defensive coverage there is a read that is open on this concept.
95 Y-Cross; Y receiver is running a crossing route known as the USOM route, which is short for Under-Sam-Over-Mike.
95 or Y-CROSS
If the mesh concept is the favorite in the Air Raid passing game, the Y-Cross is the honorable mention. Just like the other Air Raid concepts, the routes ran by the receivers are flooding to one side for the most part. You have three levels to defend this time on the left side, the X on the go route, the Y coming across, and the runningback flat route. On the back side, the Z receiver is running a post which will also flood that direction unless he sits in the zone. The defense has to defend all of these routes, and account for the second back running a flare to the opposite side. The Y cross needs to cross the Sams face and then get enough depth to run behind the mike backer, the route is called a USOM route (Under Sam Over Mike).
6 (4 Verts) - This is the main deep passing concept in the Air Raid. It is designed to stretch the defense vertically, but like the other plays, the receivers also change their routes according to the defensive coverage.
6′ or 4-VERTS
This is the concept that turned Texas Tech quarterbacks into 5000 yard passers. Even though it is called “4-Verts”, it is actually just another passing concept that is designed for the receivers to run their routes based on the coverage of the defense. The play call itself is “6”. The outside receivers will run go routes, unless the defense is in cover 2 zone, in which case they will find the soft spot in between the corner in the flat and the safety deep. The two inside receivers have seam routes, but will shut down their routes vs cover 4 once they clear the underneath defenders. The runningback has a choice route underneath to draw the underneath defenders away from the seam routes.

MOTIONS

Jet motion moves a player across a formation in front of the quarterbacks face.
JET MOTION
JET is a common motion used in many offenses, it moves a player across the formation in front of the quarterback. The motion call here would be “H JET”.
Move can be a motion or a shift, and moves a player across the formation to the other side.
MOVE MOTION/SHIFT
MOVE motions a player from one side of the formation to the other. This can be a motion (ball snapped while player is still moving) or a shift (player will get set before snap), and can also be called ‘FIRE’.
Wrap send a player in a jet sweep like motion, but the player will wrap behind the quarterback.
WRAP MOTION
WRAP motions a player similarly to jet sweep, across the formation, except the player will wrap behind the quarterback.
Bullet motions a player out of the backfield to the same side.
BULLET MOTION
BULLET is generally a motion attached to a runningback. It motions the runningback out of the backfield to the same side. He generally would need to be sprinting as fast as he can in this motion.

Note: This post is likely to be updated from time to time to add in extra content or new information about the Air Raid since football is ever-changing.

Sources and Research:
smartfootball.com – this site offered tremendous insight into the history of the Air Raid, if you want to know exactly where Mike Leach and that offense began, look no further.
footballxos.com – awesome website that features actual playbooks from many different colleges and coaches, including many of the Air Raid playbooks from the 80s to the early 2000s.
cougcenter.com – I initially stumbled upon this website because I couldn’t remember the name of a specific motion, and ended up reading through their content for a long time, and it’s all great insight.