Indeed, this technique was a design of Mike Leach himself when he began running the show at Texas Tech. The basic philosophy fits with a mantra we often hear when he describes the Air Raid: space and time.
Here are three basic reasons to use wider splits and how they relate to space and time on the field.
1) Wider edges: By spreading the offensive linemen out with splits somewhere between three and six feet, you also push the defensive linemen wider. These wider edges increase the distance (space) to the quarterback and therefore it takes longer for the defensive linemen to get to him (time.)
2) Easier to see rush angles: By forcing the defensive line to spread out, it also allows the offensive line to have better vision on different stunts and blitzes that may be coming. If a DE and DT want to execute a “game” (where they essentially switch pass rush responsibilities by twisting at the line of scrimmage) the offensive line can see it unfold because both defensive players are much farther away from each other (space) and it takes longer for them to twist (time.) The same could be said for a linebacker trying to blitz outside but who must now go around a defensive end who is much wider than he normally would line up.
3) Better passing lanes: Theoretically, by spreading the offensive line out with wider splits you should be able to get better passing lanes (space) over the ball. This is essential because the Air Raid relies heavily on quick passes (time) like the mesh and hook where receivers catch the ball directly over the center. A quick side note: wider splits may allow for the quarterback to step up easier in these lanes when he is trying to execute a downfield throw.
A vertical set essentially entails the offensive linemen retreating four to five steps from the line of scrimmage and then setting an anchor at which point they will make contact with the defensive linemen.
The idea is to move the line of scrimmage back five yards, thereby decreasing a defensive lineman’s leverage advantage – a d-linemen are lowest when coming out of their stance and tend to stand up the longer they rush -- and allowing the offensive line to see any stunts or blitzes develop.
Although there are clear reasons why wider splits on the offensive line can work, there are also some distinct disadvantages to this technique.
The Air Raid relies heavily on the quarterback’s ability to get the ball out on time. If the ball comes out quick, then there are usually very little protection issues. However, because Washington State utilizes wider splits, it also puts the offensive linemen in one-on-one situations very often. The longer the quarterback holds the ball, the much tougher it is for a lineman to win that battle.
In addition, by vertically setting on downfield passes the offensive line must be incredibly disciplined and all stay on the same level. If your right tackle is at eight yards but the right guard and center are at five yards, it creates gaps that the defensive line can exploit. This is one difficulty when learning the system and something that we saw often in Leach’s first few years with WSU. Now with an experienced, veteran line and a quality offensive line coach like Clay McGuire, I believe the Cougars will be able to protect much more effectively.
The final issue with wider splits along the offensive line is with the running game.
Although the idea is to create wider rushing lanes as well as passing lanes, in reality by putting the offensive linemen farther apart it makes it much more difficult for them to execute the double team blocks so essential in controlling the first level of defenders.
If you never win the initial block at the line of scrimmage, then you will never be able to run the ball effectively. Obviously, running the ball is not a primary concern for Leach, but it is one of the clear differences between him and some of his disciples who have gone on to be successful.
Art Briles, Sonny Dykes and Dana Holgorson all utilize various versions of the offense they learned from Leach and fellow Air Raid developer Hal Mumme. The most polarizing difference is all three make a commitment to running the football.
And not only do they run the ball, they run the ball very well. Tellingly, their linemen maintain traditional splits because it helps them create angles and doubles teams. It also has not taken away one bit from their passing game as all three routinely have been in the top ten, along with WSU, in passing yards nationally.
In the end, as long as Coach Leach is going to rely heavily on the dropback pass and screen game to generate offense, then it makes a lot of sense to maintain wide splits along the offensive line.
It genuinely does take longer for the defensive line to get to the quarterback and although it may open up some issues with teams trying to shoot the wide gaps, both the quarterback and offensive line are able to see it because of the space and time they have picked up. Most important, if the quarterback is disciplined enough to get the ball out of his hand on time then the protection will rarely be an issue.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Alex Brink was the starting quarterback at Washington State from 2004-2007, throwing for more yards and touchdowns than anyone in school history -- and the third-most yards in Pac-10 history. He was picked second-team all-Pac-10 twice and honorable mention once. Drafted in the seventh round by the Houston Texans in 2008, he spent a season on their practice squad before playing three years in the Canadian Football League with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers (2010-12) followed by two seasons with Montreal (2013-14). He is the head quarterbacks coach for the Barton Football Academy based in Portland and does a weekly Pac-12 podcast. He can be found on twitter at @AlexBrink10.