How To Air It Out – Breaking Down The “Air Formation”

This article written by Jack Sitt

New York Giants @San Francisco 49ers NFC Championship Game

If Alex Smith made the right read on this play, the 49ers would have scored and they may have been able to go knock off the Giants to go to Super Bowl. Alex Smith, however, misunderstood “air.” What is “air”? How did Alex Smith misunderstand this concept?

“Air” is a vacant area of a football field. It is created when there are no eligible offensive players split farther than a yard wide off of one of the offensive tackles. I provided a diagram below as an example. As you can see, a vacant area of the field is created on the strong side of the formation which, in this case, is the right side of the offensive formation. There are no offensive players split farther than a yard wide from the right tackle. The tight end is aligned past the right tackle, but he is not split farther then a yard wide from the tackle. Therefore, that vacant area is described as “air.” Anytime a cornerback is aligned in this vacant area without an opposing offensive player, he is described as being aligned “on air.” However, when the cornerback aligns on the opposite side of the vacant area where there are multiple receivers, he is described as being aligned “over.”

I am not aware of any existing names for the indicating cornerback. I will call offensive formations that create this vacant area “air formations,” and I will call the cornerback that aligns “on air” or “over” the indicating cornerback. I am sure you are currently wondering why I am informing you about “air formations” and why we should care about them.

Reading defenses is one of the most important factors to a good offense. Some argue that the key to Peyton Manning’s and Tom Brady’s continued success over the years is their ability to read defenses. If a quarterback can read defenses, then he will know exactly where and when to pass the football.

We can utilize “air formations” to instantly read defenses. When aligned in an “air formation,” we can determine whether the defense is in man or zone coverage. In order to do this, we look at the alignment of the indicating cornerback. If the indicating cornerback is aligned “on air” then the defense is most likely playing zone. On the other hand, if the indicating cornerback is aligned “over” then the defense is playing man.

Diagram number two is an example of the indicating cornerback aligning “over,” and diagram number three is an example of the indicating cornerback aligning “on air.” The indicating cornerback is highlighted blue on the diagram in both cases. Each diagram has an explanation as to why the indicating cornerback aligns in the area that he does, along with corresponding game film videos.

Explanation: The indicating cornerback usually aligns “over” when the defense is playing man coverage because this puts him in a position to cover the slot receiver.

Corresponding Game Film Videos

The Good: New England Patriots @Washington Redskins

This was one of the greatest plays by a tight end in the last decade, and this was only able to happen because Tom Brady recognized that it was man coverage. As you can see, the indicating cornerback, Deangelo Hall (number 23), aligns “over” which indicates that the defense is playing man coverage. Tom Brady recognizes that there is a mismatch because Dejon Gomes (number 24) is manned up on Rob Gronkowski (although Gronkowski is probably a mismatch for ANYONE). So, Brady throws the out route to Gronkowski with no hesitation and Gronkowski takes over from there.

The Bad: Pittsburgh Steelers @Green Bay Packers Super bowl 45

The indicating cornerback, Charles Woodson (number 21), tells us that the defense is playing man coverage by aligning “over.” Tramon Williams, who is manned up on Mike Wallace, plays the deep ball by giving Wallace a cushion. Additionally, Nick Collins plays help defense on Wallace and is ready for the deep ball, but Roethlisberger throws the ball deep to Wallace anyway. I could see what Rothisberger was thinking; he wanted to start off their first offensive possession of the game with an explosive play, but Rothisberger should have audibled once he saw that the Packers were waiting on the deep ball. This was a game changing play because the Steelers started the game off on the wrong foot and were never able to gain the lead after this play.

