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Everything You Need to Know About Passing: The Route Tree, Part II

Part 1 may have been the appetizer, but it was a damned tasty appetizer. Here's the main course.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Everything You Need to Know About Passing II. The route Tree (Part 2).

If you haven't read the previous installment in this series, I recommend you do so.  The content is cumulative.

Episode 1. The Route Tree, Part 1


If you recall, in the first article, I provided a diagram of a typical WR route tree. In this installment, we'll be going over each of the routes individually.


0. The Drive, Tunnel or Bubble.


The tunnel and bubble are WR screens. The guy catching the ball has to quickly get behind his blockers without allowing the man over him to crash the line and make a play. They're best used against soft coverages, with the idea of pulling the corners closer to the line of scrimmage, making them easier to beat with a deep route. You'll mostly see these being run out of "stacked" or bunched formations where the offense has 2-to-3 WRs all lined up within a few feet of each other.

The third route that a 0 commonly refers to is called a "drive" route, and it's seeing quite a renaissance with the emergence of more spread-offense looks in the NFL. To understand why, take a look at the picture below.


Note: I compressed the routes vertically a little bit, in order to fit everything into the picture.

The highlighted receiver is Golden Tate. He's lined up "plus four" which is football-code for "well outside the numbers". The defender only has a limited number of things he needs to be afraid of. It's 3rd and 6, so any route that isn't likely to pick up 5 yards can safely be ignored.

Suppose Golden Tate immediately attacks upfield, and tries to release outside of the CB. This is the red tree pictured above, and as you can see, it only has two routes. Tate can either run a deep go route, or a middle/deep comeback. He doesn't have enough room to work anything that breaks to the sideline, and the corner will have the physical position to prevent anything that breaks inwards.

This won't prevent a receiver from attempting it.  (In fact, Tate ran the red 9 on this play).  But it's much easier to get open if the defender has more than two possible routes he has to cover.

To open up more possible routes, Tate could have driven hard to the inside as soon as the ball was  snapped. This creates the black route tree, which (as you can see) has quite a few more options. In order for the 'hawks to feature a passing concept where Tate runs a 7 route from this alignment, he needs to mimic a 0 during the stem of his tree in order to create enough room to operate after he makes his cut. So you're seeing a lot of "drive-stems" in 4 and 5 WR looks, as the farthest outside guy pushes towards the middle of the field in order to give himself a bit of room.

The other reason you're seeing a lot more drives than you would have as recently as 4-to-5 years ago is that it's the ideal route for the "rub" concept, which is all the rage these days.


On the front side of the play as I've drawn it up, Tate would be the primary read. Russell would take a one step drop, and hit Golden while he's approximately 2 yards downfield. The defender circled in white is helpless to stop this play, because Jermaine Kearse (red) and his defender are in the way. The safety can't break down on the route either, because the TE Willson is stemming directly upfield.  If the safety breaks, it's an easy pass to Luke for a big gain.

Due to simple geometry, plays like this are almost impossible to cover man to man. The defender has an obstacle in his way, and must take a much longer path to reach the catch-point. This concept is the bread and butter of the Broncos offense, and a number of "experts" were using it to explain why the Seahawks D was going to get blown out in the Superbowl.


To successfully get open on a drive route, the WR wants to make it look like it's just a part of his stem. He wants to take 1 step upfield, then make a 70 degree cut off that foot. The receiver needs to immediately establish inside leverage, and make sure he cut hard enough so that the route isn't carrying him too far downfield. These routes almost always come as part of a multi-route concept, and too much depth takes you into another WRs space!

When the call is a rub, it's often advantageous to run at slightly less than full speed, giving your "blocker" enough time to get himself and his defender into position to spring you free.

1. The 3 and 5 step curl, and 4 step hitch.


These quick "in" routes are all based on timing. The WR wants to explode violently off the line, as though he were trying to accelerate into a 9 route. If the corner is playing off, the goal is to make him begin his backpedal before breaking back towards the line. If he's playing press, the WR wants to make the CB open his hips* right at the point where the route breaks.

