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Getting Downfield Quickly with Four Verticals

If the the Wheel route can stress one deep defender, what happens when four receivers go deep all at once? Fifth in a series on the Tiger passing game. Previously: Coverages, Routes, Targeting the Flat, Parts 1 and 2.

Michael Chang/Getty Images

Four plays into this series, we finally saw how Auburn can get multiple receivers downfield. With the Post-Wheel route combination, a safety responsible for half of the field gets stuck in the middle of two receivers and a big play usually opens up. But the Wheel route itself takes a while to develop, and the defense could have multiple deep defenders. So, to quickly get the same horizontal stretch across the entire field, the offense just lines up with four receivers out wide and sends everybody deep.

This concept is called 4 Verticals (or just Verts) because of the four vertical routes run by the receivers. While the previous route combos discussed have looked similar to each other, 4 Verts is very different. It involves receivers across the field rather than just two to one side, there are no short out routes, and its routes can all change from play to play based on the defense's actions.

4 Verts

4Verts vs MOFO

The playside receivers...

Even though the routes are evenly distributed across the field, the quarterback or play caller should choose a side to focus on before the snap, usually based on which hash the ball is on or which side a single high safety is favoring. In the diagram above, the play is called to the left.

The 9-man's job is to get deep by running a Go route. If the corner is playing close to the line of scrimmage, it is important that the 9-man gets an outside release. If he is forced too far inside, the free safety might be able to cover both downfield routes or at least muddy the quarterback's read. If the corner is playing deep, the 9-man should convert the route to a Comeback at about 15 yards.

In Tulsa's 2008 game with Marshall, ran the Verticals concept with just three receivers. (We'll get to that later). The single high safety drifted toward the field, where two receivers were, but he defended against the slot's Seam route too long. The other receiver got outside and past the corner, and the quarterback found him for almost 30 yards.

Earlier in the season, the North Texas safeties and corners were playing deep, so the #1 receiver ran a Comeback and snagged the ball just before stepping out of bounds.

So that's one adjustment. The #1 receiver (counting outside in) has to determine whether to run a Go or a Comeback after the snap based on the cornerback's position. The #2 receiver also has a post-snap read, but he's looking for the safeties.

To simplify the decisions made by receivers mid-play, Cover 1, 2, 3, 4 and their variations can be categorized as either "middle of field open" (MOFO) or "middle of field closed" (MOFC). In basic Cover 2 and Cover 4, the two safeties each defend their their own halves of the field, with or without cornerback help, and no one is positioned dead center, so the middle of the field is open. In basic Cover 1 and Cover 3, a free safety is occupying a deep zone in the middle of the field, with or without help in the zones to either side, so the middle of the field is closed.

The 3-man's job is to determine whether the defense is MOFO or MOFC and get into an open zone. If the middle is open, as shown in the diagram above, he gets into the open space between the two safeties by running a Post route after running about 12 yards downfield. If the middle is closed, he continues running vertically on the Seam route (another name for a Go route run by a slot receiver) as shown in the diagram below.

4Verts vs MOFC

In that same game against Marshall, the defense rotated late to allow for a blitz from the field. The strong safety came down to cover the slot and the free safety flew over the top to help with any deep routes. Unfortunately for him, both routes went deep and he was stuck in between.

The 4-man is not part of the 4 Verts concept per se, but he can present a checkdown option for the quarterback like he does in the previously discussed route combos.

The backside receivers...

Unlike other concepts so far, the backside receivers can play an integral role in the concept as a whole, especially the slot receiver. And if the coaches really trust the quarterback, they might let him decide which side to to read, making the "playside" the "backside" and vice versa. Simply put, all four receivers have to be ready for the ball.

The 2-man's job is to occupy the strong safety with another Seam route. Like the 9-man, the 2-man should be sure to get an outside release and then go straight downfield.

The 5-man's route is a mirror of the 9-man's. He runs a Go route that can convert to a Comeback depending on the corner's position.

The quarterback...

The quarterback has to change his reads and progressions based on the coverage too. And because his receivers get downfield so quickly, he should throw the ball after just a three step drop, the same amount of time he has on the shorter concepts we've covered.


Against Cover 2, the playside safety should have a receiver to either side of him (that's the horizontal stretch), so the quarterback reads that safety. If he stays back to guard against the Go route, the quarterback hits the Post, the preferred route. If the safety breaks inside to take the Post, the Go should be open along the sideline.

Against Cover 3, the leverage of the single high safety determines the first read. With two Seam routes coming his way, a receiver should be open to the left or the right. If not for some reason, the quarterback will move on to the Comeback. Since a Cover 3 corner is likely retreating into a deep zone, the #1 receivers should be able to get open by cutting their routes short.

Against Cover 4, the slot receiver still runs a Post to the middle of the field, but there won't actually be much room there. Though the quarterback can sometimes thread the needle for a 15 yard gain, the route is really used to open up a passing lane to the Comeback should the outside receiver get separation from the corner. If not, the Checkdown is a quick second option.

Against Cover 1, the receivers are covered man-to-man, so the Comeback is again the first real option. Granted, if the a slot receiver completely blows by his defender, then a deep shot could be warranted, but remember Cover 1 adjusters are trying to funnel receivers into the middle of the field where their deep help is. The Comeback to the Checkdown is the safe way to go.

When and where to use this play...

Clearly, the post-snap reads allow 4 Verts to be used against lots of different coverages. This, combined with the fact that it targets Comebacks at 12-15 yards and Seams and Posts at 15-20 yards, makes it a great play for third and long situations. It's also a good play for those pre-red zone shots from the 30 to 40 yard line.


With all the route adjustments being made after the snap, what else is there to alter? One way to switch it up is to call 4 Verts from a 3x1 formation (3 receivers to one side, 1 to the other) instead of a 2x2 formation as shown above.

4Verts from 3x1

In this case, the #3 receiver to the Trips side crosses the middle of the field to maintain roughly the same spacing as the 2x2 version. Because this deep crossing route takes a bit longer to get downfield, the quarterback swaps the 9-man and 3-man in his progression. And if the playside safety is able to cover the 9-man, he probably doesn't even see the 3-man coming his way from the other side of the field.

Another to way to mix it up is to use only two or three verticals and give the other players different responsibilities. Auburn can keep two backs in for pass protection or play action and still be effective with three receiving threats downfield as we saw in both plays versus Marshall. Both outside receivers can run the Go/Comeback routes while the backs or slot receivers run shorter plays like Hitches or Curls. Against certain coverages like Cover 2, the playside receivers can both run their normal 4 Verts assignments and put the free safety in a bind without help from the backside. Since the backside receivers are not needed to put the that safety in conflict, they can run another concept altogether.

That backside concept could be Smash, Post-Flat or any of the other combos we've already discussed, combining a horizontal stretch to one side and a vertical stretch to the other. In the next post, we'll look at another good option that, like 4 Verts, stretches the defense horizontally, but does so in the underneath zones.