Inside the playbook: the NFL route tree

Today, let’s take a step back from route combinations that we see on game tape and break it down in very basic terms by checking out the actual route tree. Because if you want to play receiver in this league, you have to be able to run every route in the game plan.

Check out the diagram below, and then we will get into some coaching points to discuss the NFL route tree


Where do routes break?

Before we get into the actual routes, we need to know when the WR is going to break. And outside of the 3-step game (Slant, Flat), every route breaks at a depth of 12-15 yards. Why is that important? Double moves. If you are playing defensive back and see the WR stutter his feet at a depth of 8-yards, expect him to get vertical up the field—because there isn’t a route that breaks at 8-yards. However, remember one very important detail: if the WR doesn’t break his route between a depth of 12-15 yards, you better open your hips and run. Because he is running straight down the field.

Making it simple…:

Flat (1) Think Slant-Flat, Curl-Flat, Flat-7. It is the one route that will show up consistently in combination concepts. You will get it out the backfield, plus from a No.1 WR with a reduced split and a No.2 aligned inside of the numbers.

Slant (2) You see it at the high school level on Friday nights and on Sunday in the NFL because it is the top 3-step concept in any playbook. Look for a wide split (outside of the numbers) and vs. a 3x1 formation. The ideal, quick Cover 1 (man-free) beater.

The elite receivers, such as Andre Johnson, can produce in the entire route tree.

Comeback (3) One of the tougher throws in the NFL when it is run at a deep depth (15-yards). We will see it vs. Cover 1 and it is the only route (outside of the fade or 9 route) where a WR aligns wide (outside of the numbers) with a hard outside vertical release.

Curl (4) The curl route is simple, yet it is essential for working vs. off-man coverage and zone based defenses. Stem hard up the field and break back downhill to the QB. There is a reason defenses have “curl to flat” zone players in Cover 3 and Cover 4—because you have to stop this route.

Out (5) Again, similar to the comeback, the deep out is route we use to judge NFL QBs. Can they make that throw? Look for the WR to align inside of the numbers or on top of the numbers at the widest. You need to create room to run this route.

Dig (6) The classic intermediate to deep inside breaking route in the NFL. Mike Martz made it big (sometimes at a depth of 20-plus yards) when he was the coach of the Rams with Isaac Bruce and we see it today in multiple combinations. Get a vertical stem up the numbers from the WR and break it across the middle vs. any coverage.

Corner (7) The top route puts stress on both the corner sinking and the deep half safety. And, just like the comeback and the out, you must create room to work for the WR. Can’t run the 7 route from outside of the numbers—because the WR will run out of bounds.

Post (8) We will see the “Skinny Post” (or “Bang 8”) on Sundays, but the basic post route is a concept that allows a WR to win vs. man-coverage as he works to the deep middle of the field. A big play waiting to happen when you work vs. a FS that doesn’t have disciple in his drop and depth.

Fade (9) The ultimate deep ball. The “go route” is in every NFL playbook when you want to win a one-on-one matchup down the field. And just like I said above, when you get an outside vertical release vs. a WR aligned outside of the numbers, you either get the comeback or a shot down the field.

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