clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

GGN chalkboard: The Passing Playbook

New, comments

In this edition of GGN chalkboard, we look at passing routes which are the basis for passing concepts, which make a passing playbook.


Just as a heads up: this is going to be a longer, more in depth GGN chalkboard than you have ever seen. This isn't something you can power read either, so if you're at work I suggest reading it several times at leisure especially if you're pressed for time. This chalkboard is basically taking the whole passing game and making it into one article.

Before I go on, I must admit I was not a WR/TE or RB ever during my football career at any point. I have used my football knowledge, what I used in games in all of the chalkboards. The passing game simply is not in my wheelhouse. I have always wondered exactly what goes into passing plays as a career lineman. My job was simply to pass block and let the QB throw the ball. Until after my career was over, I began to wonder just what the heck the position players were doing while I was blocking.

That being said, even before I became the chalkboard guru, I researched the passing game from other playbooks and learned from coaching kids aged 9-13. This whole article is teaching you more of what have I learned, than what was taught to me. Brace yourself.

That being said, certain routes or concepts may have different names or slightly different routes than I use below. But, since this is me breaking it down, I tried to make sure I covered it in depth while using the terminology I have learned and can teach to others.

Please understand that some routes you may have used or seen are called different things during coaching shows or on telecasts. Concepts too. By no means is this the definitive version of playbooks and concepts, but this should be the reference that will unlock the mystery and aura that is the NFL passing game for the loyal readers of GGN chalkboard and anyone else who happens to bump into this.

There are three "levels" of playbooks. You have the individual routes, the concepts, and then playbook itself. I'll break down each part separately and then give a brief explanation of each playbook. But first, a food analogy.

Imagine the playbook like a cookbook for homemade spaghetti. You have the ingredients (egg, flour, water etc), basic directions for mixing ingredients together, lastly a section on tweaking the base recipe for your own enjoyment (such as whole grains, with or without special ingredients) and then you create a full cookbook of all the different combinations of spaghetti dishes you can dream like spaghetti with meatballs, or shrimp alfredo...etc.

In this case, the ingredients would be the passing routes. Mixing them together would be the base concepts. Finally to make your playbook, you add tweaks to the concepts and then make a list of different combinations of concepts and ingredients you prefer. Sure, you'll have others in your recipe book, but you may prefer to use one or two recipes for dinner.

That being said, let's take a look at what each part of the playbook entails.

At the lowest level of playbooks, you have the passing routes. These are the individual assignments that WR's/TE's/RB's need to run on a play. For instance: a fly route or an out route for a WR. Each position has numerous routes they can run, which collectively is called a route "tree." I'll show an example later, but the route tree is the most basic part of any playbook especially for QB's and position players to master.

Combining individual assignments together is called a passing concept. So for instance, an inside receiver will run a out route, while an outside receiver runs a comeback route. That's an example of a passing concept. These are the foundation for numerous schemes that define a playbook. As stated above in our cookbook analogy. certain playbooks favor certain schemes and routes.

Playbooks by definition are a book of plays. Each playbook is a different species from each other. All pplayboks have different terminology for the basics include routes and concepts. However, most playbooks all have the same concepts and routes, just different names/terminology for each. Also they might have a few different things, like using 3 WR's on a route versus 2 WR's and a TE.

Again, even though the names or terminology is different, it boils down to the same basic principles.

So let's break this down Sp0rtsfan8t GGN chalkboard style:


First off let's talk about passing route trees. We shall break each down by position in depth:

The main routes are in orange and numbered. Consider these primary routes. The Brown routes are considered secondary routes by myself. (once again some may consider other routes primary and secondary.) The white is the sidelines while the ball refers to where the rest of the team is. (This picture would refer to the right side WR FYI)


First off is the WR.. Generally speaking there are about 9-10 main routes for the outside WR, sometimes refered to as the split end (SE). Each system generally has a specific route number "tagged/used" for these routes. For instance, a 1 route would be a 3 yard stop curl. An 8 route would be a corner. This is so you don't have to call a route by name with each WR in the huddle. Imagine having to call 5 different routes for a 5 wide formation. Instead you can say, Z3, which would be a stop curl . (One of the reasons Shotty was fired was the terminology was considered complex for Sanchez to handle.)