*"Opening hips" is football-code for "turn around". It's what a defender does when he stops his back pedal to turn and run with the receiver. The moment when he opens his hips is when the defender is most vulnerable in coverage, since if he opens his hips to the left and the receiver breaks to the right, it's very easy separation. A very significant part of route running technique is trying to get the the defender to open his hips in the wrong direction or at the wrong time. A similarly important part of playing coverage is knowing when and how to open your hips without giving the offensive player an advantage.

For a QB, there are two keys to throwing these routes. The first is to identify it during the pre snap phase. This route is rarely the first read, but it breaks very quickly. A QB doesn't have time to watch his primary read, then come back to the 1 route after it's already been run! He needs to know by the first step of his drop if he's coming off the first read and onto the curl!

The second key is to throw with anticipation. All 3 of the possible 1 routes are thrown on-timing based on a 3 step drop. As soon as the quarterback's 3rd foot hits the ground, the ball needs to be out. This means the WR almost certainly hasn't made his break yet, and his back is to the ball. It takes a lot of practice for the QB and WR to get on the same page with regards to timing and ball location.

2. The 3 step slant, or backside drag.


You'll notice that I put the slant and the curl on the same picture. That's because they're designed to look identical. When the CB sees the receiver starting to break at 3 steps he can't jump the route because he doesn't yet know what the route is.  Multiplicity and duplicity in all things.  For both routes the receiver explodes of the line, comes aggressively downhill through his first two steps, then abruptly changes direction on his third.

Like the curl, this route is thrown on timing. The QB lets the ball go on his 3rd step back in the pocket, right as the receiver is making his break. College and high-school teams will occasionally help the QB by adding a "hitch" (a small step forwards at the bottom of the drop) turning this from a pure timing route into a see-it-throw-it concept. It's harder on the receiver, but when you're not going up against NFL caliber defensive backs, you can get away with this sort of thing.

The 3 step slant is so important to modern football teams that it literally has influenced how WRs line up pre snap! A player always wants to use his opposite foot when making a cut. A player wants to use his right foot to cut left, and his left foot to cut right. It's the same in skiing, or basketball, or any other sport with aggressive change of direction maneuvers.  Receivers always line up with their foot closest to the ball forwards (see pictures above) so that on the 3rd step, they will be planting the foot closest to the line, and can cut inside on a slant!

Against soft coverage, the technique is the same as on a 1 route. Come off the line with such aggression that the DB begins his back pedal, then cut right under him. This is a much easier cut to make than the hitch, because the change of direction is much smaller and you can carry almost all of your momentum with you.

Against tight coverage, there are two possible techniques for this route. The first is to immediately establish inside leverage swimming the outside arm over the pressing hands, or ripping it underneath them. Alternatively, the receiver can take an outside release as though he were running a 9 route. As the corner opens his hips to run, the receiver should use a club-rip or club-swim move to knock him off balance and cut underneath. (This sort of contact is perfectly legal within 5 yards of the line). In either case, it's imperative for the receiver to get his hands up quickly and catch the ball away from the body so that the CB cannot dislodge it.

A few people mentioned on my last article that you're coaching youth football. It's essential that you teach your kids both techniques. You cannot expect to separate from a talented defender by using the same move every single time! The key to the inside move is being violent at the break, while the key to the outside fake is timing it and cutting when the defender flips his hips.

Successfully running enough slant routes during the early phases of the game will occasionally result in defensive backs trying to jump inside and underneath the route to make a play on the ball and possibly intercept it. This is the perfect time for an offense to counter with the "sluggo" (Slant and Go). It's a slant route where the receiver's 6th step is another 45 degree cut back to vertical. If the defender is jumping underneath, it's easy to burn him deep for huge chunks of yards.