The Ugly: New York Giants @San Francisco 49ers NFC Championship Game 2012

Alex Smith and the San Francisco 49ers were trying to get in field goal position to potentially kick a game winning field goal. This was the perfect play to do it. Cory Webster (number 23), the indicating cornerback, aligns “over” which means the defense was playing man coverage. Kenny Phillips (number 21) was covering Vernon Davis tightly at the line of scrimmage. I mean no disrespect to Phillips, but he is incapable of covering Vernon Davis. Alex Smith should have audibled to a deep pass, preferably a wheel route, to Vernon Davis the moment he recognized this matchup. After all, this worked the week before against this same team: New Orleans Saints @San Francisco 49ers Divisional Round 2012 Playoffs. On that play, the strong safety played tight defense on Vernon Davis, and they took advantage of this tactic. So, why shy away now in the biggest game of your career, Alex Smith?

Explanation:

The reason the indicating cornerback aligns “on air” while the defense is playing a zone is that he needs to align himself in the proper position to carry out his zone assignment to the best of his ability. Aligning “on air” enables a quicker/better drop to the indicating cornerback’s zone responsibility. For example, if the defense is playing a cover 2 zone, then the indicating cornerback would be required to cover the flats on the “air” side of the formation. If he is aligned “on air,” he is able to cover the “air” side flats with ease. However, if he were aligned “over” in a cover 2 zone, then the “air” side flats would be left wide open. In this case, the indicating cornerback would not have enough time to get across to the other side of the field to cover the flats.

New York Giants @San Francisco 49ers NFC Championship Game

This was an extremely rare example of a play in which the indicating cornerback, Tarrel Brown (number 25), aligned “over” while the defense was playing a zone. I watched over 100 hours of film, and this was the only time I saw this defensive look. This was a risky move for the 49ers because the “air” side flats were left wide open. The 49ers, however, were able to take this risk because the Giants were inside the 10-yard line. This defensive look could have been planned, in which case the 49ers probably used this look to confuse the offense. Or, it could have been that the indicating cornerback aligned “over” with the intention to play man coverage, but the defense then audibled to a zone just before the snap of the ball, which would explain the confusion that seemed to be going on among the defensive backs prior to the snap of the ball. If we are expecting this defensive look as an offense, we will try to have a route somewhere around the area of the “air” side flats or “air” side corner just in case the defense gives us this look.

Corresponding game film video:

The Good: Detroit Lions @New Orleans Saints playoffs 2012.

The indicating cornerback, Jabari Greer, indicates that the defense is playing a zone by aligning “on air.” After Matthew Stafford recognizes the zone, he knows to go to his tight end, Will Heller, who is on a nice route to the beating zone. Heller originally acts like he is blocking, which enables him to run his route unnoticed by the linebackers. In addition, Calvin Johnson attracts the attention of the linebackers and causes them to drop back far into coverage which enables Heller to run his route wide open in front of the backers.

The Bad: New Orleans Saints @Seattle Seahawks NFC Wildcard Game

This is a designed screen play to the tight end John Carlson. Tracy Porter, the indicating cornerback (number 22), aligns “on air,” which tells us that the Saints were playing zone. The alignment of the safeties specifically told us that they were playing a cover 2 zone. This meant that Tracy Porter would be covering the “air” side flats. Matt Hasselbeck, however, forces the screen pass to Carlson even though screen passes will fall right into the hand of a cover 2 zone.

The Next Step: We now know how to utilize “air formations” to determine whether the defense is playing a man or a zone, but how do we know what type of man or zone the defense is playing? We figure this out through the alignment of the safeties. In Diagram 4, the safeties both align on the hashes. In Diagram 5, the free safety plays centerfield, while the strong safety is inverted. If the safeties align in a similar way to diagram 4 while the defense is playing man coverage, then that means the defense is most likely playing 2 man under; a 2 man under is 2 safeties playing deep halves. In turn, if the safeties align in a similar way to diagram 4 while the defense is playing zone, then they will most likely be playing a cover 2 zone. This means cornerbacks cover the flats while the safeties cover the deep halves. If the safeties align in a similar way to diagram 5 while the defense is playing man, then they will most likely be playing man free coverage. Man free coverage means the defense will be sending an additional rusher from 2 man under, so the free safety plays centerfield while the strong safety plays man coverage. However, if the safeties align in a similar way to diagram 5 while the defense is playing zone, then they will most likely be playing a cover 3 zone. In this coverage, the two outside cornerbacks play deep zones on the outside while the free safety plays a deep zone over the middle. The strong safety usually curls or covers the flats.

