The term “Air Raid” gets thrown around a lot. Any time a team throws the football more than 50% of the time, they're often labeled an “Air Raid offense”. Most of the time this just isn’t correct. The Air Raid isn’t just a spread variant. It’s not just a high-tempo offense. The Air Raid is a scheme unto itself.
It’s so different that Georgia head football coach Kirby Smart said his team set aside days in Georgia’s bye week, prior to the Florida game, to prepare for the offense ahead of Georgia’s trip to Mississippi State this Saturday.
“Took a day during the bye week to work towards these guys… Offensively, obviously, they’re very different. People would think that they’re very similar to Tennessee, but they’re not similar to Tennessee.” said Smart.
It may not be as stark a contrast from week to week as it was to watch a Paul Johson-esque flexbone offense, but for coaches, it can be just as difficult to prepare for, as Kirby Smart laid out:
“They know who they are. They have answers for what they do. They’re usually one step ahead [with] their answers than you are, because you don’t play against it but once a year.”
So what makes this offense so different? Well, it starts up front. While most offensive lines have splits (the space between offensive lineman) of a little over a foot, but the Air Raid goes much wider, as much as two to three yards between linemen. This does a few things. One, it puts more space between the quarterback and the defense’s edge rushers. This allows the quarterback the extra split-second he needs to throw the quick routes this offense is famous for. In that same vein, it slows down any stunt a defensive line is trying to run. The splits also open up holes in the run game because linebackers are forced to spread out to cover those wide gaps.
“You’d be mistaken if you think they’re just throwin’ it, because they got some really good backs. They’re really physical up front. They space you out, there’s more gaps.” said Smart.
Mississippi State does throw the football, a lot. Through nine games, the Bulldogs are throwing the ball on 68.6% of their plays, with 49.8 passing attempts per game and 22.8 rushing attempts. That being said, it’s a much different passing attack than what Georgia saw with Tennessee, as Kirby Smart pointed out. Mike Leach’s Bulldogs prefer to kill you with a thousand jabs, as opposed to going for haymakers like the Volunteers.
Drag routes, screens, and swing routes keep the offense in front of the chains. It preys upon defenders getting impatient and becoming undisciplined. One slip-up and coverage and a 5-yard completion can become a 70-yard score.
Speaking of Leach, Kirby Smart knows his defense will be facing off with one of the pioneers of the Air Raid. This isn’t a guy that liked the premise of the offense and made it his own. Leach, along with Hal Mumme, crafted the offense at Iowa Wesleyan, grew it into a phenomenon at Valdosta State, and perfected it into a death machine at Kentucky with quarterback Tim Couch at the helm.
There’s nothing that Georgia will show Leach that he hasn’t seen a million times. The difference in the game will come down to the wide receiver-secondary battle. This offense thrives off of receivers winning and the quarterback being efficient. To beat it, you have to be patient and realize that, for the most part, you’re not going to have explosive plays as a defense. The ball just comes out too quickly. But as with every pass-heavy offense, the weakness of this one is how devastating an incompletion can be. 1st and 10 can become 3rd and 10 in a hurry. That’s not what this offense is built for.
Saturday will be, if not Georgia’s biggest test, certainly it’s most unique. Mike Leach’s 6-3 Bulldogs would love nothing more than to give the unbeaten Bulldogs of Georgia heartburn for 4 quarters.
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