An important part of being able to run a successful offense involves making sure you can get the football to your best players, in space or in favourable match-ups. The goal of a spread offense is to create ways to get your athletes in space, putting them in positions to make good plays and ultimately giving your offense the advantage in each match. Receivers play an important role in any good offense. This position is incredibly versatile as receivers can line up almost anywhere in any formation, run a variety of routes and screen combinations. This allows them to reach almost anywhere on the field in order to find space and get open for quick easy completions or big chunk plays on key third down situations. Isolating your best receiver one on one with DB’s, aligning him in different formations and creating conflict for secondary defenders by using pick plays to get them open can cause havoc for any defense. This article will discuss single side routes, pick plays, double moves, screens and using various formations to create alignment conflict for defenders and get your best receivers open.
Identifying Numbers, Space and Alignment
Often times you will see teams have their best receiver run a deep fade route and just throw up the football expecting the receiver to make the catch against a defender who is right on their hip. Whilst watching the QB launch the football 50+ yards downfield and seeing the receiver make a spectacular catch is exciting… this is by far the least effective way to get your best receiver the football. Fade passes are incredibly low percentage throws. If you have an athletic WR, a player who understands the position, or both, then there are a multitude of ways that you can create opportunities for them to get the football. This can be done by identifying three factors: numbers, space and alignment. We will explore these factors throughout this article, but basically, if you have more players (numbers) than the defense, if you have space to the boundary (short side) or field (wide side) to get easy completions and gains, and if the defenders are out-leveraged by alignment and formation, then you have advantages in getting the football to your best receiver.
Single Side Routes
Let’s start off with single side routes. If used correctly, single side routes can prove to be some of the most effective methods to utilise the skills of your best receiver to get them the ball. They are usually quick, easy to complete, and take advantage of the space given by the defence or allow the receiver to create space with double moves.
The now route relates to the aspect of space. If the defender covering the single side receiver is backed off 10 or more yards, then a now route is a really effective way to get the ball in the hands of your best receiver and let him make a play one on one in space. The receiver takes a fake step forward and turns around on the spot immediately for the ball. The purpose of this is to delay the defender’s reaction of coming down to cover the hitch, giving your receiver more space to work with.
The single side slant is very effective when the alley (throwing lane for single side receiver) is clear. Slants are very quick throw and catch routes that defenders have difficulty defending, especially when they lose inside leverage. If the alley is clear of defenders, and the receiver can easily win inside leverage, then the slant is a good option for an easy pitch and catch.
One of my favourite routes. The whip-out is run as a slant, but then the receiver breaks down and runs back out to towards the sideline. This is very effective against defenders who are in man coverage. It forces them to commit to covering the slant and then have to react immediately to the whip-out action. This catches defenders off guard and creates an opening for an easy throw and catch, as well as potentially an easy touchdown or huge gain.
Another variation of the slant, the slant-go (also known as a ‘sluggo’ route) is similar to the whip-out. However with this variation, the receiver runs a slant and then breaks to release vertical on a fade or go route. This is incredibly effective if defenders are constantly biting down hard on slant routes. You can draw them in with the initial slant movements and then blow right past them for an open catch.
Basically a deep speed out. The brush route is run vertical like a fade or go route, except that the receiver breaks out at roughly 10 yards. This is a great route to get the defender to turn their hips to cover a fade and create separation on the break for an open window. This route is great for getting first downs or taking advantage of a defense that is backed up in cover 3 or 4 and bails quickly to cover the fade in man coverage.
Another variation of the fade. The comeback is a very effective route to pick up large chuncks of yardage, especially on long third down situations. The receiver presses the defender vertical as if running a fade in order to force them to flip their hips and cover the fade. Once the defender gets turned around, the receiver breaks back down towards the sideline, creating separation and an open window for the catch. This route is also effective for getting downfield quickly whilst getting out of bounds to stop the clock.
Of all the single side routes, this one is my least favourite. Fades are incredibly low percentage routes. The receiver needs to work the hardest on this route to get open and the throw needs to be very precise to have a chance of being catchable. Also, catching a ball at a full sprint is a rather difficult skill that the professionals make look easy. However, I will that there are some situations where a single side fade could be run with improved chances of success. There are three conditions, size advantage, speed advantage, and positional advantage. If your best receiver has at least one of these three advantages, then a fade route could be a good option.
Size advantage – if your receiver is taller, bigger, stronger, more physical and get out muscle the defender for position and for the catch, then you can feel free to run a single side fade with them.
