WR Basics: Routes and the Passing Tree

via media.thestate.com

Now that we know the basic fundamentals involved in lining up and running routes, we can discuss some basic routes and the terminology used with these routes.  We will also introduce a simple playcalling tool known as the passing tree.  These items are a bit sexier than previous topics, and will be used in passing game strategy to create passing plays.  At all times, please remember that we need to run good routes.  In order to run good routes we need to maintain fundamental items like lining up properly and running crisp routes.   

The first item on the docket today is to hit on what is known as a "Passing Tree".  A passing tree is nothing more than the organization of collection of routes.  This organization will be used in conjunction with other information to formulate complete play descriptions, as we will discuss in a future installment. 

The concept of the passing tree is very simple:  various, basic routes are assigned to a numbering system.  While there are unlimited options in creating a tree for an individual team, we are including a very simple WR passing tree below to illustrate a basic overview and to introduce some basic routes that are common to most trees.  As you glance over the tree, you will probably be familiar with some of these routes and know some terminology from simply observing a televised football game.

A typical tree segments possible routes into two distict groups:  routes (or patterns) designed to be run towards the boundary (or sideline)  and routes designed to be run towards the middle of the field. A pattern is a collection of routes designed to attack a coverage, like the Smash pattern is meant to attack Cover 2.  In the example below, routes run towards the boundary will be assigned an odd number (i.e., the "Out" route is asigned the number 3) and routes run towards the middle of the field an even number (the "In" route assigned a number 6).  The numerical value of the route has some significance in this scheme.  Routes with smaller numbers are short routes.  The depths at which the routes are run ascend as the assigned numbers increase (i,e., an 8 route is a deeper route than a 6). When a pass play is called from the sideline, it will usually have a few numbers to indicate the number of step drop for the QB to take, as well as the strongside (left or right/field or boundary), and one number will denote the route of the primary receiver on the play. The rest of the players will usually just memorize their routes on a play, as its too much information to call from the sideline to tell everyone what their route is on every play.


Image courtesy of www.usafootball.com (click here for source image)

Before we get too deep into the concept of the tree, we will explain the base routes to get a feel for the patterns as well, numbers associated with the routes, and what is actually involved in running the routes.

Hitch (0 route):  Our zero (0) route route is known as the hitch (or quick hitch), "stop", or "comeback" route.  As designed, the hitch is a route in which the receiver runs five yards.  At five yards, the receiver breaks down and comes back towards the QB at a 45 degree angle.  It is impearative that the WR creep back to the QB to come after the ball.  The trajectory of such a pass is relatively low, so the receiver increases the chance that he (not the defender) gets to the ball first and is able to make this catch.  The hitch is commonly used when the defensive backs are playing deeper off the LOS, giving the WR more cushion.  Consequently, this is a simple pitch and catch and is viewed easy yardage for the offense. Hitch routes are a big component in Clemson's offensive system.

We should point out though that in Spence's system that we still use, the yardage moniker for each route is not what is used by the receiver. Clemson receivers count their steps, not the yards. 2 big steps + 1 quick step = 5 yards, for example. In this case, timing can become even more critical.

Quick Out (1 route):  The one (1) or the quick/speed out is a three-step route in which the WR's goal is to get outside quickly.  This route is sometimes flattened (run less vertically) to assure that the receiver can get outside quickly.  It is important for the receiver to quickly get his head around to see the QB immediately after his cut becuase this pass has to be thrown in anticipation of the cut, causing the ball to get to the receiver quickly after the cur.  Common uses for this route occur during combination routes (which we will discuss later on) and when defenders are playing deeper off the LOS.

