This is the kickoff to an entire series dedicated to route running.
At Separation School, we will cover the entire route tree. Not just the traditional 1-9 routes, either. We will get in-depth on the specifics of every type of route, from releases to step counts, and how those details change the name and execution of the route itself.
As a collegiate wide receiver coach, I have a passion for the slight, nuanced changes in each route. I’m hoping to cover each and every movement of every route you’d see on a football field.
The best part will be the fact that most examples of the route running will be from draft-eligible wide receivers or tight ends. This will give the reader an idea about each of their individual abilities throughout the route tree, as well as serve as an educational tool.
Today, we’re going to start with the vertical route and all of its variations. Why? Because I’d rather start with the home run than the checkdown. The vertical has numerous variations, from the streak, to the fade, stutter/stop and go, goal line fade, seam, slot fade, etc. I will cover the differences in each.
Introduction to the "Vertical"
When the common person thinks of good route running, it usually has to do with efficient route breaks to generate separation. However, when it comes to most vertical routes, those traditional breaks don’t necessarily exist. But there is still a deep-rooted nuance to getting open on a “Go” route that speaks to each receiver’s technique. After all, offenses don’t just ask receivers to run straight and hope for the best. Traits such as variation of pace, lateral agility, hand usage, and coverage recognition can all lead to making plays vertically.
Let’s get into the examples, shall we?
This is your traditional, 5-7 step deep ball. These throws will come 20+ yards down the field, and the wide receiver's main goal is to get behind the cornerback.
The below example is D.K. Metcalf of Ole Miss, who has declared for the 2019 NFL Draft.
Metcalf's advantage on this play is his physicality, as he knocks away the press coverage and creates a lane for his route. We will cover beating press coverage at a later date, but for now I want you to focus on his stem.
Depending on the offense, on Go routes, the wide receiver has the option of a two-way go on his release. Because he has a bit longer to get into his route, he can use an inside or outside release depending on how the cornerback is playing him. Metcalf opts for the inside release.
As he separates himself from the cornerback by using the inside release, it's important to note the path of his route once he gets into his long strides. Metcalf angles back outside in order to avoid the safeties in the middle of the field and "stack" the cornerback. Stacking the cornerback is paramount of vertical route running success, as Metcalf now has a free path to the end zone so long as the quarterback leads him with the throw.
Stacking has a host of other benefits. It forces the defensive back to work through the frame of the wide receiver. Also, it allows the quarterback some margin for error to the inside or outside of the wide receiver. Without stacking, the quarterback will be forced to place the ball over one shoulder of the receiver, and if he's slightly inaccurate it can lead to an interception.
Here are two more examples of a "Go" route, by Dallas Cowboys star receiver Amari Cooper:
In the first clip, Cooper was working against "off" coverage, meaning the defensive back played further away from the line of scrimmage at the snap. However, it's the same route that Metcalf is running.
Cooper does a good job of sprinting at the defensive back to take away his cushion, and while he angles to the outside, he wins the rep near the end. Cooper's slight lean in towards the middle of the field prevented the defensive back from playing the catchpoint over Cooper's outside shoulder. Without that lean in to stack, the defensive back would have had a clear, straight path to disrupting the catchpoint.
On the second rep and now working against press coverage, you see the positive effects of Cooper's stack once again. This time, it's on a throw to the inside of the field, but Cooper is able to track and adjust to it because of his stack. Once again, without that stack the defensive back would have an easier path to a pass breakup.
The final example of the "Go" route comes courtesy of Riley Ridley, a draft-eligible wide receiver from Georgia:
Working against Greedy Williams, Ridley releases outside and works hard to beat Williams over the top. However, Williams does an excellent job of taking away that vertical route by matching the route.
Ridley and quarterback Jake Fromm are actually able to take advantage of Williams here, as the defensive back was playing too far towards the "upfield" shoulder of Ridley.
This means that Williams was blind to the back shoulder throw. As a receiver, anticipating the back shoulder when unable to stack a defensive back is a next level trait. As the ball is in the air, the best way to assure a clean catchpoint is guiding the defensive back up the field and stopping on a dime. Ridley does this beautifully, as Williams can't slow down his momentum in time to adjust to Ridley.