In every playbook I've ever seen, the 2 route automatically converts from a Slant to a Drag if the QB is outside the pocket on the far side. So if the playcall is a bootleg left or the QB gets flushed from the pocket by a blitz, the receiver would flatten his route in order to more quickly reach a spot where the QB can get him the ball without having to throw it cross-body.

3. The Shallow Out


As with the other routes we've discussed, the speed-cut (AKA "Semi") is a timing route. It's run at a depth of either 4 or 6 steps, depending on if the QB is taking a 3 or a 5 step drop in the pocket. The receiver needs to be at least on the numbers when he makes his break, if not further inside them. He'll break parallel to the line of scrimmage, but will often "get friendly" (come back towards the line) while the ball is in flight in order to high-point it and make it impossible for the defender to undercut the route.

For most teams, the 3 is the most dangerous route in the playbook. The ball is in the air long enough for the defender to adjust, but the pattern itself is shallow enough there typically isn't anything underneath it. It's a combination where mistakes lead to pick-6s.

Unfortunately, the Semi is also an essential part of any team's passing scheme. When combined with a deep route along the same sideline it's a fantastic way to stress a zone defense vertically. With a shallow route in the same zone you can stress a defense horizontally, and if you combine all 3 routes you get a Triangle Read. (I'm planning on doing an entire article on the triangle read somewhere down the line. It's THAT important).

From a technique standpoint, this route is very similar to a slant. The route still goes underneath a backpedaling defender if he's playing off. If he's playing press, the same 2 moves that get a receiver open for a slant work here, except the direction has to be reversed.

Despite being a high-risk route, the 3 is a high percentage throw for most quarterbacks, and an excellent chain-mover. It doesn't have an abundance of YAC potential, as the receiver near the sideline doesn't have much room to maneuver with the ball is in his hands.

4. The In


It wasn't until I began doing research for this article that I realized how big of a variation there is between teams on the 4 route. I diagrammed it at 12 yards here, because that's what I learned during my playing days. However many teams with a more vertical offense will have the 4 route break at 15 or even 20 yards deep!

Personally, I found it harder to get open on the 4 than any other route in the playbook. Most CBs playing off the line will give about 10-12 yards of cushion before they flip their hips and run. To get open on a 4, the receiver wants to have outside leverage at the 12 yard mark, prompting the corner to flip his hips towards the sideline. The receiver then needs to cut underneath the corner, without physically shoving him the way he can on a slant or a speed-out.

The reason the 4 is run at a depth of 12 yards is partially to take advantage of when corners flip their hips, and partially because most linebacker zones only go 10 yards deep, particularly on play-action. With another route coming into the deep-safety's zone but going vertical (say a TE down the seam on the other side of the field), the safety will have to pick which route to cover, and the ball will go to the other guy.

It requires a good deal of athletic talent and very precise technique (neither of which I possess) in order to reliably win on this route. Too slow and the linebackers will drop. Too unrefined and you won't shake the corner.

A defense's best answer to the 4 is a hard-hitter in the middle of the field. The QB has to throw a touch-pass over the head of the LBs, and the WR often ends up elevating to corral the ball. Even with the new rules about "defenseless" receivers, you can still hit a guy into next week just for attempting to catch that ball. It's not just defenders who make "bidness" decisions about taking on mountains of contact!

Before, 5, & 6. The DIG, Deep Out, and Deep Curl


I've grouped all three of these routes together because they all break at the same depth. 15-17 yards.  They should look identical until the break point, and have similar technical requirements.

For the first 15 yards of the Before (Big 4), 5, and 6, receiver wants to be sprinting as hard as he can. As with almost everything, he's trying to mimic a 9 route so that the defender doesn't sit on an underneath break.

I mentioned previously that most CBs give a 10-12 yard cushion. By 15 yards, the corner should have already flipped his hips, and be running downfield with the receiver. Leverage becomes much more important here. The receiver cannot break through the defensive back's body, so he wants to have the defender on the side he intends to break away from.

