The days between the Super Bowl and the NFL draft are full of buzzwords, catchphrases and other cliches. For example, when discussing receivers, analysts will declare some as great "route runners". I'll leave exactly what makes a receiver's route running so great to the "anonymous scouts", but at the very least, we need to know the intended path.
Any receiver with speed can fly straight down the field in an attempt to outrun the defense. Some receivers can navigate the traffic in the middle of the field and find an open window in a defense's zone coverage. Others can catch a short pass on the move and make something happen after the catch. In any given offense, the receivers can be assigned different routes to put them in many different situations and positions on the field.
Gus Malzahn's offense has 10 basic routes that can be organized into a pretty typical route tree, lots of adjustments to those basic routes, and five more special routes and adjustments.
The basic route tree
The route tree is an invention of Don Coryell, head coach of the San Diego Chargers in the late '70s and early '80s. It is used to communicate common routes to the receivers with just a number, so a Flag route or a Corner route can also be called a 7 route, for example.
Remember the number boards on Auburn's sideline from 2009-2011? In this case, Barrett Trotter and Neil Caudle are telling the 2 man (the slot receiver) to run a 2 route (a Slant). Each of the other receivers know what route he needs to run to complement the route on the board. And with that, the play is ready to go, assuming the number board is actually live and not just a decoy that time.
Generally speaking, even-numbered routes turn inside, odd-numbered routes turn outside, and the higher the number, the further downfield the route goes.
0 - Hitch. Take a few steps to five yards and turns toward the quarterback.
1 - Speed Out. Immediately begin to turn toward the sideline, gaining depth to about five yards while looking back for a pass.
2 - Slant. Take a few steps forward and break inside at a sharp angle. Present a big target to the quarterback.
3 - Bearbutt. Run 10 yards downfield and turn back to the sideline and the line of scrimmage. (And don't laugh.)
4 - Curl. Run 10 yards downfield and turn toward the quarterback.
5 - Comeback. Run 15 yards downfield and turn back to the sideline and the line of scrimmage, coming back to about 12 yards.
6 - Climb. Dart into the box at the snap and stay pretty flat initially. After crossing in front of the outside linebacker, get deep enough to go behind the middle linebacker and aim for 20 yards downfield on the opposite hash.
7 - Flag. Run about 12 yards and then cut outside at a 45 degree angle. This route is also known as a Corner route.
8 - Post. Run about 10 yards and then cut inside at a 45 degree angle, basically in the direction of the goal posts.
9 - Go. Run down the field as cleanly and as quickly as possible. Don't let the defender slow you down or push too close to the sideline. This route is also known as a Fade or Fly route.
Adjustments to the route tree
There are situations where a tweak to a route can draw a defender away from a teammate, set them up for another play later, or just make the pass and catch easier. Here are some ways Auburn's offense adjusts its basic routes.
Out - Instead gaining depth gradually while turning toward the sideline, run straight for five yards and suddenly turn outside at a 90 degree angle.
Rail/Wheel - Run a Speed Out, but after looking back to the quarterback, turn back downfield and run along the sideline. This is commonly called an Out-and-Up or a Wheel route, but Malzahn saves the term "Wheel" for the version without an initial downfield component.
Deep Curl and Deep Comeback - Simply run the original routes three to five yards deeper before making the break.
Drag - Start inside and shallow like the Climb route, but stay in front of the backers and go no further than four yards downfield.
Crossing - Again, start like the Climb route, but aim directly at the middle linebacker. Run right in front of his face at about five or six yards.
Short Climb - Once again, start running a Climb route, but after crossing in front of the outside linebacker and going behind the middle linebacker, stay flatter at 10-12 yards instead of climbing up to 20 yards downfield.
Skinny adjustment - To make a route skinny, simply make the angle of the cut smaller, thereby making the route closer to a straight line. (A straight line is really skinny. Get it?) This applies to both Flag and Post routes.
Bang 8 - This is more of an adjustment for the quarterback, but the receiver has to be ready for it. Run the 8-route, the Post, as usual, but be ready for the quarterback to fire the ball to you right out of the break instead of tossing it up to be caught midfield. Think of it as a deep Slant. If you have played Madden or NCAA video games (R.I.P.), it's the difference between holding down the pass button and just tapping it.
Home Run 8 - Run the original post route, but go 15 yards downfield before turning inside instead of the usual 10. The HR 8 route is also "skinnier" than the normal Post route and is used when when it's time to throw a "home run ball".
Dino stem - If running a Flag route, take three steps toward the Post, before turning back toward the corner. This can get a defender to "open his hips" or turn inside away from the sideline. That way, your destination is directly behind him. This also applies to showing a Flag route before running a Post.
Other special routes
Finally, there are some special routes that don't really fit on the route tree, but they accomplish specific things against specific defenses.
Snag - Run at an angle toward the middle of the field for about six yards. Turn back toward the quarterback and continue turning until you are facing the sideline. Expand away from midfield, looking for the ball. Don't shy away from contact with a defender as this route is partially intended to set a
"pick" "rub" on another receiver's defender.
Stick - Run straight downfield for five yards and find a void in the defense's zone coverage, starting inside and working outward. Again, don't be afraid to "rub" any other defenders coming into your path.
Slam - Run like you are going to crack block the first linebacker on your side, but once you reach five yards, turn back outside and run straight for the sideline. It is sometimes called a Whip route or a Q route.
Option and Deep Option - Read the defense as you are running this route, either the five or ten yard version. If the defense is playing a zone coverage, find a void in that zone and present a target to the quarterback. If you are being defended man to man, take the release your defender is giving you, left or right, and don't stop running while looking for the ball.
Basic and Dig - Run straight downfield and cut 90 degrees inside, Basic at 10 yards and Dig at 15. These routes can replace the Post route when the defense has plenty of coverage deep by cutting in front of the deep zones rather than running right into them.
And that's about it. Roughly 25 routes and adjustments. If this article reads more like a glossary, that's okay. I really just want to have a set vocabulary when talking about these in the future. These routes are used in all sorts of combinations and we'll see most if not all of them as we break down what makes Auburn's passing game work. Over the next few weeks, we'll take a close look at the receivers' responsibilities and the quarterback's progressions in some of Gus Malzahn's most-used passing concepts.