In today’s installment of the “NFL 101” series, former NFL defensive back Matt Bowen breaks down the core route combinations at the pro level to give you a better understanding of the game.
Click here for a breakdown of the NFL route tree.
Click here for a breakdown of the 3-4 defensive front.
Click here for a breakdown of the 4-3 defensive front.
Last week in the “NFL 101” series, we talked about the basic route tree with a focus on alignments, wide receiver splits, releases and the initial stem off the line of scrimmage.
Today, let’s take this a step further and look at specific route combinations that give quarterbacks multiple reads (primary, secondary, checkdown, etc.) within the play versus both zone and man coverage.
Using the All-22 coaches tape, here is a rundown of the route-combination groupings we will break down:
The three-step route combinations require the quarterback to make quick decisions and deliver the football on time. These combinations show up often versus man-coverage/pressure defenses and in third-down situations.
– NFL offenses will use the Tare route out of multiple personnel groupings, but the one constant is the alignment: a 3x1 formation with the backside X receiver in a “plus” split (two to three yards on top of the numbers).
– To the closed (strong) side of the formation, the No. 1 receiver (count outside-in) runs a clear-out 9 (fade) route (occupy the cornerback) to create space inside/underneath for No. 2/No. 3 to run the flat-stick (quick out) combination. This gives the quarterback a quick, two-level read inside.
– No. 3 can sit down (quick curl/hitch) versus zone coverage when No. 2 bursts to the flat.
– Backside of a 3x1 formation in the NFL is a high alert to the slant (X receiver). In this situation, Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon beats Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib on the slant (gains leverage on the release) to produce an 80-yard touchdown versus Cover 0 (blitz-man with no safety help).
– The spacing route (or zone pass) is run out of a bunch formation (three receivers close together) from a 3x1 alignment with the backside X receiver in a “plus” split.
– To the closed side, No. 1 and No. 2 run quick curl/stick routes with No. 3 working to the flat. A concept that will eat up soft zone coverage, look for this combination to show up in 3rd-and-2-to-6 situations versus both Cover 2 and Cover 3.
– Again, the backside X receiver (3x1 formation) runs the slant route from a “plus” split alignment as we see here from the Chiefs versus the Cowboys.
– The slant-flat combination is run from a 2x2 “Doubles” formation with both No. 1 wide receivers aligned in “plus” splits to create room inside on the slant.
– With Posse/11 personnel (3WR-1TE-1RB) in the game for the Packers, the tight end (No. 2 to the closed side) and slot receiver (No. 2 to the open side) run the flat routes with the running back checking down in the middle of the field.
– A route combination that shows up in multiple down-and-distance situations, this is an easy three-step concept that allows the quarterback to read the safety alignment pre-snap (single-high/two-deep) and deliver the ball quickly to the proper matchup.
– Very similar to the slant-flat combination, the 2122 (2=Slant, 1=Flat) is run from a 2x2 “Doubles” formation, giving the quarterback a slant-flat option to the closed side and a double-slant look to the open side.
– Here, the Chiefs remove the tight end from the core of the formation (called an “orange” alignment) versus the Jaguars to form a 2x2 spread look. To the closed side, the tight end runs the flat with No. 1 (from a “plus” alignment) on the slant. To the open side, both receivers (No. 1, No. 2) run slant routes.
– Given the Jaguars are showing press alignments—and a single high safety in the middle of the field—quarterback Alex Smith can identify man coverage, get the ball out quickly and find the best matchup based on personnel.
The Hi-Lo is a two-level read (inside the numbers) run out of a stack alignment that allows offenses to create natural “pick” situations versus man-coverage schemes. A core concept in West Coast systems, here are four combinations within the Hi-Lo series that we see across the league.
– Anytime you see receivers in a stack look (two receivers close together), either by alignment or motion, it should be an alert to a Hi-Lo concept. That’s what we see here from the Chiefs versus the Cowboys, with the tight end (removed from the core of the formation) and the slot receiver.
– In the Hi-Lo, the tight end (or No. 3) runs the intermediate dig route (can convert to the seam) with the slot receiver (or No. 2) coming underneath on the drive route (shallow crosser).
– This gives quarterback Alex Smith a two-level read inside the numbers (dig, drive) and allows the slot receiver to use the release of the tight end (vertical stem) as a pick versus man coverage.
– In this Hi-Lo combination, we add on the term “crossers” because of the two drive routes crossing in the middle of the field.