If you're not sure of the routes being shown and what theroutes are, here's a very brief explanation of each: (number correlates to picture)

1) 3 step curl: WR takes 3 steps, turns around on his inside shoulder and faces the QB.

2) Slant: WR goes 3-5 yards (depending on the play design) and cuts at a 45 degree angle upfield towards the QB. (one is under 2, other under 2B). WR does not turn fully to QB, but instead continues his route at the angle.

3) 5 yard in: WR goes five yards turns 90 degrees toward the ball and continues his route at a 90 degree angle from QB.

4) 5 yard out: Same as in route just WR turns outside away from the ball.

5) Dig route: This one I've seen numerous ways, numbered and unnumbered in different playbooks. Some call it by name treating it as a secondary routes, others by number. (Because of this I've numbered it) This is basically a 15 yard in route. However as shown and used most predominately , the WR runs 15 yards upfield, turns at a 45 degree and angle towards the middle of the field. After 3-5 yards, the WR cuts across the field, running 90 degrees towards the middle of the field.

6) Comeback/button hook: WR runs 15 yards, stops, pivots and takes 2-3 steps towards the sideline and Line Of Scrimmage (hereby referred to as LOS) at a 45 degree angle away from the QB.

7) Deep out: WR runs 15 yards and cuts to the sideline away from the ball at a 90 degree angle.

8) Corner: WR runs 15 yards and cuts 45 degrees upfield and towards the sideline away from the QB.

9) Post WR runs 15 yards and cuts 45 degrees upfield and towards the middle of the field. WR continues running at a 45 upfield and towards the QB.

0) Fly/Fade route: Depending how close to the goal line, a fade refers to the short yardage jump ball, while a fly is simply a run as fast as you can straight upfield deep route. Both are in essence the same deep straight route, just called different things based on distance.

Here's a video of a fade route from the 2011 division playoff: (perfect example to boot)

And the fly route by Braylon Edwards. (The TD pass is a concept I will go over later, but the first pass is a fly route.)

[Super Aside Note: Those were two perfect passes by Sanchez, makes you wonder.]

Here's a brief on the WR secondary routes:

The stop route is an in route, where the WR arrives at a point and stops and faces the QB. (This will be paramount to one concept in particular.)

The last route is a post corner. Basically a deception play, the WR runs a post, takes two or three step into the post and runs a corner route. (This is generally a play we will see relatively sparsely in concepts, thus tends to be a secondary route for a WR.)

Now we go into the tight end route tree. Some of the routes are the same, however may use different terminology than that of a WR. (Of course, to a person watching it and lacking intimate knowledge this may add confusion)


(Blue tends to refer to primary routes, and purple to routes that are secondary)

Notice that the TE does not have numbers like a WR. Generally they will know what to do based off of the concept/play called in in the huddle. That being said, because I feel generous, I will break down the routes.

In/Drag: These two routes are basically the same, the TE runs towards the QB at a 90 degree angle. The drag route tends to be right behind the DL, where the in tends to be 5-10 yards deep. Again, football semantics.

The out route is a 5 yard route where the TE runs 5 yards and turns 90 degrees towards the sideline away from the QB.

The TE corner and post routes are the same as the WR.

The TE dig tends to be just a deep in, without faking the post route first.

The TE seam route is the same concept as a fly route for a WR, basically go deep as fast as you can straight upfield.

The spot route is the same as a 5 yard in route, except the TE stops in the middle of the route and faces the QB. (Guess which WR route tends to be in the same concept. Hint: same four letters just different order.)

An arrow route is run about a 45 degree towards the sideline. The idea is to run almost straight from the beginning towards the target.

The last is the TE wheel route, which the TE runs either parallel to the LOS or runs behind the line of scrimmage, then turns straight upfield. Consult the picture which shows a almost circular path the TE must run.

The last picture is of the RB/FB route tree. It must be noted, that either the RB or FB can run these routes.


