Air Raid Detroit: A Study Of The Lions Wide-Open Attack

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I couldn’t remember where I had seen it before; I just knew that it was familiar.

On the final play of the first quarter against the Buccaneers, Matthew Stafford delivered a 21-yard strike to Eric Ebron to cross into Tampa Bay territory. The concept was eerily familiar, but I couldn’t put my finger on it at first. And then – it clicked.

Blue Right 95 Y-Cross.

This play was a fixture in the offense that Air Raid architects Hal Mumme and Mike Leach ran at the Universiy of Kentucky in the late ’90s. In fact, that very diagram was ripped out of the Wildcats’ 1997 playbook.

So, roll out the red carpet, Detroit fans – the Air Raid is here.

While the Air Raid is widely understood to be a pass-happy, high-octane ‘college offense,’ the system has found its way to every level of the game, including the NFL. My 95 Y-Cross epiphany, and subsequent trip down the rabbit hole, yielded the understanding that the Lions have quietly incorporated many of the system’s concepts into their attack, although I’m not sure just how recent this development is.

‘615/618′ (Stick), ‘94’ (Sail), ‘96’ (All Curl), ‘62’ (Y-Corner or China) – all Air Raid staples – were prominently featured in their gameplan against Tampa Bay. The team also employed ‘6’ (Four Verticals), ‘93’ (H-Wheel), ‘97,’ ’60’ (Outs), and ‘66’ (hitch-seam) concepts, in addition to several screens seemingly inspired by, or outright stolen from, the old gods of the Air Raid. And while they weren’t utilized against the Buccaneers, bubble/tunnel screens and concepts like ‘90 Z’ (Shallow Cross), ‘Blue Right 92’ (Mesh), and ‘617’ make regular appearances in the Lions offense. If this all seems like word and numbers salad, that’s because it is. But have no fear – this piece will be illustrated with easy-to-follow diagrams and GIFs.

Furthermore, it will serve as neither a history of the system nor an X’s and O’s clinic, as the definitive primer on the Air Raid has already been written by Chris B. Brown. Rather, it will be a juxtaposition of the modern iteration of the Lions offense and turn-of-the-century Air Raid gospel. The 1997 Kentucky Wildcats playbook, the 1999 Oklahoma Sooners playbook, and, oddly enough, the 2001 Hoover (AL) High School playbook will be the referenced works.

While the first two may be instantly recognizable as quintessential Air Raid texts, the latter is relevant because it was sold to them by Tony Franklin, a Mumme/Leach disciple who proliferated the spread of the system after he went from coordinating the nation’s second-ranked passing attack to peddling instructional DVDs to high school coaches within a year’s time. A recruiting scandal led to his demise nearly two decades ago, but Franklin is now the offensive coordinator at Middle Tennessee State, a team that just dropped 35 points in a Camellia Bowl victory over Arkansas State. I digress…

We’ll begin by revisiting the aforementioned Blue Right 95 Y-Cross.

Blue Right 95 Y-Cross

Jim Bob Cooter has a very modern take on this old classic, and he even ran it out of a two-back set, just as the godfather Hal Mumme intended! The route distribution of the X, Y, and Z receivers is pure, unrefined Air Raid, but Cooter has incorporated a few wrinkles.

They break the huddle in a trips alignment with running back Theo Riddick lining up in the slot. Riddick motions behind Stafford and runs a swing route to the left. They’ve also packaged a power play action look into this play. The guard and the tackle execute a pin pull – meaning the offensive tackle ‘pins’ down on the defensive tackle while the offensive guard ‘pulls’ to the defensive end. The result is a 21-yard gain.

96 (All Curls)

The Lions actually ran this play a couple of times against the Buccaneers, and it made both of its appearances in the first quarter. Although they didn’t execute it out of a two-back set – the original preferred formation of the Air Raid before it evolved into a four-wide and trips offense – they did relatively little to alter the original concept.

This first play, with 9:42 to go in the first quarter, is textbook ‘96’ route distribution, albeit from a 2×2 alignment (two receivers on each side of the ball). Golden Tate is tasked with selling a crossing route and then sitting down as the mike runs past, but the ball comes out before he’s able to do so.

The second time around, they opted for a Darren Fells seam route over a shoot (flat) or swing route. The seam adds an element of verticality to the play and helps create operating room underneath. This play blends 96 with 66 (hitch-seam), which we’ll talk about next.

66 (Hitch-Seam)

This concept was referred to as ‘64’ in the Kentucky playbook (pictured above), but appeared as ‘66’ in both the OU and Hoover HS playbooks. Hitch-seam is a popular concept that’s used to attack Cover 3 defenses. As the cornerback retreats into his deep third zone, the hitch will develop in front of him before the flat defender has time to rotate over. The seams, run by the inside receivers, will fill the voids in between the deep third defenders.

