In this installment of the "NFL 101" series at Bleacher Report, former NFL defensive back Matt Bowen breaks down the basic red-zone-route passing combinations to give you a better understanding of the scheme and its execution at the pro level.
Click here for a breakdown of the NFL route tree.
Last week in the “NFL 101” series, we focused on the defensive side of the ball with an introduction to zone blitz schemes. Rush five, drop six and play a three-deep, three-under zone shell in the back end.
Today, let’s move back over to offense and break down some of the basic route combinations that show up on the tape inside of the 20-yard line.
Given the shorter field to work with—and reduced throwing lanes—the ball comes out quickly in the red zone with concepts designed to beat Cover 1, Cover 2, Cover 4 and pressure packages.
Offenses will mix their personnel groupings and alignments to create specific matchups in the red zone versus both zone and man coverage to target throwing windows or expose one-on-one situations in the middle of the field where a false step in coverage can easily lead to six points.
However, behind the window-dressing NFL coordinators use to disguise their route schemes, these concepts show up in every playbook across the league when the ball is moved into scoring position.
From the “999” route (four verticals from a 3x1 alignment) to the Double Smash-7 (corner), NFL offenses will lean on core passing schemes to get the ball in the end zone versus a variety of defensive looks as the game speeds up inside of the 20-yard line.
While defenders in man coverage always have to prepare from a technique perspective for the slant or fade in the deep red zone (something I will break down in a future post), we want to focus on specific route combinations today.
Using the All-22 coaches tape, let’s break down a variety of the basic red-zone route combinations that you will see this season in the NFL.
Jumbo Flat-7 (Play Pass) vs. Goal-Line Zone
I want to start with the goal-line play action out of Jumbo/23 personnel (3TE-2RB) because it is almost guaranteed to produce results if the offense sells the run action in the backfield to test defensive eye discipline at the second level.
A route that is utilized at every level of the game, this play-action concept (sell the Lead Closed/Open) is run inside of the plus-5-yard line out of near/far backs or a Strong/Weak “I” formation (offset fullback to the flat), with the tight end releasing on the quick 7 route.
Here’s an example of the play action and route scheme from the Jets-Falcons matchup with quarterback Geno Smith targeting tight end Kellen Winslow on the 7 cut.
With Jumbo/23 personnel on the field (defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson in the game at the fullback position), the Jets sell the run action to the open (weak) side of the formation out of far backs (fullback offset to the open side).
This forces the Falcons' second-level defenders to play with the proper eye discipline (read run/pass keys) to carry Winslow on the 7 cut while matching to Richardson in the flat (goal-line zone technique).
With Richardson releasing to the flat, the safety matches to the fullback (plays first to the flat). However, because the Jets sell the run fake, the Falcons' second-level defenders stick their eyes in the backfield and attack downhill.
This allows Smith to extend the pocket, set his feet, target an uncovered Winslow in the corner of the end zone and put some nice touch on this ball to drop it in for the score.
“999” Route vs. Cover 2
As I said above, the “999” route is a four-verticals concept run out of a 3x1 formation with the tight end (or No. 3) working back across the field (target the opposite hash) to create a 2x2 look versus the secondary.
It's a top concept to run versus Cover 2 and Cover 4 teams inside of the red zone, as it puts stress on the safeties to play with depth and read the quarterback.
The Seahawks have their Posse/11 personnel (3WR-1TE-1RB) on the field in a 3x1 Doubles Slot formation. This puts the tight end at No. 3 to the closed (strong) side of the formation (count outside-in) where he stems back across the field to the opposite hash (puts stress on the free safety and the Mike backer in Cover 2).
With the Vikings forcing No. 1 to take an inside release (proper Cover 2 technique), receiver Doug Baldwin will stem vertically up the field and widen back to the outside with the slot receiver pressing up the field to threaten the strong safety in the deep half (occupy the safety).
As you can see here, the closed-side cornerback “trails” in Cover 2 (or “Red 2” inside of the 20-yard line). However, with the strong safety occupied by the slot receiver on the inside vertical, Baldwin can continue his vertical stem up the field.
This allows Wilson to target Baldwin on the deep 9 (fade) route for the touchdown as the safety is late to overlap on the throw from his top-of-the-numbers landmark.
“Dino” Double Post
The “Dino” Double Post can target Cover 1 (put stress on the free safety), Cover 2 (expose the Mike backer) and Cover 4 (occupy the free safety, go to work on the cornerback).
