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The making of a good possession receiver

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How do we get the ball to our playmakers in space?

Houston v Oklahoma Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images

In his statistical receiving breakdown, Bill broke down his receivers into four categories: Possession, Basic, Mr. Play Action, and Mr. Go Route. Today, we’re going to start looking at what routes and concepts each type of receiver would run to fall into these categories.

Possession receivers

Possession Receivers. Players averaging under 12 yards per catch

Receivers are taught to run a multitude of routes, so just because you fall into the possession receiver bracket doesn’t mean you don’t run go routes.

This is often about getting people open underneath, making one defender miss and then kinda going down before getting tackled. Marvin Harrison was so good at this. He was the platonic ideal of a possession receiver.

Receivers who have low yards-per-catch numbers even while catching a lot of balls (hello, Zay Jones) are catching a lot of screen passes. Screens are the easiest* way to get a receiver the ball. It’s a high-percentage play but it’s not meant to go for touchdowns. Receiver screens are an extension of the running game, so you’re looking for a few yards on a standard down. The quarterback doesn’t have to make any post-snap reads, he just needs to throw the ball accurately in a short distance, and the receiver has to catch it, both are relatively easy.

There are a ton of ways to run a receiver screen. These days, screens are generally paired with other plays, often run plays, and the quarterback can check the defense out pre-snap and decide to throw the screen or just snap the ball and run the other concept.

* I put an asterisk next to “easiest” because the easiest way to get a reception is the way teams are running their jet/fly sweep.

One of the earliest ways teams were pairing screen passes with other concepts was with the bubble screen.

Quarterbacks are gonna decide to throw the bubble based on the pre-snap alignment of a couple defenders. The main idea is that we want to throw the bubble when we have a 2v1 or a 3v2 numbers advantage on the defense.

There’s a couple ways to do this:

1. Looking at the alignment of the “apex” linebacker/nickel/space player

The “apex” is the halfway point between the slot receiver and the offensive tackle. Most of the time, there is going to be a defender somewhere near your slot receiver. Since we are running the bubble away from that defender, for the quarterback to decide to throw the ball, he must be significantly inside giving us the numbers advantage.

2. Looking at the depth of the corner

You tell your quarterback, “If the cornerback is this many yards away or more, then we can throw the bubble.” We’re only trying to get a few yards, so a cornerback being in off coverage at 6-7 yards means we can get some yards before he comes down to make a tackle. A lot of teams won’t even block that cornerback, trusting their receiver to make a 1v1 move on a bad tackling player.

Tunnel or slip screens are the inverse bubble screens. You have a receiver coming outside-in rather than inside-out.

The pre-snap for the quarterback is pretty much the same as the bubble. You’re still trying to create a numbers advantage. If the corner is too high or the linebacker is too far inside we have an advantage and we can throw it.

You’ll also see slip screens where the receiver will come all the way inside and his offensive line friends will come out and screen block for him. This used to be just a called play, but now teams are pairing it with something post-snap. The quarterback will look to throw something to the opposite side of the field quickly and if it’s not there, he’ll come back to the slip screen on the backside.

There are some relatively newer advances in screen technology. What I like are the screens that look like regular routes but are actually just glorified screens.

There’s no real read here for the quarterback, he only has one route that’s actually a pass catching route. The rest are either setting picks or blocking downfield.

Moving away from screens but staying in the realm of pre-snap quarterback decisions, we have the isolated six-yard hitch/rolling out or slant route.

Teams are lining up in trips and giving their isolated receiver the freedom to run a quick route. The quarterback will see if it’s 1v1 with the receiver and the cornerback, then read the depth of the cornerback, like on the screen passes, and just throw it out there if he likes it. An off corner is going to have a hard time playing a six-yard quick hitting route. It’s tough for the receiver to catch, turn and gain extra yards, but again, on a standard down we’ll take 6 yards.

The slant has a better chance of becoming a big play, but you have to deal with underneath linebackers getting in the way of the route. With the hitch route, it’s 1v1: receiver and corner.

The next routes are more complicated. They involved the quarterback having to make post-snap reads. These are a few of my favorite underneath routes:

Jerk Route

One of my favorite concepts against teams with 2 safeties (MOF) is to have quick inside receiver (or even a big body type) run a jerk route.

Here’s Bill O’Brien explaining it:

And here’s Josh Rosen throwing it:

When there are two safeties deep and it’s Cover 2 or 4, you have a lot of room underneath in the middle.

The MIKE backer has to come out and match the inside route, or else you throw in the hole between him and your space backer. If he comes out too far, you hit him with that inside move as seen in the clips. The main goal for the backer is to get his hands on the receiver to disrupt the route but the little shifty receivers are too quick to be touched and the bigger tight end types can handle that amount of physicality.

Stick

The jerk route leads me into the stick concept. I don’t know about college, but stick is the most used concept in the NFL. Similar to the jerk, stick is an quick option route designed to find space between the hook/curl defender and the curl/flat defender. Unlike jerk, the stick route doesn’t have the option to cut inside. He’s either going to hook or make his way outside based on the reaction of the player inside of him. If the player runs toward him, he’ll try to run away to the sideline, but if the player open up and drops into a zone, he can hook in space.

What gets him open is the route going to the sideline designed to stretch the flat defender and create space for the stick route to settle into.

Slant

There are many ways to conceptualize a slant route. The two most ubiquitous concepts are slant/shoot and double slants. The video below shows both on the same play.

To hit the slant in the slant/shoot concept, we need the player on top of the shoot route to run out to the flats with that route to open a window for the slant.

With double slants, we’re again going to look at the defender on top of the slot receiver for us to figure out which slant to throw. We throw the outside one if that guy stays inside of the slot receiver and if he flies outside of him, we can throw the inside one.

A technical coaching point on inside slant is that we don’t want to take it too far inside, generally because there are sharks (linebackers) looking for fresh meat over there. We have to change our angle and stay in the seam longer. With the outside slant, you’d like the receiver to come flatter, closer to a “5 and in/fin” route. This should create more separation from the cornerback so he can’t cut in front of the route and make a play on the ball.

If we add a third receiver to the picture we can combine the two concepts into this…

A little aside: I have a love/hate relationship with double slants (or “tosser” as some call it). Yes, it’s a simple read by the quarterback throwing to simple routes, but I see a ton of pick-6’s on this throw. Quarterbacks think the flat player stayed inside the slot, so he throws to the outside slant but the flat player was just baiting him and comes late underneath and then ciaobye.

All these routes are run by both big-body guys and smaller, quicker receivers. As noted, these possession guys are running stuff that is an extension of the run game. Of course, you can bust a slant open for a long touchdown…

...but most of these routes are set up to gain some offensive traction on a standard down. The stick route is a first down staple. Teams are giving their quarterback the freedom to take six free yards on a backside isolation route on early downs.