– The Browns are running a similar Hi-Lo combination from a stack alignment to the closed side of the formation (No. 2, No. 3). However, with Josh Gordon in a reduced split (tight to the core of the formation) to the open side, Cleveland can work both the slot receiver and Gordon underneath.
– Hi-Lo Crossers is an excellent combination versus man coverage, as it forces defenders (playing from an outside leverage position) to chase from a trail position and bubble over the traffic inside.
Hi-Lo Triple-In Flood
– This West Coast classic has been in Andy Reid’s playbook for over a decade (I saw this same concept when playing versus the Eagles back in the early 2000s). Look for three inside breaking routes, with a running back working to the closed side of the formation to give the offense a “four strong” look (four receivers to one side of the formation).
– Run from a bunch alignment, we see the same Hi-Lo action inside, with the tight end on the dig and the No. 1 wide receiver working underneath on the drive route. However, with the Chiefs sending a receiver in motion to run the angle route (triple-in) and the running back on the swing route (flood), Kansas City has overloaded one side of the formation.
– Why the angle route plus the swing out of the backfield? This combination, when paired with the Hi-Lo, will widen defenses (swing) and also create leverage back to the inside (angle). This works versus zone/man coverage while putting stress on defenses inside the deep red zone (plus-10-yard line).
Hi-Lo Mesh (Wheel)
– A top route combination for Chip Kelly’s Eagles in 2013, the Hi-Lo Mesh presents multiple matchup issues versus man-coverage schemes because of the inside crossing routes and the running back releasing on the wheel route.
– The Eagles align in a bunch to the closed side of the formation to run Hi-Lo Crossers. That creates traffic inside and forces the linebacker (matched up versus the running back) to bubble over the crossing routes. This allows the running back to separate down the field with the linebacker now in a trail position.
With the boot game, plus the sprint action, offenses are working to move the pocket and get the quarterback to the edge. And the wide receiver splits (plus the backfield alignments) tell you the story before the ball is even snapped. Here’s a look at three “movement passes.”
– The boot game in the NFL is often run out of Regular/21 (2WR-1TE-2RB) and Ace/12 (2WR-2TE-1RB) personnel, with the quarterback using play action to sell the run fake. This opens up throwing lanes as the run action forces second-level defenders to play with poor eye discipline.
– In this example, Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson sells the run fake (open-side stretch/zone) and boots back to the closed side of the formation with a two-level read (flat and corner).
– Look at the splits of the No. 1 wide receivers. To the closed side, the No. 1 is in a “plus” split with the open-side No. 1 in a reduced split. That should be an automatic alert to the boot, with the closed-side receiver widening his split to clear out room for the flat-7 and the open-side receiver reducing his split to the run the over route.
– The “swap” boot is different from the standard boot action, as the offense brings a receiver underneath the line of scrimmage away from the run fake. A concept we saw often from the Redskins under Mike Shanahan, the swap boot gives the quarterback two immediate options in the flat, along with the deep over route.
– Here, the Packers (with Regular/21 personnel on the field) bring the fullback underneath the line of scrimmage (off the run fake) to the flat and release the tight end on the delay (block down, release to the flat). This gives quarterback Aaron Rodgers two reads underneath, with the X receiver on the deep over and the Z receiver (Jordy Nelson) on the comeback, post or 9 (fade).
– Again, look at the splits of the No. 1 wide receivers. The Z receiver is in a reduced split, while Nelson is a “plus” split (ball on the far hash). Another pre-snap key for the over/clear-out combo.
– In the NFL, you will see two combinations off the sprint action: flat-curl and smash-7. Here, we get the smash-7 from the 49ers out of slot formation, with a two-back Pistol alignment in the backfield.
– Check out the alignment of the fullback/H-back—this is called a "chowed" alignment (outside leg of the tackle). That’s is an automatic alert for the sprint to the slot side with the ball on the far hash. The fullback/H-back widens his alignment to seal the edge and to allow quarterback Colin Kaepernick to extend the pocket on the sprint action.
– There are two reads to the open side of the formation, with Anquan Boldin (slot) on the 7 cut and the No. 1 receiver running the hitch. Tight end Vernon Davis will work back across the field on the over route to give Kaepernick another option off the sprint action.
Five- to Seven-Step Combinations
This is where we get into the main course of the NFL’s top route combinations. Following is a rundown of 15 concepts that require the timing/depth of a five- or seven-step drop.
