What 49ers face against Cardinals ‘air raid’ offense

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GLENDALE, ARIZONA – OCTOBER 31: Quarterback Kyler Murray #1 of the Arizona Cardinals eludes the rush of defensive lineman Arik Armstead #91 of the San Francisco 49ers during the first half of the NFL football game at State Farm Stadium on October 31, 2019 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images)

The San Francisco 49ers received a taste of the Arizona Cardinals’ “air raid” offense on Thursday Night Football in Week 9, and they’ll have to do so again in Week 11.

Prior to their Week 10 overtime loss to the Seattle Seahawks, the San Francisco 49ers escaped with a close win over the Arizona Cardinals on Thursday Night Football in Week 9.

Arizona’s “air raid” offense, employed by first-year head coach Kliff Kingsbury, managed 357 all-purpose yards in the game, which included 241 pass yards and two touchdowns from rookie quarterback Kyler Murray.

The 49ers face Murray and the Cardinals again in Week 11, this time at Levi’s Stadium, meaning head coach Kyle Shanahan and Co. better have paid attention to this air raid-style attack they’ll be forced to defend again.

Here are some lessons and breakdowns of the system the 49ers need to know and understand.


Overview of the air raid

The air raid isn’t a playbook or a scheme, such as the West Coast offense is. It’s simply a bunch of principles.

The core principles of the air raid are the following: aggressive play calling and play design, flexible play design, stretching the defense horizontally and vertically along with heavy focus on passing the ball.

The air raid first gained attention when Mike Leach was head coach of Texas Tech from 2000 through 2009. In 2002 through 2004, when Leach had Kingsbury as his quarterback (Kingsbury went on to become head coach at Texas Tech and coached now-Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Mahomes when he was there), he set the record for most completions in a career and led them on some incredible come-from-behind wins, such as their one against TCU when they trailed by 21-0 and rallied spectacularly to win 70-35.

The departure of Kingsbury showed how effective the system was, as the quarterbacks who took his place in the ensuing years continued to smash records, allowing Texas Tech to punch far above its weight.

The air raid system has been used by some of the best offenses in college football since its breakout under Leach at Texas Tech. These include the Oklahoma Sooners and OSU, Washington State, where Leach is currently coaching, West Virginia, Baylor, Kansas, Kentucky and, of course, Texas Tech.

The system has also allowed high schools significantly outperform their talent level. It has allowed bad NFL quarterbacks, like Luke Falk, Geno Smith and Davis Webb, to put up great college numbers. Talented QBs like Mahomes, Murray and the Cleveland Browns’ Baker Mayfield, put up extraordinary and historic numbers in college, too. Mayfield and Murray both won the Heisman Trophy within this kind of system.

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