It's unrealistic to expect a guy sprinting at top speed to make precise 90 degree cuts unless he's got Percy Harvin levels of talent. Most players try to decelerate to about half speed over the course of 2-4 yards, cut sharply and accelerate back to full. Fortunately, defensive players ALSO have to obey the laws of physics, only it's even more difficult for them, because they don't know for sure that a cut is about to happen. The DB has to first SEE the receiver slowing down, then mimic his cut. He needs to do this without re-flipping his own hips, lest he get burned on a double move.

Playing CB is really hard guys. It's harder than Bill Clinton in the Cigar... nevermind. Not-soon-enough for that joke to be funny.


There's two things a WR can do to really help himself get open on these routes. The first is to have the sort of precise body control that lets him make sharper cuts with a less obvious deceleration period. The more abrupt the cuts appear to a DB, the harder they are to mimic.

The other thing a receiver can do is cheat. On any well-covered deep route, there's always a good deal of borderline-legal contact downfield. The trick is to time the contact so that it appears incidental, but has the maximum possible effect.

In general, the best time to deliver a blow is right at the start of the deceleration period. A lot of guys try to deliver the strike at the top of the route, which is when most offensive pass interference gets called. But a subtle push 2 yards before the receiver cuts can bleed off a good chunk of extra momentum, make the cut a full step or two sharper, and almost never gets called. It's how a big clumsy guy like Sidney Rice can get open for those toe-tapping sideline grabs against a much faster an more agile defender like Patrick Peterson.

The 5 route often stands alone. The deep out is the rare route that is fantastic against both man and zone coverages, and doesn't need anything else to make it work. The Big 4 is generally used in conjunction with a seam route on the far side of the field, while the 6 is almost always run with a flat route underneath it, to clear the underneath defender out of the throwing lane. As with the Triangle Read, the Curl Flat concept will be the subject of a later article.

7. The "Bench". AKA the Deep(er) Out and Corner


In my last article, I used the term MOFO and didn't bother to define it. Sadly, it probably doesn't mean what you think it does. If it did, we'd win on every passing play. Ain't nobody in the NFL who can match up with out MOFOs.

MOFO and MOFC are actually acronyms standing for Middle Of Field Open, and Middle of Field Closed. The 7 is an option route. The receiver reads the defense. If there's a safety in the middle (say it's a cover 3) he'll run the deep-out so the safety can't break down on his route. If there isn't a safety in the middle (say it's cover-2 man), he'll round it into a corner. This pulls two defenders downfield, and leaves the underneath routes single-covered.

Most teams don't have the gear-down break at 18 yards, preferring instead to disguise initial break at 18 yards, preferring instead to disguise these as 9 routes. My coach preferred to keep the 7 and 8 routes identical for a few extra steps, (we used the 8 far more often than the 9) hence the oddly crooked tree.

The goal here is to run hard through 17 yards before cutting in. If you have inside leverage, this cut can generally be made at full-speed. If you're on the outside, you generally need to lose half a step to get the defender on top of you before cutting. You're then going to (re) accelerate to full speed before making your second cut just a few yards deeper.

Believe it or not, but the MOFC is often based on timing rather than sight. The QB will take a 7 step drop, hitch once, and aim for a spot on the sideline, 6 ½ feet off the ground and 18 yards deep. (The receiver has to come back those extra 2 yards to attack the ball in the air).

The MOFO shouldn't ever be thrown. By definition, the receiver only opts to run it when he's double-covered! If he splits the double and is open, it's a see-it-throw-it ball that will piss the coaches off even when it works.

I know. I'm disappointed too. If it makes you feel any better, the 'hawks definitely have MOFO option routes that they DO throw, this just isn't one of them.