Because the RB is not like the TE or WR that starts near the LOS, the routes tend to start at a different angle which is shown here. The RB basically starts at a 45 degree angle towards the sideline and runs a route. Understand, that yes a RB may run through the center and guard and run the same routes as picture above.

Screen routes (not shown) have the RB run parallel to the LOS and then run upfield only after catching the ball. Also not shown and considered an option play, is the shuttle pass which is simply the FB/RB running upfield towards the center and the QB having the option of pitching the ball forward to the RB in the middle of the line. Technically while a pass, this still falls under running game.

Like the WR and TE the RB can also run a route that is based off the in route. Like the TE, he runs an in route and stops in the middle of the field. While not shown, this tends to be a secondary at best route for most passing concepts.

That being said let's talk about the primary routes I do have a diagram of.

The out route is basically the same as a WR/TE once the running back gets out of the backfield. The RB runs upfield or at a 45 degree angle (shown in picture) till he gets 5 yards upfield, then cuts out at a 90 degree angle towards the sideline.

The wheel route is similar to that of a TE, but because the RB starts behind the line, he runs parallel to the LOS and then cuts upfield.

The Seam route almost always is as shown. Once in a while, you will see an RB find a hole between the center and guard and run straight upfield. It's very similar to the WR fly/ TE seam route in that the RB basically runs upfield in a straight line.

The angle route is a very different and unique route that is mastered by excellent catching RB's. The RB runs at a 45 degree angle towards the sideline, then cuts hard at a 45 degree angle upfield and towards the center of the field. This is the basic route of at least one concept, thus I chose this as a primary route.

You may wonder why I have not done routes for slot receivers. For one, most routes are exactly the same as the SE or WR. Any other routes, such as the wheel are exactly the same as a TE would run. Basically said, the slot WR runs very similar routes to that of a WR with one or two routes coming from the TE passing tee.


So now that we have basic route trees diagrammed, I can get into the concepts.

Basically, concepts are designs to break a deficiency or weakness in the zone or man coverage. My former HS football coach referred to concepts as beaters. IE, certain concepts are used predominately to beat certain coverages.

Within each concept, I'll highlight the routes that would be targeted for certain coverages. For example in the curl flat concept, I'll point out where the offense would attack the weaknesses in the cover two and three defenses and point out where man coverage may be weak. I'll also point out why the concept would not work against certain coverages.

Variations are how the concept can change depending on the routes. Concepts are basically how the defense is attacked whether vertically, horizontally or flooding an area with receivers. The drawings will show the primary way the concepts look like and I'll talk about how they can be varied.

From this section, you will gain the understanding of why sometimes the QB might have to throw the ball away even if no pressure is on him. Also you'll gain a new appreciation for broken plays, where everything is covered, but the QB improvises and basically plays school yard football after a few seconds. This is the backbone of offensive football ladies and gentleman.

Let's get to it:

First off the four vertical concept. It's pretty much as simple as four guys running all deep routes. Here I have the SE and WR on the backside running post corners while the slot runs a straight seam. The TE in this case also runs a seam route but depending on the coverage, may slip to the inside.


Strengths: against Cover two or man this is a big play threat. Cover three works too, just not as well.

Against cover two the TE should be the primary guy to get open as he splits the middle of the field. The two safeties should be covering the two WR opening up a big seam. Against man (blue circles) The post corner move allows the two WR to beat a cornerback who cheats or overplays the post. The cover three can be beaten with the slot WR or the TE depending who the safety will pick up.

Weaknesses: against man it's up to the WR to beat the CB/Safeties deep. Against cover four all routes are covered. y. Against man it's up to the individuals to beat their man. Takes the longest to develop because of deep routes, unless the line picks up a blitz, this play never gets traction.

Variations: sometimes the TE will run an option route designed to read the coverage and find the hole in the zone. The outside WR may also run straight seams while the two inside guys run more of the deception routes such as post corner or run a skinny post in which they slightly adjust the route, hoping to turn a safety around. Additionally, the slot could run a corner route, while the SE runs a post route designed to cause confusion in zone coverages.

3 vertical concept:


Almost the same as a four vertical concept. Three guys run deep routes, like fly, seams, posts or corner posts. The RB/FB/TE then runs two short routes. Routes such as a quick out or a wheel from the RB are run underneath.