Use this play as an example: New Orleans Saints @San Francisco 49ers Divisional Round 2012 Playoffs

Jabari Greer (number 33), the indicating cornerback, aligns “over,” so we know the defense is playing man coverage. Next, we see that the safety alignment indicates man free coverage. In man free coverage, the strong safety is forced to cover an offensive player. In this case, that offensive player is Vernon Davis; this is a mismatch. Alex Smith surprisingly recognizes this and makes the throw toDavison the wheel route.

Things to watch out for:

  1. If the “indicating cornerback” aligns “over,” then defense is playing man coverage. If the “indicating cornerback” aligns “on air,” and there is no safety or linebacker in front of the slot receiver to cover him, then defense is playing zone coverage. However, if the “indicating cornerback” aligns “on air,” and there is a safety or linebacker in front of the slot receiver, the defense may be playing man or zone; whether it is man or zone depends on the team. The reason some defenses have their indicating cornerback align “on air” while they are playing man is to confuse the offense. However, by doing this, the defense leaves itself vulnerable to mismatches. In these situations, a cornerback or linebacker will be covering the tight end and a safety or linebacker will be covering the slot receiver. Therefore, if we read the defense correctly, we will know to attack the defense with our slot receiver or tight end, and they will both have mismatches.

The Pittsburgh Steelers and the Philadelphia Eagles are examples of teams that play man coverage while their indicating cornerback aligns “on air:”

  1. Steelers @Ravens Week 1, 2012

The Steelers aligned Bryant Mcfadden, the indicating cornerback, on Ed Dickson and Troy Polamalu on Anquan Boldin. Dickson and Boldin both have mismatches, but there was no need to exploit them in this situation considering the fact that Dennis Pita was running wide open across the middle on a drag route.

  1. Eagles @Rams Week 1.

Nnamdi Asomugha, the indicating cornerback here, aligns “on air,” but he does not cover any offensive player. He roams the field instead. A linebacker covers Danny Amendola, while the defense plays a two man under. The tight end, Billy Bajema, is left wide open because no one covers him, and the linebacker is not fast enough to cover Amendola on the drag route. Sam Bradford does a good job of recognizing the mismatches and he hits Bajema for a 19-yard gain. If he led Bajema with his pass, however, this would have been a monster gain.

Checking for this defensive tendency is definitely something to watch out for while game planning. We can really use this tendency to our advantage if we are ready for it.

  1. Watch out for Nickel packages. When we come out in our base “air formation” offense (two receivers), and the defense comes out in the nickel package, the defense will always have more cornerbacks on the field than the offense has receivers. In these situations, there will automatically be a cornerback aligned on the “air” side of the formation, as shown in diagram 6. This means that there is no longer an indicating cornerback to help us read the defense. This sounds problematic, but the solution is simple. We will match the defense cornerback for receiver. If the defense comes out in a nickel package, in which there are 3 cornerbacks, we will come out with 3 receivers on offense (as indicated in diagrams 7 and 8). After matching them receiver for corner, we can go back to using the concept of the indicating cornerback to read the defense. In diagram number seven, the indicating cornerback is aligned “on air”, and so it is most likely a zone. In Diagram eight, however, the indicating cornerback is aligned “over” so it is a man coverage.
  1. Using this same concept of Nickel packages, if we are using an “air formation,” we should note that if we have less then 2 receivers then we cannot use our indicating cornerback trick. If we only have one receiver on the field, then they will automatically have more cornerbacks on the field then we have receivers. Defenses always come out with at least 2 cornerbacks.
    1. For an example, watch this play: New York Giants @San Francisco 49ers NFC Championship Game 2012.