While it’s not how Mumme and Leach drew it up, this functions very similarly to how their original design did. The vertical releases of the inside receivers, although not ultimately seam routes, still stretch the defense vertically. This variant presents a Yankee concept, a two-man deep crossing combo used to attack the middle-of-the-field safety.

By running a post route to the opposite side of a ‘dig’ (or deep in) the safety is put into conflict. He must either drive on the dig, thereby uncovering the deep post behind him, or allow it to be completed. Because hitch-seam is run predominantly as a Cover 3 beater, this wrinkle works well in theory. It should be noted that the Yankee concept has made appearances elsewhere in the Lions offense, but is neither unique nor native to the Air Raid.

‘615’/’618′ (Stick)

According to Brown, “Both Y-Stick and Y-Corner were plays Mumme and Leach used at least as far back as Kentucky, though it was only over time that they eventually became key Air Raid staples. At Kentucky in 1998, Y-Corner was rarely called at all, and at Oklahoma in 1999 it similarly was not a featured play.

Mumme himself detailed Y-Stick and Y-Corner at a clinic talk circa 2000 and described having great success with both. They would run stick against zone and corner against man. If they had a good slant runner at the H position, they would run stick out of a 2×2 alignment. If not, they’d run it out of two-back sets and trips.

However, most teams have their backside receiver run a one-step slant as the hot route; the Lions do it differently. Considering Theo Riddick’s dynamic route running and YAC ability, they prefer him to be the hot receiver (or the ‘safety valve’ against a blitz) because a blitz usually means he’s one-on-one against a linebacker. On both of these plays, Riddick scans for extra rushers before running an angle (or ‘Texas’) route while the backside receiver runs a comeback or a curl.

The Lions have demonstrated a tendency to isolate their biggest, most physical receiver (usually rookie Kenny Golladay) in trips sets. This can be a favorable matchup, especially if they call man coverage or Cover 3 against the curl/comeback. Because Golladay and Marvin Jones are deep threats that command respect, they can sell the vertical release before breaking their route off in front of a cornerback. And even if they’re well-guarded, their physicality can help them box out defenders at the catch point.

’62’ (Y-Corner)

 

62 (or Y Corner) is a concept the Lions are rather enamored with. They ran it, or some version of it, five times against Tampa Bay. It was also the play call for Eric Ebron’s red zone touchdown against the Bears. They’ll run it out of either 2×2 or trips. On 2×2 alignments, they’ll either show the concept on both sides of the field, or run a double-dig or an Ohio concept (outside receiver runs a go, inside receiver runs a quick out) opposite the Y-corner. In trips, they’ll run it with double quick-ins.


The mantra of the Air Raid at Kentucky was, “Throw it short as many times as possible to players who can score.” Detroit likes to use this concept to clear out space for their receivers – who are all very good after the catch – to operate underneath. At his clinic talk, Mumme talked about the read progression of Y Corner based on field position. Normally, the quarterback would read the #2 (or slot) receiver running the corner/seam, before progressing to the #1 (or outside) receiver running the in. In the red zone, however, they’d invert the read progression, which is how the Lions run it normally.

The first time they ran it against Tampa Bay came on 3rd & 3 with 10:08 in the first quarter. They motion Marvin Jones to a tight split and have Riddick follow him on an angle route. To the field side, they run the aforementioned Ohio concept, which appears in ‘617.’ The result of the play is a 27-yard gain for a first down.

The second time they ran it – they called it a total of five times – they mirrored the concepts at varying depths. This means that the patterns on one side of the field will match those on the other side. This was on 3rd & 4 and resulted in another Lions first down.

Here’s the look presented out of a trips alignment with a curl-flat combination on the backside. Tight end Eric Ebron reads the two-high shell and runs a seam out of the inside slot, thereby clearing out space underneath. The Lions earned another big gain on a 24-yard catch-and-run by Golden Tate.

’94’ Y-Sail

The Lions ran 94 Y Sail, or a variant of it, three times against the Buccaneers. This fourth quarter play is the purest version of the play, though. The route distribution mimics that of ‘Blue Open 94 H-Angle,’ as seen above, but is run out of a trips formation that Hoover HS called Early Open F-Away. The 1999 Sooners also called it Early Open.In this case, it would be H-Away, as the H stood for halfback, whereas F stood for fullback. Riddick chips before releasing into his angle route, but that’s about the only modification made. The confidence Stafford and the coaching staff have in Riddick’s ability to separate from linebackers is becoming evident.

93 Wheel

 

This play, as diagrammed by Brown, is very similar to the version the Lions used against the Buccaneers, although the distribution is varied. The post-wheel is a switch concept used to beat Cover 3 but works especially well in combination with the curl route. Because the Lions (and other Air Raid offenses) run so many routes to the flat, the initial development of the wheel often baits defensive backs into biting on it.

