A good quarterback is only as good as his wide receivers.
If wide receivers aren’t making good runs, how will the quarterback get the ball out to score touchdowns?
Kansas City Chief’s quarterback Patrick Mahomes made a whopping 4,740 passing yards last year, but he could only do so because of his brilliant offensive receivers.
Without the imperious Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce running killer routes, Mahomes wouldn’t have an option available to throw his darting passes.
That’s why it’s crucial for wide receivers to know and understand all the different routes their offensive coach might call ahead of the play.
In this guide, we’ll be walking you through all of the classic receiver routes wide receivers are expected to run while introducing a couple of twists on a few old classics.
The Route Tree
The football route tree is the heart of all play calls.
It shows all the classic receiver routes that a wide receiver can run. And with four wide receivers on the pitch, running a possibility of 36 different routes, you can really trouble your offense with the array of running options on offer.
Let’s start with the first run on the route tree, which is the classic flat route.
The flat route is a quarterback’s (QB) get out of jail card. With their wide receiver running off the line of scrimmage and turning out short in their run to cross the field, the runner provides the QB with valuable yards but can get open quickly and easily. That means if the QB is under pressure from the defense, he can fire off a bullet to the Flat running back to gain valuable yards and alleviate pressure on the play.
This is another get out of jail wide receiver route that QBs can use to secure the next down. The runner will speed off up to around 10 yards off the line of scrimmage and stop and turn and show himself for the quarterback.
But it requires a fast passing QB to get the ball out to the runner before it can be intercepted. Patrick Mahomes and his 60mph pass made countless yards with this play last season.
The Out Route
Like the flat route, the out route allows wide receivers (WR) to move up the pitch and gain more ground. But this route gets them more space. Moving further away from the line of scrimmage, the distance means they can get away from the congestion and move into space.
Plus, as the receiver turns on one spot, the move can be quite deceptive to defensive backs, usually thinking the receiver is running for the end-zone. Again this move requires a sharp passer and a QB who can anticipate the receiver’s position before he gets there.
Tactic tip: this is a great play to use if you’re looking to gain yards but want to stop the clock between downs, with your wide receiver able to run into touch after he receives the throw.
The Corner Route
This is one of the most devastating routes on the football route tree as many defensive backs don’t anticipate the sharp change of direction towards the corner flag. Ultimately, the WR has to keep his defender close on his tail for the first part of the run, but his sudden slanting change of direction will allow him to create space away from the defender to take a clean catch and run to the end-zone. This is one of my favorite routes to call as it is super effective as a touchdown scoring play.
The Fly Route
Aptly named because you want a flyer running this route. Choose your fastest WR and tell them to go deep and cause havoc in the backfield. You’ll likely come up against a safety at the back, but your instructions to the wide receiver are to keep things simple; run hard and straight and make the catch. Marquise Goodman is one of the fastest players in the NFL and can rip opposition defensive backs apart with his blitzing speed. He is an example of the wide receiver you should use to run this wide receiver route.
Similar to the corner route, the post route does the same job; attacks the opposition safeties. I’d advise WRs to draw as many defenders as they can with them in this route while also splitting defenders into two. Run a sharp diagonal line and aim for the corner of the pitch.
Once you’re in space in the backfield, you should expect the QB to quite literally post the football to you and see yourself glide through to score the touchdown.
The opposite to the out route, WRs should use this route to drag players away from critical passing zones on the pitch. Don’t always expect the ball in this route. You’re here to distract players away from passes higher up the pitch. But you should never forget the golden rule of football; always expect the football, and be ready to receive the football from your QB if he has no other option out deep in the field.
The curl route is another play to secure solid ground. It requires wide receivers to have good footwork and the ability to soak up pressure from defensive backs looking to intercept the ball from you in congested areas. When to run a comeback or a curl depends on how your opposition field is set up. Ultimately, you should run a curl if your opposition is lining up on the left-hand side to avoid congestion. Likewise, run a comeback if the play is congested on the other side of the pitch.
Top tip: try to spend as little time as possible at the top of your run to increase the space between you and your defenders.