The fact that Carlos Rogers aligns on the “air” side of the formation does not indicate that the defense is playing a zone when the offense only comes out with one receiver.

  1. If we are ever in doubt on offense, or if we ever get confused while in an “air formation,” we should remember that we could always use motion to read the defense as a last resort. If we motion a receiver to the other side of the formation, and a cornerback follows the receiver, then the defense is playing man coverage. On the other hand, if we motion a receiver to the other side of the formation and a cornerback does not follow the receiver, the defense is playing a zone. We only want to utilize a man in motion to read the defense when we are confused, because motioning a player has its disadvantages. Motioning an offensive player gives the defense a sense of the snap count, delays a receiver’s route up field, and upsets the rhythm of an offense. If we are confused about the defense while in an “air formation,” and we do not want to use motion because of its disadvantages, we could also read defenses based on cornerback and linebacker alignment. We look for an inside-out corner alignment (showing man rather then head up to outside zone look) and we look to see if the strong outside linebacker aligns on the tight end (which would also indicate man). Diagram nine illustrates this look, while diagram ten illustrates what zone would look like.

Putting it all together: Recognizing the defense was the hard part. Once we know what defense they are playing, we have our man beaters and zone beaters.

As a coach, a good way of motivating your players is telling them that the defense is being disrespectful if they are playing you man-to-man. This means that they think their defensive backs are good enough to match up with our receivers.

In general, when we are attacking man coverage we want to take what the defense gives us. If the corners are giving the receivers a cushion, we want to throw a quick pass to our receiver (a hitch, or a screen pass). If the corners are playing our receivers tightly, we may want to beat them up field (Seam route, dig and post routes). If the corners are playing our receivers to the outside, we are going to want to take a route inside (like a drag, slant, or in route). And, finally if the cornerback is playing our receiver inside, then we want to beat them outside (An out route, buttonhook or back shoulder throw).

One of my philosophies when playing against man coverage is to use double moves when we are trying to create an explosive play (a play of 20 yards or more). Statistics show that teams that gain a plus two advantage in explosive plays win the game 80-85% of the time. So, as an offensive we want to occasionally throw in plays that are designed to create explosive plays. Double moves cannot be guarded man to man when they are run correctly, and they give us a good chance at an explosive play. As an offense, we will try to isolate players on double moves so that the defense cannot get extra defenders to try to help against them.

Really the key to facing man-to-man coverage, or any coverage for that matter is timing. We want to make sure our quarterback and receiver are on the same page.

When facing zone more strategizing will be required. Against zone, we are trying to create holes in the defense. We will do this by using decoys to attract defenders away from the player we want to throw the ball to. We need to make sure the timing of our routes is precise so that we hit our receivers right when the holes are created in the defense.

Take a look at the following diagrams in which examples are given of plays to beat every type of basic defensive coverage.

Facing A Cover 2 Zone

The Split End (receiver on the shallow post route) attracts the weak side cornerback, and keeps him short and away from the other receivers. The inside receiver (receiver on the bomb route to the inside) attracts the free safety, and keeps the free safety in the middle of the field and away from the other receivers. Then, the receiver in the middle (on the deep post route) is left all alone and is open down the corner for a nice gain. The tight end is on a post route to the middle just to make sure the strong safety does not cheat his zone assignment to go cover the weak side. The running back stays in to block and gives extra block protection.

Facing A Cover 3 Zone

The wide receiver goes on a bomb route and attracts the weak side cornerback so that he is away from our shorter routes. The weak side linebacker, who has the zone responsibilities to cover the weak side flats, covers the slot receiver on the buttonhook. Finally, the running back is then left all alone in the flats for a nice gain down the sideline. If the weak side linebacker covers the running back, we will throw to the slot receiver on a buttonhook because he will be left open. The fullback is on a curl route up the middle to make sure the mike backer does not cheat his assignment to go cover the flats. The tight end stays in for protection.