Think of two post routes run from a slot alignment with the inside receiver (slot) on the underneath post and the No. 1 receiver on the deep post.
However, don’t forget about the “Dino” stem (stem to the corner, break back to the post). This forces the cornerback in Cover 1 and Cover 4 (or the safety in Cover 2) to widen with the initial stem while the receiver creates leverage back to the inside.
Here’s an example of the route from the Cardinals-Bucs matchup with Larry Fitzgerald matched up versus Darrelle Revis on the outside.
With Ace/12 personnel (2WR-2TE-1RB) on the field in a Unit Wing Slot formation, Fitzgerald aligns as the No. 1 receiver to the open side versus the Bucs' Cover 4 look.
This gives the Cardinals the opportunity to remove the free safety on the inside post (safety has to play No. 2 vertically past a depth of 12 yards) with Fitzgerald now in a position to work one-on-one versus Revis coming off the “Dino” stem.
When Fitzgerald stems to the 7 cut, Revis widens and opens his hips (called “opening the gate”). This allows the Cardinals receiver to stem back inside, gain leverage and run to the post.
And with the free safety now removed over No. 2 on the underneath post, Revis has no help to the inside. That leads to a positive read for quarterback Carson Palmer as he delivers this ball to Fitzgerald for the touchdown.
Smash-7 vs. Cover 1
The Smash-7 concept (will also see the Flat-7) is utilized versus Cover 1 and Cover 2 defenses in the NFL to target man coverage on an outside-breaking route (with no help over the top) or to set some bait for the cornerback in two-deep (smash) while exposing the safety.
With Posse/11 personnel on the field in a 2x2 Doubles formation, Jordy Nelson aligns as the slot (No. 2) to the open side in a reduced split (create room to run the 7 cut).
This puts pressure on the defensive back in coverage as the free safety (rolling to the deep middle of the field) doesn’t have enough time (or depth) inside of the plus-15-yard line to overlap versus an outside-breaking route.
This is another example of why I would avoid playing a single-high scheme in the deep red zone (lean on Cover 2, Cover 4 or Cover 0 instead), as the free safety often ends up having zero impact on the play while he covers turf in the middle of the field.
With no help over the top of the 7 route, the defender now has to play with his back to the ball when Nelson makes his cut at the top of the stem to the corner.
And because of the throw from Rodgers (the Packers quarterback put this ball right past the ear hole of the defender), Nelson can adjust and catch this pass to the inside for six points.
The Double Smash-7 consists of two inside smash routes paired with a 7 cut from the No. 3 receiver out of a 3x1 formation.
A route that can also be run with No. 3 on the inside seam route (Double Smash-Seam), this combination gives the quarterback two underneath options working away from the defender’s leverage in Cover 1 with the opportunity to sit down in soft holes versus zone coverage.
Using an example from the Patriots-Panthers matchup, let’s see how this plays out versus a Cover 1 pressure look from New England.
With tight end Greg Olsen aligned as the No. 3 receiver to the closed side of the formation in a 3x1 Doubles Slot formation, quarterback Cam Newton reads the pressure and looks underneath to receiver Brandon LaFell on the smash route versus Cover 1.
And because the Patriots drop the free safety to shade over the top of Steve Smith to the open side of the formation, the Panthers have an opportunity to work the middle of the field.
LaFell wins at the top of the route and breaks back to the inside. And with no immediate safety help, the receiver can work up the field on the stem to provide Newton with a middle-of-the-field target that results in a score.
The Spot route (7-curl-flat combo) can be utilized in the red zone out of a bunch (three receivers close together) to create a “pick” situation versus man coverage or from a wide alignment to sit the curl down against a zone look.
One of the most common routes in the NFL (regardless of field position), the Spot widens the defense (flat) while testing the top of the secondary (7 route) to create an opening for the curl (or spot).
This is the Spot route from the Broncos-Chiefs matchup at Arrowhead with Posse/11 personnel on the field for Denver.
In “Quarters” coverage, the safety will drive the 7 cut with the cornerback sinking to cushion the outside break.
Underneath, the flat defender has to hold off the curl and work to the flat (can’t be out-leveraged on any throw to the flat).
Here, the flat defender is occupied by the inside curl route. And with the corner sinking under Welker, quarterback Peyton Manning can dump this ball to the flat.
That allows Moreno to secure the catch, beat the corner (reacting late) in the flat and take this ball across the goal line for a touchdown.