Strengths: against cover 2 the middle seam is opened (Red). Against a cover two the outside routes also become available(blue). Against a cover four or man, the short routes become the primary targets (gray). Those short routes can be deadly with the right matchup, think Bart Scott covering anyone in the flat or a slow MLB. The TE to the flat also works against cover three if you have a really good TE.

Weaknesses: Takes a long time to develop. Unlike the four verticals, it's not great against a cover three. Also this play does rely on the RB's athleticism in open space, meaning you must have a good catching RB.

Variations: Almost all deep routes can be adjusted like the four deep. Underneath routes can be changed to a screen. Underneath routes can be wheel or out routes, sometimes quick arrow routes. (Arrow routes are hard out routes run almost parallel to the LOS towards the sideline from the TE/SL position.

Post Dig concept:

This is a basic staple of Steve Spurrier. The SE runs a post route and tries to take the safeties deep. The other WR runs a dig route. The dig route is "underneath" the post route. The idea is to confuse the safeties or force on to be on man to man coverage.

Additionally, all though not part of the concept per say: The SL and RB/TE(if the TE was on the other side of the line) run crosses underneath.



Great against a cover two or three because of the dig route underneath the post. Dig route can be big gainer if defenses jump the deep post. The post route can break man to man defenses for six.

Weaknesses: Can be stopped with good man to man coverage. Not a lot of options with this route.

Variations: Not too many differences in plays.. I have yet to see a meaningful variation.

Under/Clear Concept:

This is basically the same as the four verticals. Only difference is the RB runs a delayed out route to the strong side. The best example of an isolation play for an RB.


Strengths: The concept is perfect to get the RB out in open space in a one on one matchup. Additionally you can beat the zone through the long ball much like the four vertical concept.

Weaknesses: Takes a long time to develop, little protection.

Variations: Can use the TE in this concept as the under or use in the three vertical concept with either the RB or TE running the route. Generally speaking, a delay route is used to allow the defense to be stretched, however sometimes a route like the wheel-out can be run. Also I have seen a WR run a shallow delayed shallow in route.

* Screen concept also can be run by this, meaning that the outside WR run deep routes while the RB runs a screen route trying to get into the open.

Levels concept:

This is Peyton Manning's favorite concept supposedly. The idea is a simple two or three man concept: run the same route at three different levels: short, intermediary, and deep. All three of the guys run in routes. The minimum concept requires one deep in and one shallow one at 5 yards. You can add in a TE running a 5 yard in also to make the concept stronger.


The idea is to cause holes in zones or cause man coverage issues based off the same routes being run at the same time. Basically this is a great way to beat the cover two because it opens the hole between the CB/OLB/S. Those are the two red circles in the picture. It can be effective against other coverages, but is used to really go after a cover two defense.

Strengths: Great against cover two because it forces the OLB to either help the safety cover the deep in run by the SL or cover the shallow route by the SE. It puts that person in a real bind. Against cover three it is effective almost primarily from the short in run by the SE.

Weaknesses: can beat a man, but not the most effective. Against cover three only one route is truly effective.

Variations: Other than different WR running the deep route, the main difference would be the formation it gets run from. This is a basic play with two routes being run, so generally this concept doesn't have many variations in individual routes.

Flood concept:

Another basic concept, but this concept always has three routes. Once again, like the levels concept it's three routes run into the same area at different depths. However, unlike the levels concept which runs towards the center of the field, the flood runs all the routes towards the sidelines.


One receiver will run a deep out/corner or fly route. The other two route runners both run out routes. One will be at about ten yards and another at about 5 yards. The idea is to "flood" a side of the field meaning put three guys to one side of the field where only two would be there in a cover two or three. The red box is the two routes designed to beat a cover two, the cover three/four is beaten by the TE's underneath out route which is represented by the blue box.

Strengths: overloads one side of the field which causes two guys to have to cover three. (or forces a OLB to have to be really quick to the outside.) Against man-to-man defense causes all defenders to be good.