– One of the top Cover 2 beaters in the NFL, the flat-7 (corner) puts stress on the cornerbacks to play with technique and discipline versus the bait underneath.
– Using the Lions as an example, you can see the hard inside stems from the No. 1 wide receivers out of “plus” spits. This is done to create enough room to run the 7 cut (stem to the bottom of the numbers) with the No. 2 receivers (slot, tight end) bursting to the flat.
– Why does it put stress on the Cover 2 shell? The safeties won’t make this play versus the 7 route unless the cornerback sinks and cushions the deep hole. The cornerbacks have to sink hard at the snap and protect the safety, forcing the quarterback to dump the ball underneath (flat route). Play deep to short and give the safety a chance versus a receiver such as Calvin Johnson running the corner route.
– Another Cover 2 beater, the Sucker route uses the inside vertical seam to occupy the Mike ‘backer and deep-half safety while setting the bait underneath with the curl/hitch to open up a throwing lane for the deep dig.
– Going back to the Ravens' win over the Lions in 2013, quarterback Joe Flacco hit receiver Jacoby Jones on a key third-down play late in the game on the Sucker combination.
– By running off the Mike ‘backer with the tight end (forces the safety to stay over the top) and setting the bait with the slot receiver, the Ravens forced the nickel defender to sit hard on the curl. That opened up a soft hole in the zone coverage for Jones to run the dig and move the sticks.
– The Dagger route carries some of the same principles as the Sucker, with a clear-out seam from No. 2 and a deep dig from No. 1. This is paired with a shallow drive route and either a 7 or deep curl.
– A combination that beats Cover 2 (clear-out Mike’ backer) and Cover 1/Cover 3 (occupy free safety in middle of the field), the Dagger allows the No. 1 receiver to stem hard inside on the release, work vertically and break back to the middle of the field at a depth of 12 to 15 yards.
– In this example, the Eagles clear out the middle of the field with the seam route and target receiver Riley Cooper on the deep dig versus a single-high look from the Cowboys.
– The Pin route is a Cover 4 (or quarters) beater, as it sets the bait for the safety while opening up the middle of the field to create a one-on-one matchup versus the cornerback with the deep post.
– Using an example from Peyton Manning and the Broncos, focus on the strong safety in this diagram. With the tight end breaking on the dig underneath, the safety jumps the route. That leaves the cornerback (in quarters technique) playing the post route from an outside leverage position—with no help inside.
– Notice the “Dino” stem? That’s when the receiver (Eric Decker) stems to the corner and then breaks back to the post. This is done to force the cornerback to widen on the initial stem, creating even more separation on the break inside.
– The Pin route (a favorite of Steve Spurrier) is also one of the top concepts we see inside the red zone versus Cover 4 teams. Remove the safety and go to work on the cornerback—that’s the goal.
– Another Cover 4 beater, the Scissors route puts stress on both the cornerback and safety with No. 1 running the post and No. 2 on the 7 (corner) to create a deep crossing combination.
– The Eagles move Cooper inside to the slot and run the 7 cut with a hard inside stem (force safety to overplay the break) to pair with the deep post. Off play action, the running back bursts to the flat (checkdown option) with DeSean Jackson on the dig route to the closed side of the formation.
– With the safety removed and the cornerback playing from an outside leverage position, the scissors combination is tough on Cover 4 unless the defense makes a “Zorro” call. This allows the cornerback and safety to pass off the post/corner combination.
– Four verticals are all “go” routes (9/seam) that can convert outside the numbers versus three-deep coverage (comebacks). As shown here, Manning and the Broncos are running four verticals versus the Jaguars' Cover 2 shell.
– Versus Cover 2, the stress falls on the Mike ‘backer and two deep-half safeties (have to split both verticals), with the corners sinking underneath (or trailing) to cushion the outside 9 routes.
– Versus Cover 3, the No. 1 wide receivers can convert the 9 routes to comebacks (break at a depth of 12 to 15 yards) with the two inside seam routes attacking the free safety in the deep middle of the field.
– One of the top concepts in every NFL playbook, four verticals is also a route we see in the high red zone (15- to 25-yard line) versus Cover 2 defenses to attack the Mike’ backer with the inside seam routes.
– The “999” route is four verticals run from a 3x1 “Doubles Slot” formation with the tight end (or No. 3) working back across the field on the deep over route.
– In this example, the Panthers run three verticals down the field, with tight end Greg Olsen running the deep over route to the open side of the formation.