The Tare route, like the Spot, is another common route scheme that shows up in the NFL consistently out in the field and inside of the red zone.
Run from a 3x1 (or empty) alignment, the three-step Tare route is designed to work the inside Hi-Lo combination (flat-stick out) with the quarterback having an option to throw the backside slant (3x1: alert slant in the NFL).
However, because of the matchups the tight end position can create in today’s game, NFL offenses will use a “Dakota” alignment (tight end removed as the backside X receiver) to run the slant (or fade).
Check out Jimmy Graham matched up versus Patrick Peterson from the Cardinals-Saints game this past season in New Orleans.
With the Cardinals playing Cover 0 (seven-man pressure, no safety help), the secondary aligns with inside leverage, and Peterson matches up to Graham to the closed side of the formation.
To the open side, we see the tare combination with No. 1 on the clear-out 9 route, No. 2 running the flat route and No. 3 (Marques Colston) breaking on the stick-out.
However, with the Cardinals showing pressure, quarterback Drew Brees identifies the blitz and looks to throw the quick, one-step slant to Graham.
As you can see, Peterson allows Graham to get inside because he opens his hips (“opens the gate”).
And with Graham’s size, the Saints tight end (now in a positive leverage position) can shield Peterson from the ball to finish this play for six points versus the pressure scheme.
Inside Vertical Seam
For Cover 2 defenses, the inside vertical seam is a constant threat because of the matchup it creates versus the Mike backer in the red zone.
This is a good view of the tight end running the inside vertical from the Giants-Cowboys matchup with Posse/11 personnel on the field for Dallas and quarterback Tony Romo.
To create the one-on-one matchup with tight end Jason Witten versus the Mike backer, the Cowboys have to widen (or occupy) the two deep-half safeties to prevent them from overlapping any throw to the middle of the field.
That’s why we see the two outside verticals from the No. 1 receivers. This forces the safeties to stay on their Cover 2 landmarks (top of the numbers) while Witten stems the seam route vertically up the field versus the Mike.
With Romo identifying the matchup inside versus the Mike—and the safeties late to overlap the throw—the Cowboys quarterback can target the tight end on the seam route.
And because the linebacker is playing with his back to the football in a “trail” position, Romo can put this ball on the back shoulder of Witten.
The Smash-Divide concept allows the offense to threaten the top of the secondary while also having the ability to target the underneath smash option versus both zone and man looks.
Here’s an example of the red-zone concept from the Chiefs-Colts wild-card matchup with Posse/11 personnel on the field for Indianapolis.
In this route concept, the No. 1 receiver runs the smash with No. 2 (T.Y. Hilton) on the 7 cut and No. 3 (tight end Coby Fleener) on the inside seam.
In this situation, the Chiefs are playing Cover 4. That means the strong safety has to split No. 2 and No. 3 in his alignment with the free safety using a “push” technique to work to the closed side of the formation if the tight end runs vertically up the field (protect versus the inside vertical; allow the strong safety to top No. 2).
With the cornerback sinking outside to protect versus the 7 route, the strong safety should get his eyes back inside to the quarterback. However, as we see here, the strong safety is focused on the stem/break of Hilton.
And because of the late break/read from the free safety backside, quarterback Andrew Luck can expose the Cover 4 look by targeting Fleener for a touchdown on the seam route.
Sprint Flat-7 (“Pick”)
Anytime there is an offset back in a “chowed” alignment (outside leg of the tackle) to a slot formation, there should be an automatic alert from a defensive perspective to the sprint combinations (flat-7, curl-flat).
And in the red zone, the defense also has to alert for a “pick” (or “rub”) situation depending on the alignment and release of the wide receivers.
Let's check out the sprint route from Manning and the Broncos versus the Chargers Cover 0 pressure scheme.
With Welker (slot) in the reduced split and Eric Decker aligned at the bottom of the numbers, this is an alert to a sprint/pick situation with the running back offset (seal the edge versus the blitz).
At the snap, Decker will take a hard, inside release and stem his route (7 cut) vertically up the field to “pick” the defensive back rolling down in coverage off the pressure look.
This allows Welker to burst to the flat (away from the defender’s leverage) while giving Manning an easy target.
Because of the release/stem from Decker, the Broncos create traffic inside for the Chargers defensive back. And with no time for the defender to “bubble” over the pick in the red zone, Welker runs uncovered to the flat.
A quick way to beat pressure that shows up consistently on the Broncos tape because of the multiple “pick” situations they create in the deep red zone.
Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.