The Slant Route
These are fast routes that can get the ball upfield to make guaranteed yards. You can run the slant from pretty much any position on the field and at any angle you like. It’s probably most effective for running backs taking the ball off the QB behind the scrimmage, but it works well also when the ball is thrown deep into the slanting attacker’s hands.
The Combination Routes
After you’ve mastered the above routes, you can expand your game to include some more sophisticated and technical routes, even mix them up and be innovative as much as you like!
Sluggo is a combination of slant and fly. It requires the offensive receiver to make two sharp directional changes to deceive their opposition defensive backs. The runner will start running straight and will cut a sharp slant angle behind the scrimmage. Your opposition will think you’re running to the other touchline until you hit the afterburners and change your running line again to hit a straight fly route. This is a very effective running line to help you shrug off defenders and break into space.
The Dig Route (Sweep Route)
The sweep is a bit of a tough run to pull off and is only really used to draw players around the field when you’re around 5 yards out from the end-zone. The sweeping player will run a looping route around the back of your defense to pull players with him and open up throwing channels for your QB to hit other WRs in the end-zone. The dig route is a very shallow run, meaning you need one of your faster players to run it. It’s tough to throw a solid pass to the runner coming around the back of such a congested area, but I’ve seen QBs usually hit the sweep runner after they’ve looped around the back of the scrimmage into open space on the flank of the pitch.
Like the sweep, this play again requires a quick runner to get around the back of your opposition and explode into a fly route to get up the pitch quickly.
This is another deceptive move, especially if you’ve already ran a dig route previously in the match. Stagger your run and wait until you change direction to move into your optimal gear and speed away from your marker. The run requires you to keep an eye on the play, though, as you don’t want to cross paths or crash into any of your teammates’ runs. Unlike the dig route, you can play the sweep stack a little further out from the end-zone.
The Lightning bolt
This one is an ankle buster for your opponents. Start by advancing your way up the pitch looking for the catch, but then turn and run a quick cut. You’re then going to advance back a couple of paces, show for the catch, and sell your opponent some candy by doubling back and shooting upfield in a fly route.
You want to make sure your initial cut line angle isn’t too acute to ensure that your opponent isn’t too close to you so that you don’t bump into him as you turn to advance for a fly route. Adding multiple turns into your run can seriously slow your defender down and put that extra yard of space between you and them to help you take the catch from your QB.
The Slant Show
This can be one of the most effective receiver routes to gain valuable yards as the slant runner can escape into space to show for the QB. More often than not, the QB can use a bit of added support from his runners, and this route provides that with that coverage. The slant runner will run his usual diagonal route, but he’ll turn at the last minute and show the QB who can hit a bullet pass to him to secure at least 10 yards and then next down.
It’s also an excellent play to use if you’re short on time and want to stop the clock by running the ball out of play. Players can also use this play to stretch opposition players wide across the park to open up holes in the pitch center.
Bringing it all together
A good offensive line will manipulate all of these running lines at once to baffle defenders and draw them out of position.
This allows them to create holes and space on the pitch, which they can exploit and use to play long balls and score big touchdowns.
Using the football route tree, a coach can visualize at least 36 different receiver routes on the pitch. Each one can be different from the last with an alternate result. When visualizing or designing your plays, remember to assign a different role to each receiver; for example, if one is running a dig route, are they going to be a primary receiver, or are they in place to draw players out of position.
Here’s an example of how a play should look once you’ve removed the route treemaps from your play diagram.
Whether you’re a coach or a wide receiver looking to develop new running lines, always remember our top tip; attack the space at pace. The harder you run, the more chance you will have to evade your opposition, plus the more you transition into space, the better chance you have to receive passes from your QB.
Remember also always to keep things simple. The more you overcomplicate your running lines, the bigger chance you’ll have of running into one of your teammates, spoiling their line, and even spoiling a catch.
Once you’ve mastered these running lines, you’ll be able to take teams apart with your blaring pace and strategic receiver routes that will cause chaos for your opposition defenders.
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