– An ideal route to use versus Cover 2 defenses, the 9 route from the No. 1 receiver (outside release) to the open side of the formation will widen the deep-half safety. That creates a throwing window to target the tight end on the deep over route.
– The “spot” route will vary from three to five steps depending on field position, down and distance, but the combination stays the same: a curl-7-flat combo run out of a bunch look.
– Offenses will align in a bunch or use “divide” motion (motion to the core of the formation) to form the set out of multiple personnel groupings/alignments (Packers ran the “spot” route in 2012 with four tight ends on the field).
– The primary target is the curl (or the “spot”), with the 7 (corner) running off the top of the secondary and the flat route widening the underneath defenders.
– Manning and the Broncos use the “spot” combination for an obvious reason: to set a pick inside for Wes Welker to burst to the flat versus the Eagles' Cover 0 pressure. However, look for the “spot” route to show up in third-down situations to give the quarterback a clear target on a high-percentage throw when looking up the curl.
– The pump-seam will consistently challenge single-high safety defenses if the free safety fails to stay square or play with eye discipline in the middle of the field off the “pump” action.
– Here, the Bears and quarterback Josh McCown will “pump” to the open-side “sluggo” (slant and go) to draw the free safety out of the middle of the field. And with the free safety leaning to the open-side hash, McCown will have an opportunity to come back to the seam (Alshon Jeffery) while the No. 1 receiver (Brandon Marshall) occupies the cornerback on the hitch.
– The goal is to create a one-on-one matchup out of the slot and to target the seam route without the free safety overlapping the throw. And to do that, the quarterback has to sell the pump fake before coming back to target the seam.
– The sail route or OVS (outside vertical stretch) is a three-level combination (9-7-flat) that targets Cover 3 by removing the cornerback to create a throwing lane to the hit the 7 route.
– In Cover 3, the cornerback has to carry/match the 9 (fade). That puts stress on the curl-flat defender (strong safety) to sink with enough depth to play the 7 while reacting to the flat. And if the curl-flat defender sits short, there is a clear hole in the zone for the quarterback to target the 7 cut.
– As we see here from the Chargers, the No. 1 receiver runs the clear-out 9 (or post) with the two tight ends working the flat-7 combination versus three-deep coverage.
– If you’ve studied Manning’s top concepts (in both Indianapolis and Denver), then you’ve seen the Levels combination before. It's a two-level read with a “plus” split as a pre-snap key out of 2x2 “Doubles” formation.
– Using the Chargers and wide receiver Keenan Allen as an example, look at the pre-snap splits. Allen is three yards on top of the numbers, with the ball on the far hash. That’s as wide as it gets for a wide receiver. And it’s meant to provide space for Allen to run the smash (five-yard square-in).
– Inside, the No. 2 receiver (tight end on this play removed from core of the formation) runs an intermediate dig route with the seam and 9/comeback to the open side. This combination works versus multiple defensive coverages if the No. 1 receiver (Allen) wins inside on the release.
– The NCAA route is a classic, old-school combination (post-dig-drive) that targets the depth of the free safety in the middle of the field in Cover 1 and Cover 3.
– The Jets window-dress this concept with the bunch look to the closed side of the formation, but we still see the NCAA combo, with No. 1 widening his stem on the post, the tight end running the drive and the open-side No. 1 on the dig.
– This combination gives quarterback Geno Smith short (drive), intermediate (dig) and deep-ball (post) options.
– Run from the 3x1 “Doubles Slot” formation, the smash-divide showed up around the league on tape this past season because of the ability to target both Cover 2 and single-high looks.
– In this concept (as we see here from the 49ers), No. 1 runs the smash (from a “plus” split), with No. 2 on the 7 (corner) route and No. 3 on the seam/deep over.
– This is a tough route to defend when the free safety is occupied by the seam/deep over in the middle of the field, as it prevents him from breaking/overlapping the 7 cut.
– This is a deep two-man route (with seven-man protection) that uses play action and window dressing (wide receiver splits) to target the deep over route for an explosive gain.
– With both wide receivers aligned inside the numbers (false run key) and hard play action out of an "I" backfield set, the offense is looking to test the top of the secondary.
– The Redskins will run off the top of the defense with No. 1 to the open side. The receiver takes a hard inside stem to the middle of the field before breaking back to the 7 route. This occupies the deep-half safety in Cover 2 and both the free safety and cornerback in Cover 3. And with the top of the defense now removed, the No. 1 receiver to the closed side of the formation can run the deep over route to expose the coverage.
Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.