The next subject that we will need to discuss is the actual route running. As we mentioned in a previous installment, getting off the ball is the first big task for the receiver. And as referenced before, the stance and initial step dictate how well the receiver will get into the route and how quickly he will push the defensive back’s cushion. Once off the ball, the receiver will need to practice repetition in getting off the ball and into the route. It is extremely important that all routes initially look the same so that the defense will not be able to immediately jump a route. The easiest way to for a receiver to do this is to push as though he were running a fade or fly route no matter what he is really doing. By attempting to push the defender in the same fashion each play and particularly with the fade route, the receiver will mentally try to get off to a fast start off the LOS and accelerate into the DB’s cushion.
It is important that routes be crisp. Crisp routes are run to a point. "In" routes are squared at 90 degrees (perpendicular away from the sideline). "Out" routes are squared at 90 degrees (perpendicular towards the sideline). Comeback routes are performed at exactly 45 degrees. Anything short is a half ass route. Half ass routes give the defender (who will break sharply) a chance to make a play on the football. In short, the route shall be run exactly as it is drawn up. Unless a route is rounded on paper (i.e., a curl or speed out), it needs to be square/crisp.
So how do we run crisp routes? We will start with a simple route and a simple coverage, the 10 yard dig route against a man defense. A dig is commonly referred to as a "square in". Notice it is a SQUARE in, not a rounded in. For this particular pattern, the receiver will run 10 yards, turn and run laterally towards the middle of the field. What the receiver will want to do is get off the ball quickly and drive towards the defender’s outside or bounty-side shoulder. The receiver essentially has 10 yards to sell the defender that he will be going vertically down the sideline, hence the importance of getting off the LOS quickly with explosion to get to shorten the corner‘s cushion as quickly as possible. The receiver will push the corner as hard as he can for 8-9 yards, hopefully getting the defensive back to open his hips as though he were defending a fade route. It is important to remember that the key to placing the defender in a bad position is to get the defender to open his hips in the opposite direction of the route’s design. If the defender is this far out of position, the receiver should be open every time, particularly against man coverage. Note, the receiver may wish to utilize a technique called stemming where the receiver will run his route slightly towards the boundary to make the defender believe that he is indeed trying to get to the outside, thus opening the defender‘s hips towards the opposite direction of the actual route.
At 8-9 yards the receiver will wish to breakdown (breaking down is a common term for chopping one’s feet rapidly to slow down) so that he can make his cut (or break) at 10 yards. When the receiver breaks down, he will need to maintain complete control of his body. Hence, the receiver will want to lower his center of gravity as he approaches the cut. You will notice when watching good receivers run routes, they almost look like they are squatting down as they approach their break. At exactly 10 yards--or the exact route designed depth, the receiver should be completely under control and have the ability to plant his outside foot. He will use this foot to completely change his direction and cross the field PARALLEL to the hash marks. Since the receiver has maintained a low center of gravity, is completely under control, and has securely planted his outside foot, he should be able to accelerate out of this break free of the cornerback who is playing man defense against him.
All routes shall follow these common principles: accelerate off the LOS, push the defender, break down (under control), plant the foot opposite the direction you wish to cut, accelerate out of the break/cut. All routes shall be studied ahead of time. The receivers should repeatedly practice running these routes so that they are second nature. The receiver should know by heart how many steps it takes for him to run a 5, 7, 10, 12 yard route under control. The quarterbacks and the receivers should continuously work together on these routes so that each group will know how individuals of the other group will perform under specific scenarios.
Why are all these fundamentals important? The goal of running a route is for the receiver to create space between himself and the defender to allow more room for the quarterback to throw him the football. The receiver wants to avoid giving the defender any advantage at all. By being consistent off the line of scrimmage, the receiver keeps the DB honest off of the LOS since he will have to respect the vertical threat. By pushing the defender, the receiver closes the DB’s cushion and makes the defender make a premature decision--hopefully putting his hips (and consequently his entire body) in poor position. Breaking down and making good cuts allows the receiver to further push the defender and get out of his break quicker. Having a good on-field relationship allows the receiver and the quarterback to become comfortable with one another so that each knows what to expect when the receiver comes out of his break. This permit’s the QB to anticipate the WR’s moves and gets the ball to the receiver before the defender can make a play on the ball.
In future installments we will discuss how to catch the football, "common" routes, an organizational tool known as the passing tree, and more complex combination routes. It is important through all of this to remember the basics, as these fundamentals are used to get into position to make the big catch.