Building The Perfect Route Tree: Intermediate Routes

When discussing quarterbacks making the leap to the NFL, we often focus on traits like arm strength, pocket presence, deep accuracy, and downfield vision. However, the best signal caller can make all the throws. Mark Schofield has decided to eschew the usual build-a-quarterback and is instead intent on building the perfect route tree using the quarterbacks from the 2016 NFL Draft class.

Having examined the short and screen passing games, we turn now to the intermediate part of the passing route tree. These pass patterns are the drive-sustainers: routes in the 10- to 15-yard range that extend drives, convert 3rd and long situations, and keep an offense on schedule to finish drives with points. In addition to the benefits for a team, scouts look to these throws to determine whether a quarterback prospect has the timing, anticipation, ball placement, and arm strength to transition to the Sunday game.RouteTree

Deep Out – Carson Wentz, North Dakota State BisonRouteTreeDeepOut

The deep out is a pass pattern that sends the receiver on a vertical stem to about ten yards, before cutting toward the sideline at a 90 degree angle. All four traits indicated above are necessary for this play to be successful. The quarterback needs to deliver this throw with sufficient timing and anticipation, making the pass as the receiver comes out of his break in order to eliminate the risk of an interception. Along those lines, the throw must lead the receiver away from the defender and toward the sideline, yet be placed so the receiver can make the catch and remain in bounds. Finally, because of the distance this throw covers particularly when made from one hashmark to the opposite sideline the QB needs upper-level arm strength to make this throw without the football hanging in the air, which would give the cornerback time to break on the throw for a potential pick-six. For all these reasons, this pass is perhaps the definitive “Sunday throw.”

It is also a throw that Wentz delivers in impressive fashion.

In their game against Northern Iowa, Wentz (#11) and the Bison line up with 11 offensive personnel, with wide receiver RJ Urzendowski (#16) alone on the right and trips formation on the left. With the football on the right hashmark, Wentz again attacks the opposite sideline:

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The QB hits senior WR Zach Vraa (#82) along the sideline with a rocket of a pass on the deep out route. Notice the torque that Wentz generates with his chest and left shoulder, ripping his upper body through this throw. Also, look at the placement on this pass, which is delivered expertly toward the outside shoulder, leading the WR away from coverage yet giving his target enough space to complete the reception within the field of play. For his part, Vraa does a great job of catching the ball with his hands and getting not just one, but both feet down before stepping out of bounds:CFBReview6NDSUPlay3Still2

Perhaps more impressive is the fact that this throw was delivered in a fourth-down situation late in the game, with the Bisons needing a touchdown drive to pull out the win.

Here is another example of Wentz throwing this pattern. After suffering a wrist injury earlier in the season, the senior QB returned for the FCS Championship Game against Jacksonville State. After a long layoff and bothered by a sore arm, Wentz faced his first live action in months. But take in the out route Wentz throws here, from the right hashmark to the opposite sideline:

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Wentz uncorks another perfectly-placed out route to Vraa. Adding to the difficulty of this throw is the positioning of the defender. Wentz needs to work this football over the cornerback, yet still drop it into his target, and the quarterback does exactly that. Another impressive throw.

Deep Curl – Connor Cook, Michigan StateRouteTreeDeepCurl

The deep curl route is another intermediate route that begins with a vertical stem from the receiver. After the receiver reaches a depth of around 12 yards, he stops and works back toward the quarterback, either right down the stem or working to the middle of the field. The critical components to throwing this route are timing and anticipation. The receiver tries to sell the defender on a vertical route so, at the moment of his break, he hopefully has the defensive back convinced of the deep go route. The QB needs to deliver this throw on time and in anticipation of the break from the WR, so that the defender cannot break on the pass.

Here Cook (#18) throws the deep curl route to Aaron Burbridge (#16) against Oregon:

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Facing 2nd and 12 against the Ducks, Cook stands in the shotgun with 11 personnel on the field, using an unbalanced line. The Spartans show a bubble screen to the trips formation, but then use switch verticals from the other two receivers. Cook throws the curl route perfectly. From the replay angle, you can see the timing on the route:RouteTreeDeepCurlStill2

The ball is coming out just as Burbridge throttles down to work back toward the quarterback:

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Deep Comeback – WentzRouteTreeDeepComeback

The deep comeback route is another pass pattern that requires timing, anticipation, solid ball-placement, and in most cases arm strength. Similar to the curl route, the receiver starts on a vertical stem before throttling down and working back toward the line of scrimmage. But on this route, the receiver works back toward the sideline at a 45-degree angle, taking him away from the quarterback. This slight difference from the curl route makes this a slightly more difficult throw.

In the highly-anticipated season-opener against the Montana Grizzlies, Wentz delivered this deep comeback route to Urzendowski:

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The QB lines up under center as the Bison have 12 offensive personnel on the field. They run four verticals, and Wentz looks toward Urzendowski on the opposite side of the field. The receiver has the option to stop this route if he cannot beat the defender deep and, instead, run the deep comeback route. The receiver and quarterback are on the same page here, and Wentz begins this throw just as Urzendowski starts his break. The ball is thrown low and toward the sideline, leading the WR away from the defender while maintaining the separation between the two. The throw also travels a great distance, coming from the right hashmark to the opposite sideline. Another impressive throw from the quarterback.

Dig RoutePaxton Lynch, Memphis TigersRouteTreeDig

The dig route is another intermediate pass pattern that is a staple of many passing concepts. Part of both the Mills concept or the drive concept, the dig route starts the receiver on a vertical stem before breaking over the middle of the field, usually at a depth of around 15 yards. Some teams coach this route with the receiver initially showing a post pattern before flattening the route across the middle of the field. Arm strength is the weapon of choice on this route. Throwing the football over the middle is a dangerous task, given the number of defenders and the narrow throwing lanes. Timing and anticipation help, but the ability to drive the football into these throwing lanes with increased velocity allows these routes to succeed.

Given this, it might be no surprise that Paxton Lynch stands out on this route:

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Facing 3rd and 13, Lynch stands in the shotgun with the backfield empty. The Tigers run a pivot/dig combination to the right side of the field on this play. Lynch takes the snap and looks first to the left, where he has two vertical routes and another shallow crossing pattern. This creates enough of a throwing lane for the quarterback to work backside to the dig route late in the play. Lynch delivers a very strong throw here, which is necessary given both the presence of the underneath linebacker as well as the deep safety breaking on this route. The QB puts this throw right on his target at the first down marker.

Here is another view of Lynch making this throw, illustrating how he opens to the left first, then works back to the dig route late in the play and delivers a strong, accurate throw. This is also a good example of the QB making a full-field read and working through his progressions:

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This takes us through three levels of the route tree. In part four of this series, we’ll take a look at the three deepest routes of the tree: the corner route, the post route, and the go pattern. Finally, part five of this series will look at three scheme-specific routes, the wheel, the seam, and the red zone fade.

Follow @MarkSchofield on Twitter.  Buy his book, 17 Drives.  Check out his other work here, or Vad Lee overcoming fear, and the no-throw decision with Jake Rudock.

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