8. Hard and Off 8 (AKA Bang and Big 8, AKA Post and Shallow Post)


Pro teams often throw the post as a timing route, based on a 7 step drop with no hitch. Leverage isn't very important here. The corner-post concept is a well known double move that establishes a post route against a defender with inside leverage. (See for example, Sidney Rice's touchdown against the Patriots from 2 years ago. The subject of my first ever fanpost on Fieldgulls!)

It's absolutely imperative that the receiver have inside leverage AFTER making his cut because these balls often have to come in relatively low and fast to keep the safety from breaking on them. Trying to float a ball over the corner's face is a great way to get the pass picked off and the receiver killed.

The hard 8 is most commonly used to challenge the middle against MOFO looks (say cover 2 and quarters). There's a seam in the middle between the deep safeties. With 3 deep routes, the safeties can both be occupied by another WR streaking down the perimeter of their zone, while the 8 is single-covered in the middle. The same concept works against quarters, except the skinny post is generally better due to the compressed horizontal frame.

The throw is not a high percentage shot, but it picks up 25+ yards per completion, so teams will attempt it all game long even if they're only hitting 1 out of every 3 shots.

The off 8 is more commonly used against MOFC defenses (single high and cover 3) in the same was as the Deep In (4 route). The goal is to keep behind the linebackers, but in front of the center field defender. If the LBs are particularly athletic and can easily get 12-15 yards in their drops, a 12 yard DIG won't get behind them, but an off 8 will.

9. The Fly, The Go, the Bomb.

The fly is most receivers favorite route. I never cared for it very much, because I'm not very fast, and couldn't run away from anybody. But those beautiful 50 yard bombs down the sideline? Yeah, that's a 9 route.

For a receiver on the perimeter, it's best to get an outside release, because the QB wants to put the ball over your shoulders and towards the sideline. Having the defender on the opposite side of you makes it harder for him to defend the ball. Interior receivers and TEs will often release to the inside, as they generally have the option of converting a fly to a skinny-post depending on the defender's leverage.

The easiest mistake to make when running a fly is to let the corner "squeeze" the route too close to the sideline. NFL receivers like to leave about 5 yards, so that they can adjust to an overthrown ball without going out of bounds. Presumably they'll leave a bit more if it's a drunk Mark Sanchez (or a sober Tim Tebow) throwing the ball.

For a slower guy like myself, the most reliable way to get open on this route is a "pump and go" double move. I'd stutter my feet and move my head at the 12 yard mark, and the QB would pump-fake the ball. The DB (having seen this before) recognizes the Deep In, and comes off of me to make a play on the ball he thinks is about to be thrown. This is good for a TON of separation any time it works, even against much faster and more athletic defenders.

If you listen to the commentary on TV, you'll occasionally here about how a deep ball was deliberately underthrown. This is much easier than attempting to make a perfect throw if the coverage is good. The built in assumption is that the receiver will look for the ball at the last second and slow down, while the corner doesn't know when to look, and will thus run into the receiver, generating a pass interference flag. I don't like this gambit. If the corner is alert, the receiver has no chance to catch the ball, and often has to play DB himself, knocking the pass down. NFL teams are still willing to do it, but only because some of them have a guy like Blaine Gabbert throwing the football.


So that's all 10 routes on the tree most commonly used by X and Z receivers (Split Ends and Flankers). By no means is that every route possible for them to run. Indeed, some teams draw the 10 point tree very differently from the one I provided.

TEs and Slot Receivers have their own tree.  The increased distance to the sideline lets them run routes like the wheel that would be impossible for a guy lined up near the numbers to run. So far as I'm aware, nobody has ever drawn up a 10 point tree for running back routes.  RB routes tend to stem very differently, and don't lend themselves to the tree concept very handily.

That's all for now. The next installment won't be for a while, as I (like all of you) will be too busy obsessing over the results of the NFL draft to write chapter three for a while. Tentatively, look for it 2-3 weeks from now.

Go Hawks.


Previously on Everything You Need to Know About Passing (Links open in new window).
Episode 1. The Route Tree, Part 1