Routes 101: Outside Wide Receiver Route Tree explained

Ever hear coaches, or announcers during a game, comment on a wide receiver being a good route runner? Below we’ll explain what to look for and why, plus lay out basic routes in the NFL.

What makes one a good route runner? The ability to shed or fake out your defender and hit your marks. Deep routes are the ones that blow the roof off the top of the defense. Shallow ones are the flat and slant. In this case, a receiver is a lot like a pitcher in baseball. The pitcher wants the motion/delivery of every pitch to look the same so he doesn’t tip the batter, the wide receiver wants each of his routes to look the same until he makes his move whether it is a 10 yard out, or he’s going deep on a go route. He wants the start of each route to look the same.

A good WR can fake his defender out, hit his marks and also adjust on the fly. Demaryius Thomas is one of the best at it. He also has size, speed and strong hands. He’s what you want in a wide out (the receiver who lines up furthest from the ball).

There are dozens, if not over 100 various routes that can be run, but the route tree below is concentrating a) on the outside receiver, and b) simple routes that are essentially in every playbook. Keep in mind that many of these can be run at various lengths.

Below are examples based on what we will see this season. There are three types of wide receivers: An ‘X’, the wideout that lines up farthest from the ball and not usually on the same side as the tight end.  ‘Y’ (slot) lines up ‘inside’–near a tackle or a TE.  A ‘Z’  usually lines up on the strong side which means the side with the tight end and on the other side of the ball from the X.

The Z can also be called the flanker and often lines up back a little bit from the line of scrimmage so the TE can be an eligible receiver. We’ll cover TE’s in a different segment and in some offensive sets, the TE is referred to as the Y receiver.

WR Route Tree
  • The Go Route, some call it a streak, a fly, some playbooks name it the “9”. It is normally a straight down the field route and the goal is for the receiver to out run the corner. Its depth can range from 20-25 yards or as deep as the QB can sling it.
  • Corner  It’s normally a deeper route the receiver begins to break it off anywhere from 12-18 yards. He breaks at an angle that leads him to the corner of the end-zone.
  • Post  It is very similar to the corner route, but instead of breaking to the corner of the end-zone, the receiver breaks towards the goal post/middle of the field.  It too, is generally a deeper route.
  • Comeback  The comeback route is a generally a deeper route and the cut back to the outside can happen at various spots but is usually 12-15 yards down the field. It’s typically close to the sideline so the WR can get out of bounds quickly to stop the clock. They’re thrown into a narrow window. If it’s thrown father away and the WR has space, he can turn and motor as far as he can, turning it into a go route.
  • Out/In/Dig These three are basically the same route, it’s just the receiver cuts out towards the sideline, or into the middle. They usually settle into a spot.  They can come in various  lengths and for the out route the deeper the pass, the harder it is to make. For the comeback and out route, it’s a timing pass that must have the WR hit his mark exactly. There’s no room for error, especially on a comeback because if the WR is off or the QB, that ball, if intercepted, often ends up a pick six because there’s no one between him and the end zone. In the very least, the WR needs to be in a position to break up a miss timed or miss-communicated pass.
  • Quick out/Flat  It’s the same concept, but is generally a 5 yard pattern. These are a favorite of offenses in crunch time when it needs to get out of bounds to stop the clock.
  • Slant This is a bread and butter route in a lot of playbooks. It’s quick and fast hitting and receivers can really make a defense pay with it. Straight off the ball for 3-4 yards and a 45 degree angle cut and you are looking for the ball.
  • Crossing Pattern/Drag It’s a pretty simple release and the receiver gets depth as he goes. From a time perspective, it’s the anti-slant, because it’s usually further down in the QB’s progressions, the receiver is often on the other side of the field, though he can be hit over the middle with them as well.
  • WR Screen It’s a quick hitting play where the receiver either a) curls back around, or b) takes a couple steps back, catches the ball and looks for blockers to lead him down the field.

Again, this simple route tree is for outside receivers.

Slot receivers will run the majority of the routes shown, but have others they add to their bag of tricks. Running backs and full backs have their share of specialized routes, too, but can also run a number of the routes on the WR route tree either from the back field or shifting out wide to become more of a WR.  A future article will concentrate on the routes out of the backfield for the running backs and full backs.  A specialized post for TE’s and Slots will be posted in the future, as well.

Tight Ends share some of the same WR routes that you see here, plus some of the concepts that slot receivers run, because often they are split out as a slot.
If a team has wide receivers dynamic enough to play inside or outside, you could see 4wr sets with both on the same side of the field or have them both lined up as an inside receiver which will only make the offense more dangerous for teams to cover.

Double Moves

Double Moves
Another term you hear is “double move“. It’s where a receiver starts one route and then makes a move off of it. A  slant & go is a perfect example. The receiver runs the slant and hopes the corner bites on it (thinks he’s getting the ball at the end of the slant). If he does, the receiver doesn’t turn for the ball, he keeps going for a deeper pass downfield. As long as the QB isn’t getting extreme pressure it should be easy to hit for a big play, but can be dependent on the DB being overly aggressive and jumping the route.
A post-corner. The receiver runs his 15-18 yard post and then breaks it off back to the corner of the end-zone.

An Out and Up, is a simple 8-10 yard out route where the WR makes his cut out, but instead of heading towards the sideline, turns it into a go route, hoping to catch the CB biting on a route.

A slant & go, is simple. The WR runs a slant and then puts his foot in the ground and turns up-field into a go route.

Double moves which are basically two routes piggybacked on to each other. If the defense is sitting on one of the initial routes and the receiver breaks the 2nd part of the move, then it can lead to a big play. When a team suspects that a defense is going to be sitting on a route or might pick  up on a sign, they can call a double move and light the defense up.  Like the regular routes, there are multiple examples that can be created on top of each other. These were very basic just to explain the concept.

Option Routes & Choice Routes

Option Routes
Which leads to option routes. An option route is when a WR has the ability to change his route based on the coverage that he reads.  Option routes can also lead to interceptions if the WR and QB are not reading the defense the same way.

Being on the same page is a key, because if the QB thinks the defense is doing one thing and the WR sees it differently, the QB might throw a slant expecting the WR to be in that spot. If the WR is nowhere in sight, all you can hope for is an incomplete pass.

They can happen at the LOS or it can happen deeper into the route when the WR gets to a point where he has to make a read, knowing the QB has read the same. It is pictured in the route by the 4th WR where at 12-15 yards he’s making a break for a Corner/Post or Deep in.
If the QB/WR are on the same page, then they stand a chance of completing the pass. If not, bad things can easily happen.

Combo & Clear Out Routes

Combo & Clear Out Routes
This is where offenses set up combo routes that can allow teams to capitalize on film study and tendencies. The better coaches mix things up and make it harder for an offense to capitalize.  Routes are combined to take advantage of what they expect.

In the graphic to the left, the X/Y are running routes to clear the left/flat area for the TE.
Finally, language is a key component to the offensive playbook, and each coach can have their own version. At times a new coach will be the one adjusting the language so that some previous terminology is used. This means that some names we used above can called something different depending on the coach/playbook. Once you grasp seeing the above routes in a game, you’ve got enough understanding to talk football all day.

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