Weaknesses: Against man this concept's routes aren't the hardest to cover. If the QB gets pressured from the TE side, the play goes to hell.

Variations: Obviously the deep route can be either an out, corner or fly. SL/SE can switch off running the deep route. I've seen the shallow out run by the TE/SL/3rdWR/RB so there is a lot of individual variations with that route itself.

Smash concept:

Another two man vertical route. The outside man runs a 3-5 yard stop while the inside receiver runs a corner route. The concept is a way to break a cover two or three with timing routes. Originally this was designed to beat the cover two, but can be used for cover three.


A cover two is beaten with that corner route. the idea is to force the CB to cover the short route wile the safety is left one on one with the SL receiver. The SE will be the primary in the cover three defense which leaves the short route open.

Strengths: a short easy to complete play. Attacks weaknesses in cover two and three.

Weaknesses: everyone runs this play so it's pretty easy to diagnose. Not too much mystery with this one.

Variations: The outside guy may run a 5 yard in route. That's about all we have.

Mesh concept:

The Mesh is similar to the levels/flood concept in that multiple players occupy the same space. It horizontally taxes a defense especially because the routes are run to really hurt a man defense. The play is a basic two man routes. Both WR run in routes about 5 yards deep trying to pass each other really closely and run the defenders into each other. It does tax the zone, but requires a good QB to be successful.


Strengths: designed to really tax a man coverage. Can find holes in zone.

Weakneses: requires pinpoint accuracy from a QB. A bad QB can be easily fooled into throwing a cheap six on these routes.

Variations: sometimes the WR is put in motion. Can be run with the other WR or TE. I have also seen the SE run a 10 yard in further making this look like a levels concept.

Curl-flat concept:

A basic two man route very similar to that of the smash concept. One man runs deep and stops with a curl/button hook concept. The second man runs to the flat in an arrow route. The arrow route is the cover three beater while the curl concept is the cover two beater.

For more information see this post.

Spacing concept:

The spacing concept is really about finding holes in zone or playing off man coverage. The idea is to get short yards quickly. Notice how all the routes stop at less than five yards. A good man beater that can be used to break a hole in a zone, it's by far the weakest at a deep play threat.


Strengths: against man can get you a first down with a decent throw. Good at a quick play against the rush.

weaknesses: requires good receivers to find a hole in the zone. Requires precision passing. Not a big play threat.

Variations: none really other than receivers trying to find holes in zones. You can just run WR curl stop routes but I've seen mostly the TE being involved as the guy who finds a hole right in the middle of the field.

Texas concept:

This is a concept that requires a RB route in the WCO. The Texas concept features a post route by the TE/SL followed by the RB running the angle route. The other routes are complimentary to the pattern, in this case opening up the center of the field. The main route which is the RB angle route stretches the field horizontally.


Strengths: good to get the RB in open space in zone or man.

Weaknesses: requires a good RB to run.

Variations: there's actually a lot with this concept. some have the TE running a in route followed by the SL running a post. Other offenses use a bunch package and have one man run a shallow in route, another WR run a corner, and one route being the angle route. There's so many ways to run this combination but really requires only two players.

Last but not least of our concepts is the simple slant routes.


I don't think you need to know what this concept's routes are.

The concept is simple: exploit either a hole in the zone or man to man coverage by running a quick 3 step slant.

Strengths: against man it's tough to stop. Against a zone, there are zones. And when this happens against the Pats:

Weaknesses: The zone defense requires precise passing. The man defense practice against this play every day.


So let's talk about the playbooks real quickly. There are plenty of playbooks out there, but these are more known passing playbooks. They can be defined by the concepts that are used more often in the playbook. However, some playbooks will be much different than others, so I'm going to be purposely brief.

WCO likes a lot of short passes. Expect a lot of slants, spacing, mesh, levels and curl flat concepts. Don't expect too many deep routes.

Air Raid likes more deep passing concept like the four verticals, three verticals and dig concept. However, they will use the majority of these concepts discussed.

The last playbook that is about passing is the Air Coryell system. Basically that's deep ball playbook so a lot of three and four verticals. Not too much underneath stuff either. Don't expect a lot of curl routes with this offense.