Facing 2 Man Under

The slot receiver attracts the cornerback covering him and the free safety. They both cover him on his post route. So, the wide receiver is left with single coverage on a double move. This type of double move is called a “dino.” The fullback stays in for protection, and the running back is on a wheel route just in case the quarterback will not have enough time to wait on the double move. The tight end is on a deep in-route to make sure the strong safety does not cover the double move.

Facing Man free coverage

This play uses a similar concept; we are trying to isolate the double move. The slot receiver attracts the free safety on the deep post. The wide receiver is on a double move in which he fakes the out route and goes bomb. If it does not look like this will be open pre-snap because of the safety alignment, we also have the tight end on a wheel route. This very well could be open considering that the strong safety will likely be covering him. The fullback is on a wheel route as well, so if the tight end is not open the quarterback can simply check down to him for the dump off. The running back stays in for protection.

This is an example of a double move that was run to perfection: Andre Johnson Double Move. Pacman Jones was nowhere to be found on this play. When double moves are run correctly, they are dangerous!

Running Scheme:

If we are facing a zone after calling a running play, we want to try to motion a receiver close to our offensive line so that we can get an extra blocker while we are running.

Use this play as an example: Patriots @Redskins Week 14.

Rex Grossman motions Jabar Gaffney (number 10), close to the offensive line, and he Gaffney is able to make a key block on this play. We try to motion our receivers to block in zone rather then in man because if the defense is playing man, then their cornerback will follow our receiver to the offensive line, and we therefore will not have an extra blocker on the play.

Air Formation Statistics:

I recorded statistics that an air formation produced over eight week one NFL games.

Passing against man: 10 yards per throw

Passing against zone: 12.2 yards per throw

Running against man: 5.2 yards per carry

Running against zone: 4.6 yards per carry

Other things to note:

  1. When the offense motioned a player before a running play the average yard per carry went up by a full point to 5.9 yards per carry.
  2. The offense scored a touchdown 50 percent of the time they ran an air formation play in the red zone.

Those numbers show you how much potential air formations have. These numbers are remarkable considering that many offenses were not even using air formations correctly.

Wrapping it up:

And, for my last definition, I would call an offense based around this formation an “air formation offense.” This can really turn out to be an efficient/innovative offense one day.

Now that we have a good understanding of utilizing “air formations,” let’s go back to the play we started with and break it down: New York Giants @San Francisco 49ers NFC Championship Game. Aaron Ross, the indicating cornerback (number 31), aligns “on air” which indicates that the Giants were playing a zone defense. Specifically, the alignment of the safeties indicated to us that they would be playing a cover 2 zone. This meant that Vernon Davis would be the perfect guy to throw to on a corner route (which is a cover 2 zone beater), but Alex Smith did not make the throw. Instead he threw it to the flats, which plays right into the hands of a cover 2 zone.

You never know, if “air” was understood, the outcome of this big NFC champion game may have changed.


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10 Responses to “How To Air It Out – Breaking Down The “Air Formation””

  1. rick says:

    awesome article.

  2. kevin d. says:

    you know your stuff. To bad we cant turn back time.

  3. Jack says:

    Ha thanks guys. Yes, we cant turn back time, but we can fix this for the future.

  4. Jonathan says:

    Crazy analysis

  5. Sally S. says:

    Superb insight and interesting analysis of the importance of every play in the game of football!!
    Bravo!!

  6. Tim C says:

    WOW. great analysis

  7. Walter says:

    why didn’t anyone bring this up before? cool man

  8. Mike Williamson says:

    This is a very good analysis, I will tell Mike Sando and Jon Clayton immediately! I will try and get ESPN to publish this

  9. Josh says:

    Da gazzzz. Jay this is awesome. U rip it up

  10. Chase Daniels says:

    Great article man I play football myself and this is really a great article.