Speed advantage – if your receiver is faster, more athletic and can just beat the defender outright with pure speed to get open, then you can feel free to run a single side fade with them.
Positional advantage – if your receiver is perhaps a running back (RB) or tight end (TE) lined up at receiver and matched up with a line backer (LB) or slower safety, then this is what we call a position mis-match and your guy has the advantage. RB’s and TE’s are almost always faster, more agile and more athletic than their LB counterparts. TE are usually much bigger than safties and can easily win jump ball contests. This makes it very hard for line backers and slower safeties to cover RB’s or TE’s in the open field, particularly on fade routes.
Next we have pick plays. These plays are designed to create a rub with defenders in coverage by using a receiver to block the way of a defender and prevent them from properly covering their assignment. These types of plays work very well against man coverage.
By draging your best receiver underneath vertical releases and other drags you can create simple rubs and picks against the defense. This leads to a easy short completion and allows your playmaker to run with the ball in space.
I feel that this is a much more effective way of getting the results of a fade or vertical route, without all the difficulties of a one on one battle. Essentially, this is a ‘post wheel’ concept, where the flanker runs a post and the slot or inside receiver runs a wheel route. By adding in a pick to this play it makes it even easier to get the ball to the wheel. The slot receiver runs the pick and the inside receiver runs the wheel. This concept works exceptionally well in man coverage as you can almost guarantee that the wheel will be open.
The use of bunch formations and condensed sets creates natural picks against defenders in coverage. As the receivers are clumped together in a bunch, the defenders, especially if they’re in man coverage, also have to clump up. This restricts the space the defenders have to work with and is an easy way to get them out of position to create huge openings for easy completions. This means that your receivers win by alignment by setting the defenders up pre-snap. The great thing about these types of fomations is that you can run almost any pass play out of them. Try experimenting with different passing concepts and route combinations to see what you can come up with!
I love this concept of fooling the defense with obvious misdirection to get a receiver wide open for an easy completion. You hand the ball off to your RB and they fake the run, turn around and pass the ball back to the QB. While this is happening, a receiver leaks out in behind the entire defense who have been tricked into coming down to play against the run. The end result usually being a completely uncovered receiver and a free huge play if not touchdown. The best way to use this concept is out of condensed sets with receivers close to the box to force defenders to line up closer to the line of scrimmage and in the box. This creates more space in behind for your receiver to get open and almost always ensures that they have no one covering them.
Finally we have the screen game. These plays are simple in concept but prove to be deadly in execution. Screens are easy to complete quick throws and they force the defensive backs to take on blocks and make tackles in open space. If you are looking to get the ball to your most athletic receiver, these are the plays for you.
This screen is great to take advantage of a cover 2 or cover 4 defense as the inside receiver has space and leverage against the LB’s and the safety that is backed up 10 or more yards. This play gets the ball to the receiver very quickly and allows them to make a play in space. It also forces the perimeter defenders to take on blocks and make a tackle in space.
Very similar to the bubble screen, except that the most outside receiver catches the football while the other receivers block on the perimeter. If you have numbers (more receivers than defenders) and the defenders are out-leveraged, you throw the hitch and let your athlete make a play in space.
As a receiver, what could be more fun than having your offensive line create a wall between you and the defenders for you to run behind for a huge play. If executed correctly, this is what the tunnel screen offers your best or most athletic receiver. This play causes a lot of problems for perimeter defenders such as CB’s because you force smaller defenders to take on blocks from big lineman and try to make a tackle in open space. On top of that, you force the rest of the defence to scramble and run out to cover the perimeter, making it easy for your receiver to break across field, make defenders miss and find open space.
Variation is Key
Getting your best receiver the ball is not rocket science. However, it is important to make sure you implement as much variation as possible to the plays that you run against defenses. This will allow you to keep them guessing as you will be attacking them in many different ways. Try mixing up your play calls using single side routes, pick plays, screen plays and taking advantage of numbers, space and alignment in order to put pressure on defences. With this, you will make it a lot easier on your offense to create good opportunities to make the most out of your best or most athletic receivers.
If you have any questions or would like to add to this discussion, please feel free to comment in the section below.
If you are interested in equipping your best receivers with the tools and skills they need to get open and get the football in their hands more often, I would suggest taking a look at Wide Receiver Footwork, Stance & Drills from the Michigan Football Series. This coaching video goes through the fundamentals of good receiver technique and provides receiver coaches with a variety of drills and practise exercises to improve your receivers’ route running skills and ability to create separation against defenders in coverage. This video is a worthwhile investment for anyone looking to enhance the play-making ability of their receivers.
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