WR Play: The Art of Route Running

By Taylor Kolste

Clemson Head Football Coach, Dabo Swinney, once said that wide receiver was the worst coached position in all of football. This is because of how technical the position can be, yet how little coached some receivers are. Although route running isn’t the only component of WR Play, I believe it is the aspect that is most technical and should be coached the most. There is an art to route running, great receivers are intentional with their technique throughout the entirety of the route. This article will aim at creating a system for route running that will create a common language between coaches and players and help walk coaches and receivers through route running versus different defensive techniques. There are plenty of different terms out there for the techniques discussed in this article, but the important thing is that they are defined by the coach so that the players and coaches are operating under the same language.

We will breakdown route running into 4 phases:

  1. Stance
  2. Release/Start
  3. Stem
  4. Breakpoint

First of all, the receiver must understand the coverage and defender they are attacking. The receiver must always have a plan of attack that will be determined by the route and the defender that they are attacking. We will start by defining 5 different types of defenders:

  • Press
    • Quick-Jam
  • Soft-Press
  • Squat Defender
  • Off Defender
  • Bail Defender

Receivers must understand how to recognize these techniques because that will determine how each route is run. Even though the route might be the same, it will always be ran slightly different depending upon the defensive coverage. Once in season, understanding the opponent’s defensive tendencies and coverages will give the players a better idea of the technique to expect out of the defender they are attacking; this is why film study is critical to success.

Press

  • Defender is aligned tight to the receiver and is expected to jam the receiver off the ball.

Quick-Jam

  • A variation of press coverage in which the DB aligns even tighter and is expected to lunge forward to jam the receiver.

Soft-Press

  • DB will either align in a press alignment and then slide backwards waiting for the receiver to initiate contact, or align slightly further back than a press alignment and wait for the receiver.

Squat Defender

  • Defender will be playing off of the receiver anywhere from 4 to 10 yards, and be playing a catch-technique, meaning they will “squat” waiting for the receiver to reach him before they attempt to initiate contact.

Off Defender

  • Defender will play at depth and backpedal with their eyes on the receiver.

Bail Defender

  • Defender (usually a corner) will turn inside and drop to their deep zone with their eyes inside to the quarterback.

Stance

The receiver’s stance will vary depending upon the defender they are attacking. When facing an off or bail defender, the receiver should burst off the ball and close the cushion quickly. His stance should be as follows:

  • The inside foot should be up, and the front toe should be pointed straight ahead.
  • The receiver’s feet should be shoulder-width apart so he is balanced.
  • Feet should be staggered enough to prevent a drop-step (picking up back foot before you start).
  • Weight should be concentrated on the front foot to prevent a false step (picking up the front foot before you start).
  • The receiver’s back should be straight and he should be leaning forward so that his chest is over his knees and his knees over his toes.
  • Place arms in a comfortable position.
  • Lift head to scan defense before turning head in to watch the ball (move on ball’s movement, not sound).

Stance.png

Stance 2

The receiver should adjust their stance if they are facing a press or soft-press defender. They should widen their base and lessen their stagger in order to give themselves more balance in their stance. They should also raise their chest higher and bring their hands up, so that they are ready for the hand-fight.

Release/Start

The technique of the defender the receiver is attacking will dictate how they release. If facing an off or bail defender, the receiver will burst off the ball to close the cushion. The receiver will drive and roll of his front foot to prevent any false steps. A proper, loaded up stance should prevent any drop steps. * If the receiver is taking a hard, immediate inside or outside stem (ie: shallow cross/arrow), then a false step or drop step becomes necessary to get there fastest.

When facing either a press, soft-press or squat defender, the receiver will close the space between themselves and the defensive back to create the release point and before working their release. Once the receiver gains his release, he will work to stack the defender meaning he will work back to the line he started on and attempt to get on top of the DB. There are 3 P’s of releasing that the receiver must remember:

  • Plan
  • Patience
  • Physicality

There are 3 types of releases:

  • Press Release (used versus a press defender)
  • Space Release (used versus a soft-press defender)
  • Secondary Release (used versus a squat defender)

Press Release

When facing a press defender, the receiver will widen their stance so that they can come to balance quickly. In order to come to balance, he will bring his outside foot forward so that it is even with his inside foot giving himself a 2-way go. If the defender is playing with heavy inside or outside leverage, the receiver will use a crossover step off the line to place themselves head-up with the defender in a balanced position. Once the receiver has come to balance, there will be 3 possible releases he can use:

  • Speed Release
  • Single Move
  • Double Move

Speed Release

A speed release is when the receiver will burst up-field immediately after coming to balance and attempt to win with speed. The speed release should be the least-used press release and will mostly be used to set up curls, stops, and comeback routes.

