Breaking Down the X, Z, and Slot Receiver

CLEVELAND, OH - OCTOBER 23: Defensive back Joe Haden #23 of the Cleveland Browns tackles wide receiver Sidney Rice #18 the Seattle Seahawks at Cleveland Browns Stadium on October 23, 2011 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)

In case you're foggy on history, Hugh Breedlove Millen (yes, that's his real middle name, -- I couldn't believe it either) is a Husky legend that, as quarterback, led the University of Washington to an Orange Bowl win and a #2 national ranking back in 1985 behind undefeated BYU. He was drafted in 1986 in the third round by the L.A. Rams and eventually played 10 NFL seasons for the Rams, Atlanta Falcons, New England Patriots, New Orleans Saints and Denver Broncos. During the time, he backed up and played alongside, among others, Troy Aikman and John Elway. He's now an analyst for SportsRadioKJR and is a great resource of football knowledge, in my opinion, particularly for the X's and O's side of things as a former player in The League. Ian Furness posted a web-only 'Hardcore Football' podcast on the KJR website yesterday that piggybacked off of Hugh's appearance on Softy's show where they talked about the Seahawks' situation at receiver, following Mike Williams' release. I wanted to highlight it here because Furness told me on Twitter that if it gets enough downloads/plays, he'll make it a more regular feature. I think this would be excellent. So please. Listen, and download, if you love puppies.

On the podcast (download here), Millen broke down, in detail, the different receiver positions: X-, Z-, and the Slot-receiver.

"I think it's a lot like in baseball, you know, the difference between a second baseman and a third baseman," said Millen, when asked to describe the differences between X and Z. "You know, they're both infielders, but their job duties are much different, and so it goes with wide receiver. It's also like in basketball - everyone knows who the '3' and the '4' are, and that's been committed to the average fan's memory, but I always thought that X and Z would be similarly committed to memory as well."

They're not, really. So, he went on, "Ok, so the wide receivers are designated with the term "X" and "Z" and it's been that way for decades."

For reference, Sidney Rice is the presumptive Z receiver for the Seahawks, as long as he can get and remain healthy, and with the release of Mike Williams, speculation has begun as to whom might take his spot as the go-to "X". But first, it's important to understand the duties and the challenges each position will face. Per Hugh:

"The X receiver is the split end. He is the widest receiver away from the tight end. What's unique about him, -- as opposed to the Z receiver, who is the flanker, and the other wide receiver -- is that the X receiver, in most formations, and of course, there are a lot of exceptions, but in most formations, the X receiver, the split end -- and those expressions are used synonymously -- he is tethered to the line of scrimmage."

"He's on the line of scrimmage, he cannot go in motion, and so, when he's facing a cornerback, as he almost always is, the cornerback can jam him at the line. So, your X receiver, he better have the profile of a guy that has the speed to get down the sideline, he better have the quickness to get away from the corner, and he better be good coming off a press."

Millen expounded on that a bit on Softy's show, adding this thought on the X receiver -- "In almost all routes, that corner has him in man-to-man. Now, if he runs a shallow cross and it's zone, then the corner will let him go, but most routes up the field, that corner's going to be covering the wide receiver, man-to-man. Now, who is a corner? In the NFL, the corner is the guy on the playground, when you play tag, that always won. He's got that great agility. He is the cheetah running down the gazelle on the Serengeti. The corner is the best athlete on the football field, and I'll even include receivers and running backs, in that group, because think about the skillset for a cornerback. He doesn't have to have great hand-eye coordination. He just has to be able to follow you. And, so those guys are hard to beat, and particularly for an X receiver, if he's getting a jam on you, you gotta have that ability to get off the line of scrimmage."

This is why the question exists as to whether or not a receiver that has had success on the inside, in the slot, can easily move to the outside. It's not just a matter of running different routes.

Millen went on, back to his podcast with Furness.

"Now, the Z receiver, the 'flanker,' who is on the opposite side of the split end, he, in most formations, is going to be off the line of scrimmage a few yards. That enables the tight end to be eligible, because if the Z receiver were on the line, it would make the tight end ineligible. That flanker, that Z receiver -- and again, those terms are synonymous --that is still a wide receiver. He's going against cornerbacks, he has to be able to have the speed and the acceleration to beat cornerbacks, but, from time-to-time, you can run him in motion because he's off the line of scrimmage, you can get him down in the slot and run for passes over the middle, so, there's a little bit of the characteristics of a slot receiver inherent in the Z receiver. But, by and large, those guys are much different than the slot receiver."

"From the slot standpoint, in zone coverage, a linebacker will usually walk out and kind of be head-up over you, if you're a slot receiver, and you've kind of got to be able to beat a linebacker. But, he's not going to trail you - he'll pass you over in zone, so if you're a slot receiver like Doug Baldwin was last year for the majority of his catches, he's now going in between the safeties, and the linebackers, and he's got an entirely different challenge to beat those defenders, than he would when he's lined up as a wide receiver (X or Z)."

Now, according to the Football Outsiders Almanac (a must buy), the Seahawks ran out of '11' personnel (one running back, one tight end, three receivers) 47% of their snaps last year, so these designations will be important going forward, most likely. However, with the acquisition of Kellen Winslow, the Seahawks may go to their '22' personnel a lot in 2012, and that's a set that doesn't have a designated X and Z receiver on the field. With one receiver in that formation, that player isn't always going to be your Sidney Rice Z. Often, last season, it was Golden Tate, because being the lone receiver in a run-first offensive look requires another skillset -- downfield blocking. Ancillary to this, it's important to have strong run after the catch ability in the case of end-arounds or swing passes, and also a strong ability to win in one-on-one matchups, as you'll often see the defense do against those formations. "On an island".

My co-writer Thomas Beekers wrote, the other day, in reference to Mike Williams' departure -- "What I expect to happen [in 2012] is fewer multi-WR sets and a bigger emphasis on two-TE pass-play sets, to the point where the front office could even consider keeping four tight ends (though I do not know if the quality of this group calls for that) and five wide receivers. Golden Tate was excellent as the single wide receiver in heavy packages, and I'd expect that to continue."

"On the more traditional two or three WR lineups, one would speculate the WR2 position is now "up for grabs". And surely we will see a starter assigned for the spot. But unless someone really wows in training camp and pre-season (Tate or Durham the most likely options), I don't think it'll be solidified as an every-down starter spot. Instead, we could see the #1 and #2 WRs in pass-play snap-count being Sidney Rice and Doug Baldwin, while the #3-4 rotate in the WR2 spot, effectively utilizing Tate's athleticism, Butler's speed or Durham's size, depending on the down and distance."

This notion of a platoon of sorts at wide receiver makes a lot of sense to me as well, and I could see the Seahawks rotating in several of their receivers to spread the snaps around, utilize the different skillsets, and create a more competitive atmosphere.

Regardless, with Furness on their "Hardcore Football" podcast, Millen went on to talk about the specific players Seattle has on their roster, their fits and potential at each spot (X, Y, Slot), the role that Kellen Winslow plays in all this, and the outlook for the team in general, and my quotes above were just the tip of the iceberg as an introduction. They get into the nuts and bolts of the receiver position for over 15 minutes and it's all really great stuff. Download it for your car ride home or listen to it below.

Millen with Ian Furness:

Also definitely worth a listen - with several different angles to talk about, Millen on with Softy (download here):

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