Pass routes are science. Running them is an art.

Pass routes are science. Running them is an art.


Part of an occasional series

So far we’ve talked about gaps, and we’ve talked about pass blocking. While I would love to spend all our time on the sumo-adjacent brawl in the trenches, I must acknowledge that the game also is played by smaller men, and their jobs start with route running.

Could you explain this in three sentences or less? While it’s important to understand how various routes fit together — we’ll be getting to that — it helps first to understand how receivers take what’s drawn on the chalkboard and bring it to life. How a receiver runs every route can change how each looks on the field. A route tree in a playbook doesn’t look like how a player’s actual path is on the field when you GPS track them.

How many routes are there?

Too many. As Texas A&M Coach Jimbo Fisher once said in a coaching clinic, “We can stay here ‘til 6 in the morning because Lord knows I can draw up a route.”

But here’s a version of the basic route tree for an outside receiver. There are many variants. Some have to do with verbiage, and others have to do with coaching points such as depth of the route.

Okay, but are they just running out there to a spot?

Not exactly. There’s a method to the madness. Five things go into a receiver’s route. Keep in mind this all happens in a handful of steps and sometimes simultaneously (particularly with points three and four).

  • Stance: How receivers line up. They’re not just standing there. The width could alter based on what coverage they’re getting. Coaching points here include getting a receiver to have his inside foot up, with a majority of his weight on the front foot so he can generate power out of the stance and get into the …
  • Release: This is largely dictated by where the defensive back is. If he’s pressing — playing close to the line of scrimmage — the receiver better have his hands up and be ready to fight, or else use his speed and body position to get around him. This all happens initially so he can get to …
  • Burst: This is the throttle up to speed. Sometimes a receiver has a free release because the defensive back is giving him cushion. Watch this goal-line play to see an unusual type of release and a sudden burst. That burst worked because the receiver effectively used …
  • Influence: This is how a wide receiver sets up a defensive back. In the video linked above, that defensive back subtly went to his left, giving the receiver free access to the spot for an easy throw. On Sammy Watkins’s crucial fourth-quarter catch in Super Bowl LIV, you see how quickly this can all happen. In four steps, Watkins releases and gets Richard Sherman’s hips to open toward the sideline. That’s all it takes for Watkins to get around him. He reestablishes the route on a relatively straight line and Sherman gives chase. The fancy Football Guy term for it is “stacked.” Watkins is running a vertical route, but if he wanted to, he’d be in perfect position for a …
  • Break: If the defensive back is stride for stride, then it might take some physical contact at the break point — maybe a chicken wing arm motion to get free (so long as it’s not fully extended because that’s offensive pass interference). But if a defensive back is stacked, then a receiver can jab-step one way and quickly break the other way to get open.

Are all routes diagramed in the playbook?

Not necessarily. Coaches can go nuts drawing up plays if they really want to. In the same clinic I mentioned earlier, Fisher talked about how an old coaching buddy used to make fun of him during practice.

As coaches, “we all want to be gurus and think we created something, and I’m just as guilty as anyone else, I promise you,” Fisher said. “He used to yell back at me, ‘You got that stick in the ground, and you’re out there drawin’ ‘em in the dirt.’ ”

But not everything can be drawn in the dirt, or even should be. Take the famed “back shoulder” throw, for instance. There is nothing in any playbook that diagrams the “back shoulder route.” That’s because the back shoulder is a thrown adjustment to beat a certain type of coverage.

Other passing schemes are predicated almost exclusively on asking the receiver to read the defense mid-route just like the quarterback does. A single play in the old school Run and Shoot can have multiple permutations for the receiver based on where the defensive back lines up.

The Air Raid staple play against man coverage can be straight crossing routes, but against zone, the receivers “sit down” in the soft spots of the zone.

And there is the option route, perfected by many including longtime Cowboys tight end Jason Witten, who’s now with the Raiders.

A well-executed option route is less a static play and more of a rehearsed reaction to what the defense thinks it’s taking away from the offense.

What about these “hot” routes we hear about?

In our previous story diving into pass blocking, I mentioned what offenses need to do when the defense is sending more blitzers than there are blockers to account for them. In a nutshell, a hot route is an adjustment a wide receiver can make after the snap to give his quarterback a way to attack the opponent’s blitz. A wide receiver planning to run a deep post route might throttle it down into a quick slant. Quarterbacks sometimes are taught to throw the ball “where the blitz is coming from” with the intention that a wide receiver has run his hot route into the void the blitzing defender has left vacated. But offenses have to be careful with that, as it can lead to … this, especially when the defense is blitzing and playing zone coverage rather than man coverage behind the blitz.

To get around that last issue, offenses can do what Jim Harbaugh’s 49ers did: build hot routes into every pass play to take away the post-snap guesswork.

That is just one way offenses stitch together different routes to paint a picture over the defense. But there are many, many more ways to do that. That’s where we get into the way routes work together in our next piece.

Richard Johnson is a freelance writer, podcaster and video host. Based in Brooklyn, the Gainesville, Fla., native is a college football lifer who recently fell back in love with the Jacksonville Jaguars and regrets it every day. Illustrations and Design by José Luis Soto.

Read more from the “Watching Football Smarter” series:

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