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Football 101: Wide receiver route tree

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Continuing our Football 101 series with a look at the “route tree” for a receiver.

NFL: New England Patriots at Miami Dolphins Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

We all watch football. We all love football. But, do we all know football? I mean, know football like Bo knows football. (If you understand that reference, congratulations, you are old like me.) We all know the terms and the ideas, but do we understand them? Maybe, maybe not.

That is where our Football 101 series comes into play. Over the past few years, we have tried to breakdown some of the concepts used in the NFL in a way that makes sense to someone who may not fully understand the game. This is not a way of saying YOU do not understand the game, but it is saying that there may be someone who does not know it to the level you know it. We are here to help, and that is what we are trying to do.

We have a collection of Football 101 stories all linked together in this StoryStream, so you can see our past articles, which include topics like the zone blocking scheme, the Wide-9 technique, defensive line gap techniques, and the NFL’s compensatory draft picks. We are always looking for what other topics you would like to see covered, so feel free to suggest ideas in the comments at the end of this article, as well.

The Miami Dolphins ended their offseason training program last week with the conclusion of their mandatory minicamp camp. After the final practice, head coach Adam Gase was asked about the progress of rookie wide receiver Jakeem Grant over the past few weeks. He replied, "I think the offense is a little different than what they did in college and the terminology, obviously, is a little more than what they did. He has done a good job of picking everything up. Sometimes, it’s almost like we have to slow him down. He’s so fast that he has got to learn how to play at that speed (and) be able to cut, stop. You’ll see him slipping every once in a while, and that’s when he’s going too fast. If we can get him under control as far as how he understands that, ‘You pulling back a little bit is still faster than everybody.’ Once he realizes that, he’s going to really make strides there and be able to really have a great route tree."

The last sentence made me remember a Football 101 request that we previously received: What is a route tree?

So today, we take a look at an NFL route tree.

NFL Route Tree

Really, the route tree is a fairly simple concept. It is just taking the different routes and putting them together in one diagram. Let us start with the routes themselves. Each basic route is given a number - and of course the names of the routes can differ based on terminology, but everyone should be able to understand the basic names used.

Route 1 - Flat

The flat route is a basic, quick out-breaking route. It is typically a route run by a slot receiver, running back, or tight end, simply because it breaks out and a wide-out does not have the space on his outside for the break.

Route 2 - Slant

The slant can be run from anywhere, and it can be run with either the initial vertical stem, or it can be run directly off the snap. The idea is to use quickness to get a step on the coverage, and use the inside break to put the receiver’s body between the quarterback and the defender. Slants are obviously quick routes, so look for the quarterback to get the ball out of his hand as fas as he can.

Route 3 - Comeback

Another out-breaking route, though this one can be used by outside receivers assuming they know how to use the sideline. This is the "back-shoulder throw" route popular in today’s passing game, with a quarterback having to show off his arm strength on the route.

Route 4 - Curl

The route tree is built with opposite breaks throughout most of the diagram. In this case, the curl route is the opposite of the comeback, with the receiver breaking back toward the inside of the field. You can often see the curl and the comeback be option routes from each other, depending on how the defender plays the receiver, meaning the quarterback and receiver have to be on the same page.

Route 5 - Out

You again will see a quarterback showing off his arm strength on this out-breaking route, and this is one of the routes most college scouts want to see fro prospective quarterbacks. This route is run at about 10-15 yards down the field most of the time, and again requires space on the outside for the break. This is typically the route you will see where the receiver is catching the pass on the sideline as he falls straight forward with this toes staying in bounds.

Route 6 - In / Dig

Whichever name you give to this route, it is the opposite of the out route, with the receiver breaking in toward the middle of the field. This is a route-runners route (whatever that means) - where precision is important, and being able to make a crisp cut is important, providing the separation a receiver needs to get open.

Route 7 - Corner

Starting to reach the deeper routes now, the corner route is a out-breaking route that is run toward - get this - the corner. The route is often used to create space underneath by pulling the safety out of the middle of the field.

Route 8 - Post

The opposite of the corner route, the post breaks toward the middle of the field on an angle. Again, this is attacking the safeties on the field, often looking to split multiple defensive backs. This can be the type of route where the receiver adjusts to a ball the quarterback has laid out deep down the middle of the field.

Route 9 - Fly

Go deep. This is where a speed receiver makes his money. Also a "go" route, that is exactly what this route is, run as fast as you can deep and try to get some separation from the defender. Quarterbacks can also use the back-shoulder throw here, allowing for a receiver to turn back to the ball as the defender runs past him.

Route Tree

Now, you put together all of the routes, and you get a diagram that looks an awful lot like a tree. You will also notice the numbering system, if you did not catch it in the individual route breakdowns. Odd numbers indicate out-breaking routes (other than the 9 route) and even numbers are in-breaking routes.

Other routes

There are, of course, other routes, and there are combinations of routes that can be used. Receivers can combine a slant and a fly route (a "Slugo" - slant and go) to try to draw the defenders in before blasting past them deep. You can also see "bubble" or "tunnel" routes, which are usually a screen pass in which a receiver takes a step back behind the line of scrimmage and runs toward or away from the quarterback before breaking up the field with the ball. A drag route is a rounded in-breaking route just beyond the line of scrimmage. A wheel route has a receiver run what appears to be a flat route, but then he breaks up the field on a corner or fly route.

There are also routes where a receiver might break like a corner route, then cut back on a post route, making a "double move" to try to confuse the defender. You could also have a hitch route, where a receiver, instead of running a route like a slant and continuing across the field, stops and sits in a spot - typically a hole in the zone - to make himself a target for the quarterback. Hitches are also used in short-yardage situations to get a receiver just past the yardage needed.

Combining routes

The ideal is that every receiver can run every route on every play, which would look something like this:

Obviously, that is not a very useful diagram, but it does give us an idea of what a team can do to try to do with their route running. While the are endless combinations, a team uses their routes to try to free up receivers all around the field. Taking one player deep, to draw the safety out of the middle of the field, can open up that space for another player running a different route. Or, adding crossing routes across the field could lead to defenders running into each other, or you could add depth to the routes to give a quarterback multiple options as he looks in one direction.

But, let us pick a route for each receiver and see if we can show some of these concepts. We will run the left wide receiver (X-receiver, but we are not getting into the receiver terminology here) on a 2-route (slant), as well as the slot receiver. The tight end (Y-receiver) will run a post route, and the right wide receiver (Z-receiver) will run a in-route, and the running back will come out of the backfield on a wheel route.

This type of route combination should provide the quarterback with two quick options, separated by some depth based on their starting positions on the line of scrimmage, from the two slants. Those slants also clear out the left side of the field for the running back to try to exploit on the wheel route - and it will not hurt if a "rub" is conducted by one of the slanting receivers to keep the linebacker covering the running back from getting over to that side of the field as quickly.

The deep routes start with the tight end on the seam, running a post route. This route should pull the safety from that side of the field, which will then open up the in route from the Z-receiver.

This is obviously just one example - and it may or may not work, I do not pretend to be an offensive coordinator - and it is a simple example. The X-receiver could have a option route to turn his slant into a slugo, the slot receiver could have a hitch option, the Z-receiver could have a fly option, and the running back may have to stay in on blitz pickup if needed. A lot happens on every play, but understanding the route tree does allow for us to start seeing how routes can fit together to attack a defense.

We can get much more in-depth with this topic, including "soft" and "hard" versions of routes, as well as split positions for the receivers, but that might be a more advanced class for the Football 101 topic. For now, hopefully this gives you a better idea of how the route tree comes together.