Single Move

A single move is when the receiver will come to balance, stick their foot giving a head nod in one direction before bursting the other direction to take their release. This should be the most commonly used press release.

Double Move

A double move is when the receiver will come to balance, use a small step to stick in the direction they intend to release, then take a big step and head fake away before releasing in the initial direction that the first move was towards. This should be used after the single move release has been used a few times.

When working their release, there are 2 possible hand moves that the receiver can use:

  • Swim
    • The receiver will “swipe” with their first arm clearing the DB at the elbow, they will then “swim” over the top with their second arm and then “clear” anything that they may have missed with the arm that swam.
    • Swipe-Swim-Clear
  • Rip
    • The receiver will “swipe” with their first arm clearing the DB at the elbow, they will then “rip” under with their second arm and then “clear” anything that they may have missed with the arm that ripped.
    • Swipe-Rip-Clear

Note: If the DB does not attempt to put hands on the receiver, he will not need to use his hands either.

Swim

Rip

Press Release vs Quick Jam

If the DB has staggered feet or is closer to the line of scrimmage than normal, the receiver should expect a quick jam. Instead of moving their back foot up to come to balance, the receiver will take a slide step meaning they will slide their front foot back to be even with their back foot. Once the receiver has come to balance, he will work his release the same as he would versus a normal press coverage.

Space Release

When facing a soft-press defender, the receiver will close the space by either foot firing, power-skipping, hopping, or just taking short strides. The receiver can use whichever technique he feels more comfortable with, the key is to remain under control and be balanced once he reaches the release point. When closing the space, the receiver must stem at the defender’s leverage in order to give themselves a 2-way go (ie: if the defender is aligned inside, power-skip/foot-fire inside to get yourself head-up with the defender). Once he has closed the space and created the new release point, he will treat it as a press release. When using a space release, if by the time the receiver reaches the defender, and he is already at the depth of the break point, the release will become his break point. When executing a space release, the receiver will usually use either a single or double move.

Single Move

Double Move

Secondary Release

When facing a squat defender, the receiver will stem straight at the defender to attack his leverage (ie: defender is aligned inside of the receiver, come off the ball and run inside straight at him). Once the receiver gets close to the defender, he will either power-skip, foot-fire or shorten his strides to close the space and remain under control as he reaches the release point. If the defender is playing at 4-5 yards, he may power-skip or take short strides off the ball. If the squat defender is playing at more depth, he will burst off the ball to close the cushion and then come under control so that he may be balanced at the release point once he gets within ~3 yards of the defender using either a power-skip, foot firing or shortening his strides. He will treat it as a press release once he has created the new release point. When using a secondary release, if by the time the receiver reaches the defender, he is already at the depth of the break point, the release will become his break point. When using a secondary release, the receiver will usually use a single move.

Single Move (Short Strides)

Single Move (Power-Skip)

Single Move (Foot-Fire)

Stem

The next component of the route is the stem. The receiver must also be aware of the route he is running and the defender he is attacking when stemming his routes. After releasing versus a press, soft-press, or squat defender, the receiver will attempt to stack them, and will end up in 1 of 3 positions (keep this in mind when we discuss break points, because it will help to determine how the receiver runs the top of his route):

  • Stack
    • If he is successful with his release, he will work back to the line he started on putting the defender in a trail position.
  • Leverage/No Leverage
    • If the receiver does not get a great release and cannot stack the defender, he will be running side to side with the defender and either have leverage or not have leverage.
    • If he was running an out route and is outside of the defender, he has leverage. If the defender was outside of him, he does not have leverage.
    • Regardless of if he has leverage or not, he will always lean into the defender attempting to stay as close to the line he started on as possible.
    • The receiver cannot let the defender push him off of his line in either direction.
    • When running with the defender at his side, the receiver must be ready for the hand-fight.