There are a few differences between the "Fade" route and the "Go" route. In most offenses, the "Fade" will be a three step route. When an offense is working out of shotgun, this means a catch and throw situation for the quarterback. Because the faster nature, the release is generally mandatory to the outside. As such, the throw is almost always to the outside shoulder, unlike the Go route, which had a freedom of release and wasn't reliant on a throw to a particular shoulder.
The "Fade" is popularly used as a way to get the ball in the air and into one-on-one situations. When a safety isn't shaded to either side or playing in the middle of the field, the route is thrown with the knowledge that it will end up wide receiver against cornerback. This is why it's so popular in the red zone: safeties are more likely playing closer to the box and middle of the field in order to stop the run.
Here is a red zone fade route with audio breakdown, courtesy of Nebraska senior wide receiver Stanley Morgan Jr.:
Once again, the route is won because Morgan gets onto the toes of the defensive back and stacks him successfully. However, notice Morgan's approach of the defensive back: Morgan knows he wants to release to the outside, but he splits the defensive back to threaten the possibility of an inside release or route.
He's able to break at three steps, staying on time with the "catch and throw" release of the quarterback and giving him an ideal amount of time to track the ball and make proper adjustments.
The differences between the "Go" and "Seam" route are the desired landmarks on the field, and the desired direction in which the wide receiver beats the defensive back.
"Seam" routes are vertical routes that come up the hash, or from the slot receiver. Rather than an outside release and staying outside near the numbers, a "Seam" route is designed to hit in the middle of the field. This means that ideally, a wide receiver will beat a defensive back inside and have that free path towards the middle of the field.
"Seam" routes aren't thrown over the outside shoulder and generally require little "touch" from the quarterback. Rather, the throw should be driven on a line by the quarterback to fit the pass in before a safety can react.
Here is an example of a "Seam" route, once again from Stanley Morgan Jr. featuring an audio breakdown:
In his initial stem, he angles to the outside of the defensive back in order to open up an inside path. It appears like the corner will be able to stay in phase with Morgan, but with that "rocker" step he hits as he draws even with the defensive back, he is able to stack and ensure he retains inside leverage, giving the quarterback room to drive the ball before help can arrive.
Stutter/Stop and Go
The idea of the "Stutter and Go" is to sell a "Hitch" route to get the defensive back jumping to stop it, but then beat them over the top.
Just a sophomore, here is Clemson's Amari Rodgers running a "Stutter and Go:"
When running a "Hitch" route, a wide receiver will snap their route off and look inside to the quarterback. Therefore on the "Stutter and Go," a wide receiver needs to sell that route as if he is truly running the "Hitch."
This involves running vertical for three steps, but then throttling down and looking inside. The main difference will be that the wide receiver wants to keep their hips pointed upfield. This will make for an easier transition and burst.
After throttling down, its paramount for the wide receiver to anticipate contact from the defensive back. In order to not allow that contact to slow them down, moving laterally and using hands to defeat a potential jam is needed. The potential need for lateral movement is another cause for keeping hips square upfield for the wide receiver.
The "Slot Fade" has been used more frequently in recent years as a new way to flood the outside part of the field. While the outside release aspect of the "Fade" is still prevalent, the difference between the routes has to do with the angle of the break in the slot fade.
Coming from the slot, there is more space for the "Slot Fade" to expand horizontally. Therefore, the throw won't come as far down the field as a normal "Fade" route would, because that space towards the sidelines should be utilized.
Here is an example from All-Pro wide receiver Adam Thielen of the Minnesota Vikings, with audio breakdown:
You can see Thielen's angle isn't straight down the field after his route break, rather the throw is still coming towards the sideline to avoid the safeties in the middle of the field.
Like the "Fade" route, the play is essentially "catch and throw" from the quarterback and an inside fake to clear the outside release will be beneficial for the wide receiver.
We've now covered nearly all types of vertical routes (the "Sluggo" or Slant and Go, as well as a few other variations, will be covered later in the series).
Keep a look out for Part 2 of Separation School, as we work our way through the entire route tree using other draft-eligible wide receivers.