USAToday Sports/Orlando Ramirez

Sorensen Looks at the Program: Did Jim Leavitt do Cougs a favor with his dissection of the Air Raid?

JIM LEAVITT, THE new defensive coordinator at Oregon, may have done a favor for the 2017 Washington State football team. As the DC at Colorado in the Buffs’ defeat of the Cougars earlier this season, he put together a perfect recipe for shutting down WSU’s Air Raid offense.

Washington and Minnesota largely followed Leavitt’s scheme in their own handcuffing of the Cougar offense.

Those three-straight sobering outcomes, which dampened an otherwise memorable WSU campaign, send the Cougars into the offseason with a limp in their gait. But more than that, the Cougs go into the winter and spring with a clear mandate to develop the elixir to Leavitt’s Kryptonite.

And what, exactly, is it that Colorado, and then Washington and Minnesota, dialed up against the Cougar offense to such great effect?

In simplest terms, they stacked the box early and often and then either blitzed or faked the blitz and dropped back into coverage with as many as seven or eight defenders. The result was confusion on offense for the Cougs.

Other teams have rolled out versions of this against WSU, but these three teams pulled it off with huge results because 1) they had the personnel, particularly on the d-line and at corner, to execute it; and 2) they disguised what they were doing in spectacular fashion.

By stacking the box, you’re obviously discouraging the offense from running the ball. But from the QB’s standpoint, there’s another element at work — is one side of the D overloaded, thus making the run a still-viable option? 

As Luke Falk was going through his pre-snap reads and checking in and out of plays, the defenses were doing the same thing. Coupled with disguised coverages on the back end, this chess match before the snap resulted in uncertainty for the offense.

Confusing the QB clearly is how you limit the Air Raid and these three teams did it.

And the fake blitzes with drops into coverage killed the Cougars. With seven or eight defenders back, Cougar receivers struggled to get open. Meanwhile, in the trenches, the stout opposing D-lines were able to bring pressure rushing only three or four guys.

Moreover, that pressure from the D-line allowed the corners to go into press man coverage on the outside -- which takes away quick, inside routes, forcing you to hold the ball longer so receivers can get open deeper.

For the Air Raid, that pressure mixed with narrow receiving windows added up to a whole lot of not-very-much.

Often you’d see two high safeties taking away the deep ball and everyone else in front rallying to the short, underneath passes and then punishing the receiver once the ball is in hand.

You’d also see, in man coverage, the free safety reading Falk’s eyes/head and then jumping the route.

But more than anything, the back seven LBs and DBs disguised their coverages, causing Luke to pause and hold onto the ball too long as he looked for his second, third and fourth receiving options.

HERE IS ANOTHER common thread in the three losses: Slot receiver River Cracraft (torn ACL) wasn’t in uniform. Cracraft was Falk’s security blanket and his third-down go-to-guy. His absence was absolutely devastating to the Cougar offense.

And another thought. I had a ton of people ask me about the Huskies’ two goal-line stands against the Cougars and my response was pretty straight forward: go back and look at the tape and tell me if the Cougar offensive linemen had their hands on the ground once they got inside the 10. The answer is no. They stayed in their standard, two-point pass-blocking stance on every down. The Huskies blew them off the ball because the D-line got lower at the point of attack. In short yardage situations like that, defenses want to build a “wall” at the point of attack and that starts with the linemen going low. “Low man always wins,” we used to say, and the Cougars — by virtue of their two-point stances — had neither the leverage nor momentum to succeed, in my opinion.

But back to my main point.

Jim Leavitt gave all the teams that WSU will face next season a blueprint on how to defeat the Air Raid. Granted, I thought Colorado and Washington were just plain better teams on paper to begin with, but Minnesota was not. Yet they took Leavitt’s plan, tailored it to their personnel, and wreaked havoc on the Cougs.

That’s why this off season is so important to the Air Raid. The Cougs need to turn these chess matches back in their favor.

It’s time to self scout.

If Luke Falk devours film of the last 10 quarters of the season I think he’s going to grow in a major way. Sometimes being highly intelligent — as Luke is — can be detrimental because you’re processing so many factors and variables. Mike Leach alluded to it right after the Holiday Bowl. He said sometimes you’re better off doing less thinking and more let-it-ripping.

I truly think by analyzing the Colorado, Washington and Minnesota film, Luke is going to see that there are times he can go against his natural inclination and just stick with the original play call — be it run or pass, despite what he thinks he’s seeing from the defense. Doing that — the unconventional — will, in turn, put the chess match back in his favor. And that’s when Luke Falk will shred a defense.

The Cougs finished the season at 8-5 and reeled off seven-straight Pac-12 victories in the process. That is outstanding work. But to get beyond that, the Air Raid must produce points against the good and great defenses and not just the average and poor ones.

Self scouting this off season will be a big step toward getting there.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Paul Sorensen played safety for the Cougars from 1980-81, earning first-team All-America honors as a senior. He then spent two seasons in the NFL on the Bengals' and 49ers' practice squads and later played in the USFL. From 1985-98 he was the color commentator on radio broadcasts of Cougar football and has been the color analyst for Eastern Washington University broadcasts for many years since then. He also was a long-time assistant coach in the Greater Spokane League. Paul has been writing periodically for CF.C since 1999. His columns here are labeled SLAP! The acronym stands for Sorensen Looks At the Program. The word also aptly describes the way Paul played safety and the way he does color commentary: in-your-face, nothing held back.


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