Slant (2 route):  The slant, or quick route, is also a three- to five-step route that is designed to be quick hitting.  Here, the receiver drives off the ball (possibly stemming the defender or giving him an initial outside move) then quickly breaks at a 45 degree angle towards the middle of the field.  This route is used when the receiver can get inside position on the defender.  Often you will see this quick hitter when the defense is in man coverage or when the offense is in a goal-line situation.  The key here, as mentioned earlier, is for the receiver to get inside position and be prepared to catch the ball right out of his cut to take advantage of the "quick hit" aspect of the play.  The slant is a tough route for a receiver to get used to running because he will often be running it into the heart of the defense (and the safeties/linebackers) who could potentially be in position to light the receiver up after the catch.  Because of the consequences of a big hit, receivers often "hear footsteps" when running this route, and it takes a fearless receiver to forget where the defenders may be and run the route as designed.  Ideally, the ball will be delivered in front of the receiver so that he can get upfield immediately after the catch.

Hook (4 route):  The hook is essentially a deeper version of the hitch.  The route is essentially run the same as the hitch, only to a depth of around 10 yards.  A common variant of the hook route is the butt/button hook or curl route, often used against a zone defense.  With the curl route, the receiver will round his route slightly and sit after coming back to the QB.  Its deviation in design is used to find a "soft spot" against a zone defense while creating an easy target for the signal caller to hit with a well-aimed toss.

In (6 route):  The "In", "Dig", or "Square In" route is run to ten yards.  Here, the receiver pushes the DB to the ten yard mark, breaks down and makes a crisp cut towards the middle of the field.  Against man defenses, the receiver will continue his route all the way across the field.  Against zone, the receiver may make his cut, accelerate 5 or so yards to the inside of the field, then try to sit into a weak spot in the zone.  It is important that the receiver push the defender and always make a crisp cut then accelerate out of his break parallel to the yard markers..

Out (3 route):  The "Out" is the mirror of the "In" route and is also run to 10 yards.  Crisp cuts are a must here because this is a dangerous throw that often results in an interception for the defense.  The "Out" route is an extremely difficult pattern to throw to because the QB must toss a dart to this receiver to avoid having the defender make a play on the ball.  Because this route is run towards the boundary, this is also a long throw that requires an absolute rocket arm to get the ball where it needs to be.  Like the speed out, the receiver will need to get his head around quickly after his cut when running an "out" route because the QB wants to do everything in his power to reduce the distance of this throw.  A really good route and a heck of a throw are necessary in most cases to avoid allowing the defender to make a play on the ball during this pattern.

Post (8 route):  The post route requires the receiver to run 10 yards vertically then make a cut directly towards the goal post (hence the name, "post" route).  The post route is a good route to run against a cover-2 defense.  If run against a man defense, it is impearative that the WR get inside position, assuming that the football will be thrown down the center of the field.

Corner (7 route):  The "Corner" or "Flag" route requires the receiver to drive hard and potentially use a shoulder fake or stem move to the inside before making his break.  The route is called a flag route because the reciever runs towards the pylon (in the old days, flags were used in the corners of the end-zones where the pylons are currently located, hence the name "flag route") after making his cut at around 10 yards.  The receiver here will want to look for the ball over his outside shoulder.  This means that the receiver will open his shoulders towards the sideline when looking back for the pass.  The QB will throw the ball to his outside shoulder so that the receiver has his body between the football and the defender to minimize the opportunity for the defender to make a play on the ball.  A common variation of this route is the post-corner.  Here, the receiver appears to run a post route, only to end up running a flag (or corner) route immetiately after his break towards the post.  This is used to turn the defender around by (hopefully) getting the defender to bite on the post route.

Up (9 route):  The "Up", "Fly", "Fade", or "Go" route is a route designed to stretch the field vertically.  On the Fly route, the receiver gets off the ball and runs towards one shoulder of the defender (assuming man coverage).  If the receiver is the flanker or split end, he will try to run this route just outside of the numbers painted on the football field.  A slot receiver will get vertical and may attack the center of the field, depending on the defense being played.  If run by the FL or SE, the ball will be thrown towards the boundry, over the receiver's outside shoulder.  This vertical attack is designed to stretch the field to provide a deep threat for the offense and/or to possibly clear out defenders to set up underneath routes.

Now that we know some basic routes and their numerical assignments, we will be able to discuss how the tree and the assigned routes are integrated into playcalling.  Hence, we will have a more in-depth discussion of this organizational tool with specific examples in our next WR post.

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