The “Forgotten” Position in the Air Raid Offense (Running Back)
I use the word “forgotten” in quotation marks, because the media seems to forget this important part of the offense. The focus of everyone when talking in this offense is the quarterback and the receivers, but without one “forgotten” player, The offense would be doomed schematically. The Running Back. One will argue, that this is an after
thought position and it’s only quarterback and receiver heavy. Let me show you how that belief can lead to loosing 20-30% of your offensive production, and leave you frustrated and depleted.
Ask any Air Raid coach, and this position is a key part of the dynamic. There can be no triangle concept with out the presence of a running back who can catch the ball out of the back field, and run between the tackles. Lesser talented teams will struggle to stretch the defense forcing them to defend 5 potential receivers.
It is hard to open the middle up without the horizontal strain that the tailback can make on the second level defenders. The swing and shoot routes are not just for “window dressing,” they have to be a threat to throw versus the defense. Without the presence of this type of player the defense always has a 5 on 4 advantage in the secondary, and can stay flat footed in their front 6 or 7 man box. Look at this version of mesh from 2 backs, The defense has to go from a 2 back defending defense to a defense that has to cover 5 routes. Many time this is where the mismatch is found and where the running back can force the defend to honor him, and open the crossers or mid level routes inside the concepts. Nearly every concept is based on a horizontal stretch of the flat defender on the triangle read. Without this part of the concept the defense has a plus one advantage.
Running backs by the numbers
I like to look at numbers to see how much impact a position can make in this offense. I did some research and I want to take a quick look at the numbers. I took numbers from Washington State and Hal Mumme’s UK teams. I basically did this because these 2 have basically used the same concepts and approach to this offense since bringing it’s beginning in college football.
During the 2016 season the Cougars backfield was responsible for 30% of the total completions from Luke Falk, as well as 25% of his total passing yards, along with the 1193 yards total rushing. The running backs accounted for 114 receptions this year will still some games to be played.
In the 2015 season the Cougars backfield was responsible for 26% of his total completions from Luke Falk, as well as 17% of his total passing yards, along with the 1133 yards rushing. Again last year the backfield was near 100 receptions.
Looking back 20 years ago when the Air Raid hit the big D1 stage at the University of Kentucky the numbers are still closely related. Even when it seems the Air Raid teams are now putting up more points and staggering numbers the lone member that has not changed is the running backs production in the passing game.
In 1997 the backfield was responsible for 18% of Couch’s passing completions, and 19% of his total passing yards. The total shows that with 1225 yards rushing and 728 yards receiving the backfield is a very important component of this system.
In 1998 the backfield was again responsible for 27% of Couch’s passing completions, and 19% of his total passing yards. Along with 1153 yards rushing.
In 1999 the backfield was again responsible for 32% of Bonner’s passing completions, and 26% of his total passing yards.
The numbers we are looking at today, as well as 20 years ago look the same. The 3rd-4th leading receiver on your team better be the running back if you are going to be in the Air Raid. The tailback is the hinge on the door to the triangle read that makes this offense work. He must be a threat to run and catch the football. No matter how defense has changed over the past 20 years, the constant is the backfield is worth 20-30 percent of your passing yards in this system.
FOCUS: Their is most times 1 running back on the field in today’s spread offense. So by the numbers the importance of the tail back position is shown. 20-30 percent of their offense came from one player at one position. The remaining amount of the offense is scattered over 8-10 receivers each year. That is how important one position is in this offense.
The lack of presence from a pass catching ability allows the defense to play 5 on 4 to the pass. Defenses are only allowed 6 defenders soundly versus a spread set, of course meaning they have to account for potentially 5 receivers on every snap. This will completely cut down on your receivers ability to get to Open Grass in the concepts, and will make it extremely hard until you establish this phase. Let’s force a team to go man for man, from a zone concept. Man the 1/2 run defender have to give up the flat or open up windows. Make the one man have to play 2 places.
As we looked earlier at the picture of the Mesh play, here are another of the staples of the offense. All have the important role of the flat horizontal stretch from the backfield. Taking advantage of match ups with interior defensive players, and the use and space of the field. This also does alot to open up the run game, by the plus box defenders having to constantly play with one foot in and one foot out. Never being able to commit to the run or the pass fully. It also negates the blitz, because the defense has to defend empty. and that leaves six defenders. If the defense blitzes one, it leaves open grass for the quarterback to throw in. Thus leaving it very vulnerable for completions and yards after catch.
Another stat that might stand out higher is the completion percentage of these quarterbacks. The whole idea behind this offense is to get it out quick and to the highest percentage throw. The backfield is a high percentage throw of course, because it is one of the closest, but also because the backfield opens up the middle phase of the concept, which is the second highest phase of the concept. The read order of the concepts are also very dependent on the presence of the running back. If the man who is responsible for the middle or flat phase of the concept blitzes, I can go there immediately, because the defense is now down a triangle defender, and expecting someone to defend a greater area of space.
The “forgotten” position of the Air Raid maybe a footnote in the eyes of the media and fans who just scratch the surface, but ask the coordinators, what the running back means to them in this offense. I have often heard that the two most important players in this offense is the Quarterback and Center, I would have to argue that the running back is a close third. Without him there is no concept of the triangle, and a loss of a third of the offense. One man in one position producing 20-30% of the offenses productivity. Don’t believe the media hype and loose the importance of the running back in the Air Raid Offense.