The outermost receiver runs a deep post, the outside slot runs to the boundary and sits down at about eight yards, and the inside slot receiver runs the wheel route. On the backside, Ebron is flexed out and runs a drag rather than a stick. However, the three-man combination functions similarly to the one Brown drew up. While Detroit failed to dig themselves out of this 3rd & Long, this play is a proven Air Raid concept.

‘6’ (Four Verticals)
Detroit has recently enjoyed great success throwing deep and four verticals has been a part of a winning formula. The play itself is less a static design than it is a set of rules for attacking the third level. As Brown notes, it’s about maintaining a vertical release before freelancing to get open once you reach a certain depth.

Although this play results in an interception, you can see how similar this play is to Leach’s play from 1999. The inside receivers read the coverage and break off from their vertical release at 10 yards, just how Leach drew it up.

’97’ (Yankee)

Cooter and the Lions really like this play and also frequently employ its core concept (Yankee) on play action, as many teams do against eight-man boxes. This version is decidedly more modern Air Raid, however, as they run it out of a four-wide look.

The modifications are once again minimal. The outside boundary receiver runs a fade and Riddick runs an angle out of the backfield, a common theme. The angle is a nice touch because it allows the play to succeed against Cover 2 if everything gets covered up at the deep and intermediate levels.

’60’ (Outs)

This concept surfaced twice against Tampa and went for an 18-yard gain on the game-wining drive. Said play featured a Riddick check-and-release, which may have been part of a protection call, but was otherwise copied from the oft-referenced Sooners playbook.

It had made an earlier appearance in the third quarter, and with similar development.

In this variant, Tate doesn’t run a streak. Instead, he runs a quick-in to fill the space the boundary linebacker vacated to cover the tight end seam. The out routes are also run deeper than ten yards. The bones of the play, however, are there.

’43’

As previously stated, much of the Lions screen game flirts with plagiarism from decades-old Air Raid playbooks. ’43’ is more commonly known as a swing screen and the Lions run a lot of these. They use it as an extension of their run game because it enables them to get Riddick, who’s much weaker between the tackles, out in space.

This play is almost a direct rip-off of ’43’ right down to the formation. The only thing that’s different is that the RG doesn’t climb to the second level.

Ace Rip Z Randy

Because some of these screens weren’t utilized against Tampa, I called an audible late in the process of writing this to double back to the Baltimore game. This decision was richly rewarded, as that game proved to be a clinic on the Air Raid screen game.

This play doesn’t transpire as it was diagrammed because there is not a defensive back aligned over the playside slot receiver. That said, it’s blocked according to the principles transcribed in the Kentucky playbook. The right tackle cuts the first man who crosses him, as does the right guard. The center is prescribed to cut the mike, but the mike is the first man who crosses the right guard, so he takes the pursuing defensive tackle. The only other differences are the tight alignment of the backside receivers and the RPO action.

Ace Rip H LarryThis is another Air Raid screen the Lions have modernized. They once again integrate a RPO into this play, but it’s blocked on the playside pretty much exactly how Mumme wrote it up. The play gains eight yards in spite of everyone failing to secure their blocks.

The Lions love these screens because it gives their playmakers opportunity to gain RAC. Their heavy utilization also help slow down the rush, as they’ve allowed the second-most sacks in the NFL this year.

Ace Rip 6 Shallow (Shallow Cross)

With the exception of the back staying into pass protect, this play is virtually identical to the concept presented in the Sooners playbook. It gives Stafford deep options on the outside and an easy read on the mike linebacker. The depths of the in and the drag stretch the linebacker vertically. If he sinks to take away the in, Stafford will throw the drag. If he charges hard on the drag, Stafford will drop it behind him.

‘617’

‘617’ is the final examination in an exhaustive look at Detroit’s Air Raid concepts. In their version, the Lions retain the outside fade routes while flipping the slot quick out to a quick in. They motion Ebron across the formation, rather orbiting him as seen in the above variants. Once again, little tailoring is done to the original concept.

Final Thoughts

The Lions have done little to functionally deviate from decades-old Air Raid concepts. They incorporate RPOs (which is not an innovation unique to their Air Raid) into their screens and they give receivers more option routes. They also change a route here and there, but that’s about it. Matthew Stafford has completed 75-plus percent of his passes the last three games, including two games in which he connected on more than 80% of his throws.

The Air Raid has simplified things for Stafford and opened up the offense for him and his band of playmakers. In the Air Raid, “Everything beats Cover 3,” so defenses have been forced to play more Cover 2 against Stafford, which he’s able to pick apart with his elite arm strength.

The freedom he’s given at the line of scrimmage is reminiscent of the Moore-Manning philosophy I’ve written about in the past. (Chris B. Brown, who you should be familiar with by now, wrote another great article on it.) That system, when coupled with the Air Raid offense, can be very potent, but the Lions must stop shooting themselves in the foot with penalties and turnovers. When they train their guns elsewhere, their fifth-ranked passing offense will be capable of winning a shootout with anybody.

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