Over this summer at Football Study Hall we've been diving into some of modern football's favorite play concepts that define today's tactical battles. Everyone's favorite passing concept is still probably curl-flat, which we broke down earlier, but when it comes to attacking the ubiquitous cover 4 defense there's no beating the seven route.
The seven route is basically an inverted post route, with the receiver working outside to the sideline rather than breaking over the middle. There are two major advantages to the seven and two significant weakness to the route. The positives include the fact that coverage defenders tend to play routes inside-out, so it's easier to get open on an out-breaking route.
The downsides are that coverages are designed to take away in-breaking routes first for a reason, throwing out-breaking routes requires a stronger throw into a smaller window. Additionally, it's hard to run a seven route from an outside receiver position, so this tactic requires the utilization of inside receivers who traditionally haven't been chosen for their straight line speed.
The main advantage and the reason the route is increasingly popular is that against cover 4, the seven route by a slot receiver is fantastic for attacking the safeties that bear a lot of responsibility in these defenses for helping to stop the run. There are few better ways to force a hard-charging safety to ease up off the run game than to make him defend a seven route off play-action.
The most popular combo
It so happens that the cover 4 safety who's most likely to cause problems for the run game is the safety on the boundary and the easiest seven route for a QB to hit is throwing to that same area. Consequently, it's very common for spread teams to line up in twin receiver sets to the boundary so they can throw "smash" combinations at that safety and get him to ease up off the run game.
The QB has to be careful on these that the corner actually sticks with the outside receiver and doesn't drop back and help bracket the seven route underneath. If he sticks with the hitch route the safety is in a tough spot because he'll be triggered by the play-action to get downhill but then needs to be quick enough to break outside with the seven route.
For the QB this deep out is a fairly close range through and he doesn't have to be Aaron Rodgers to hit the window, especially if play-action succeeds in sucking in the safety and linebacker. Off play-action it's probably most effective if the seven is run by a TE, especially if the defense likes to flip the weakside linebacker and space-backer (or nickel) to keep their best coverage player on the slot, but this still tends to work quite well against many defenses.
If the safety is strong handling at handling this concept or navigating the run/pass conflicts from play-action, some spread teams will run this concept from a trips boundary set with an extra route that causes additional problems:
By adding another slot running a go route the offense puts the boundary safety in a pass conflict rather than a run conflict and he's either going to need to try and split the go route and the seven route (doubtful prognosis there) or else the defense will have to involve that space-backer (S) or the other safety to defend the play.
If they involve the space-backer to defend the seven route, that could become a potentially exploited match-up with the QB simply leading the seven route WR to green grass if the linebacker can't turn and run with him:
If the defense doesn't like the match-up of their space-backer (or nickel, or whomever is there) they can roll that opposite side safety over to help. This pretty well covers up all of the vertical routes, assuming the free safety here gets over the top of the go route quickly enough. Of course, in this instance they're now facing curl-flat with just their corner and a linebacker...
Hitting the Snag
In addition to the "smash" combo of a seven plus a hitch, another standard concept that utilizes the seven route is the "snag" combo. With this concept you get a flat/arrow route from either an inside receiver or a back, a seven route from another inside receiver, and then the "snag" route by the outside receiver who's looking for a soft spot to settle in.
Noel Mazzone makes heavy use of this concept and will run it either to the field or the boundary either to attack directly with the concept or on the opposite end if the offense overplays it.
The snag can be useful for a lot of different aims, which is why it's such a big part of the Mazzone offensive system, and isolating a slot receiver on a nickel, linebacker, or safety deep with the seven route is one of foundational parts of the concept. If the offense can't threaten to take the top off the defense with that seven then it's less difficult for the defense to match-up underneath and avoid allowing any soft spots in the zone to the snag route.
Attacking the field
For teams with QBs that have enough arm, against cover 4 defenses that like to bracket the single side receiver, this is a really popular way to attack the field safety:
Defenses that either want to bracket the single-side receiver in cover 2 or else drop the boundary safety down to stuff the run love to play this coverage against trips formations. The outside corner is in straight man coverage on the "X" receiver while the space-backer (S), middle linebacker (M), and field safety (F) are playing zone over the two slot receivers.
Either running the "Y" or "H" receiver on a seven route while the other two run quick in-routes gives the offense a chance to get a good match-up on a potential home run throw. The passing window is basically always going to be open unless the defense wants to give up easy quick in routes, the only problem is how far a throw the QB has to make but again, he can put some air on the ball and it doesn't have to be a frozen rope to hit the window. A seven route by the "H" receiver in particular has a lot of open grass to work with.
This play also initially perfectly mimics the way teams love to run the "Levels" concept, which looks exactly like this except instead of a seven route, the "H" receiver runs a dig over the middle. If the defense is already on guard for the dig then the out-breaking seven route has an even better chance of allowing the WR to break open with tons of open grass.
The defense can take this away if they roll that boundary safety over and man up the solo side receiver, which is why the best combination for a modern spread offense is to have one of their two best receivers in the slot and the other outside. It's much more difficult to take both positions away with team defense, at that point you need a DB that can just play on an island.
Impact on the game
Perhaps the biggest response to cover 4 that has come into vogue around the game is the use of vertical routes from the slot receiver with which to attack the safeties. There are other good route combinations for attacking cover 4 that don't include seven routes but they all generally involve sending a slot receiver down the field to either attack the safety or occupy him so the offense can isolate a corner.
Teams that don't have receivers they can use in the slot to attack safeties down the field are at a major disadvantage in stopping cover 4 teams from successfully bringing numbers to stop both their outside receivers AND their running backs.
Perhaps the biggest winner in all of this is the "undersized" outside receiver who's excellent in running a variety of routes from different areas on the field. Three of the top four receivers in Big 12 play in 2015 (statistically) were Sterling Shepard (5'10" 195), Corey Coleman (5'11" 185), and Jakeem Grant (5'7" 168). Each of them were wildly effective in part because of the seven route and the way that opening up space outside allows smaller receivers to move inside and still have opportunities to run vertical routes. For Noel Mazzone's Texas A&M offense next year the seven route will undoubtedly be a way they target Christian Kirk (5'11" 200), who had 1k yards a year ago as a true freshman.
The seven route is becoming a big part of the game and effectively running it will become an important qualification for inside receivers in more leagues as the spread takes hold as an answer for cover 4.