After taking their release, there are 2 hand-moves that the receiver can possibly use: Chop and Wipe. If the defender attempts to put their hands on the receiver below our elbow, he will chop down fully extending his arm to remove their hand from himself. If the defender attempts to put their hands on the receiver above the elbow, he will raise his arm and wipe their hand off of himself.

Chop

Wipe

Stair-Step Technique

If the receiver has released inside versus a press, or soft-press defender and is running a crossing route, he will use a stair-step technique to gain separation. He will stick his inside foot in the ground and push vertical leaning into the defender before sticking his outside foot and separating from the defender. If he is running a shallow cross route, he will only push vertical for 1 step. If he is running a deep cross route, he will push vertical for 3 steps.

Here is an example of using the stair-step technique on a deep cross route.

When attacking an off defender, the receiver will burst off the line stemming directly at them to attack their leverage. If he is running a vertical route and thinks he can close the cushion quickly, he will stem straight at the defender without losing speed and use the chop technique once they throw hands, allowing him to blow by them. If the defender is still over the top of the receiver as he gets close to his break point, he will stem him using a pressure step. If the receiver can reach the defender before the break point, it is very likely that he became a squat defender, meaning the receiver would work their secondary release which would change their stem.

Pressure Step

When using a pressure step, the receiver will stem at the side of the defender that he intends to break towards (ie: on a post route, stem at the defender’s inside shoulder). About 4-5 yards before the break point, he will stick his foot in the ground bursting vertically straight at the defender and leaning opposite of where he intends to break. When he leans the defender, he will look them straight in their eyes to try to influence them more. It is important to stay vertical when the receiver uses his pressure step, so that he does not give up the leverage that he gained on his stem. If he cannot gain leverage on the stem, the pressure step will help to influence the defender enough allowing the receiver to cross his face on the break.

Jerk Stem

After using the pressure step to set up his break point a few times, the receiver should use a jerk stem. When using a jerk stem, he will stem as if he were using a pressure step for a route in the opposite direction (ie: if he is running a post route, he would stem him as if he were running a corner route stemming at his outside shoulder, then using a pressure step to get vertical and would lean him inside). After using the pressure step and leaning the defender in the direction he will break, the receiver will use a rocker step (will be explained in more detail later) to make it look as if he were running the route he set up with his pressure step.

Blind Spot

When stemming against a bail defender, the receiver should stem into their blind spot. A bail defender will turn inside with his eyes to the QB, because of this, the receiver should stem slightly outside and behind him to set up each of their routes. Slightly outside and behind a bail defender is his blind-spot leaving him guessing once the receiver reaches the break point. Here are a few examples of receivers stemming into the defender’s blind-spot on a few different routes:

Break Point

The final component of the route is the break point. Once the receiver reaches the break point, there are 4 general techniques that he can use at the top of his route. The route he is running will determine which technique he uses. Each technique can be slightly modified depending upon what position he has on the defender. These 4 techniques are:

  • Bam Step
  • 2-Step
  • Square Cut
  • Speed Cut

As was the case when it came to stems, the receiver will always either have stacked the defender, have or not have leverage, or still be attacking an off/bail defender. When the receiver has a vertical relationship with the defender, meaning that he either has them stacked or is still attacking them, he will lean and give a head nod away from where he intends to break. When the receiver has the defender stacked, this head fake should be exaggerated. If the receiver has leverage on the defender, he will lean into them and use a chicken-wing technique, meaning he will use his elbow to push off of the defender. If the receiver does not have leverage, he has 2 options:

  • If he has a step on the DB, he will give a hard fake away causing the DB to fall off which allows him to work over the top of the defender.
  • If he cannot work over the DB, he will use a push-by technique at the break point, meaning he will place one hand on their back to push them by and then swim/clear with the other arm.
    • Push-Swim-Clear

Chicken-Wing

Push-By

Bam Step

Receivers should use a bam step for all 45-degree cuts (post, corner, slant, etc.) The receiver will stick their foot in the ground and elbow jam their opposite arm. An elbow jam is when the receiver pulls their elbow back helping to rotate their body in the direction they want to cut. When the receiver has a vertical relationship with the DB, he will just lean and head-nod away (exaggerate the head-nod when you have the defender stacked), but if he does not have leverage and intends to work over the defender, he will use a rocker-step. A rocker-step is a double bam-step, he will use a bam step away from the break, before using a second bam-step to break in the direction he wants to.

Rocker Step

2-Step

Receivers should use a 2-step for 90, 135, and 180 degree cuts (ie: in, out, hitch, etc). This technique will usually be used for short routes at 5-6 yards, or further down the field after executing a secondary release. The first step will be a brake-step with the foot in the direction the receiver is breaking (ie: if he is breaking to the left, his left foot will be his brake step). The receiver will sink his hips and drop his weight on the brake step. Their chest should be over their knees, and their knees over their toes. The second step is the plant step, meaning he will stick his foot and use an elbow jam to get out of the break. The first step out of the break is the receiver’s drive step, he will open his hip out of the plant step, and drive off of his next step.

This technique is commonly used after a successfully executed secondary release. Again, if the receiver has the DB stacked, he should exaggerate his head-fake at the top of the route.

Square Cut

A square cut is very similar to a 2-step and will also be used for 90, 135, and 180 degree cuts. The square cut should be used when the receiver has more speed built up, and needs to use more than just 1 brake step. He will use multiple brake steps (2 or 3 is ideal). Once he reaches the plant step, the mechanics are the same as the 2-step. After the brake steps, the receiver will use a plant step, an elbow jam, and then drive off of his drive step.

When the receiver does not have leverage on the defender, but can work over them, he will use a hard head-fake away with his square cut. When using this technique, his drive step will be at a less sharp angle allowing him to clear the DB.

Speed Cut

A speed-cut will be used for 90 degree cuts when the receiver does not want to lose speed. He will sacrifice the squareness of the cut for the speed at which he makes the cut. The speed cut will be a 1-2-3 cut (3 steps).

  1. He will stick his foot on his first step and elbow jam, which still start the turn.
  2. He will place his second step at a 45 degree angle.
  3. The third step will be at 45 degrees getting the receiver to 90 to complete the turn.

Double-Moves

The 3 most commonly used techniques for running double-move routes are:

  • 3×3 Bam
  • Fake Push-By
  • Stutter

When running a double-move route, the receiver can use a lazy release or purposely out-leverage himself in order to place the DB in a good position to drive on the first move, giving himself the advantage once he makes his second move.

3×3 Bam

This technique will be used primarily on corner-post, post-corner, and sluggo (slant n’ go) routes. The receiver will use a bam step for both breaks. As he makes his first break, he will turn his head to help sell the first-move. On the 3rd step out of his 1st break, he will use a 2nd bam step to get out of the break.

Fake Push-By

This technique will be used this for sluggo, hitch n’go, and stop n’go routes versus press or soft-press defenders. The receiver will take an outside release to help set-up the push-by technique. He will use a few brake steps to slow down, turn his head back, and place his inside hand on the defender’s back to sell the push-by. He will then use his outside hand to push-by the defender in the opposite direction as he continues vertically.

Stutter

This technique will be used when running hitch n’ go or stop n’ go routes versus off defenders. The receiver will sink his hips and drop his weight as he uses 2 brake steps to sell the square cut. After his 2 brake steps, he will raise back up and re-accelerate as he continues vertically.

WR Route-Running Checklist

Here’s a table showing how the receiver should adjust their stance, release/start, and stem depending upon the type of defender they are attacking:

WR Checklist.pngThis table shows how the receiver should adjust their break point depending upon the position they have on the DB:

Break Point Table.png

As I mentioned earlier in the article, there is a lot of different terminology out there for techniques discussed in this article, but that is irrelevant, what is important is that the coach defines the techniques they are going to teach so that they are operating under the same language as their players. There are also other methods of breaking down and teaching route running, but I believe that the system outlined above can be very effective as it gives structure and defines different techniques yet also gives receivers freedom to choose how they will combine various techniques.

If anyone has any questions or comments on the article, you can contact me by email at TKolste20@my.whitworth.edu or on twitter at @TaylorKolste.

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