Football Routes 101: A Complete Guide to the Route Tree

A high school wide receiver looks toward the quarterback as he lines up on the line of scrimmage.

Those familiar and unfamiliar with football understand the game is characterized by running and passing the ball. What a lot of people don’t know is the number of routes there are and how to run them successfully.

So, what are routes in football?

Routes are patterns that receivers run on each play to get open for the quarterback. The nine basic routes are the flat (1), slant (2), comeback (3), curl (4), out (5), dig (6), corner (7), post (8), and fade (9). Each route has its own path and timing is key to getting open and catching the ball.

While these are the basic routes that receivers run, there are many other routes that receivers use each game. For a better idea of when each of these routes gets used and the benefits of each, we encourage you to keep reading.

Flat Route

The receiver will run 2-3 yards past the line of scrimmage and then cut toward the sideline. If the receiver reaches the sideline without receiving the ball, the receiver has the option to sit at the edge of the playing field or climb vertically up the sideline.

Slant Route

The receiver typically takes one or three vertical steps and aggressively pushes off their outside foot, running at a 45-degree angle toward the center of the offensive formation. This route is difficult to defend because defenders must respect a receiver’s intention to run a vertical route.

Comeback Route

The receiver will run 5 to 10 yards downfield, depending on the level of competition (high school, college, pro), stop, and angle down toward the sideline at a 45-degree angle. This route is typically run close to the sideline.

Curl Route

The receiver will run 5 to 10 yards downfield, stop, and angle down toward the quarterback. Curl routes are generally similar to comeback routes with the exception of where the receiver runs after stopping.

The receiver can also run a half circle after their vertical and face the quarterback. Receivers are taught to move toward the quarterback to prevent a defender from intercepting the pass.

Out Route

The receiver runs vertically, usually, 5 to 10 yards, drives off of their inside foot, and aggressively angles 90degrees toward the sideline.

In/Dig Route

A football wide receiver tries to evade a tackle on an in route.

Similar to the out route but in the opposite direction, receivers will run vertically for5 to 10 yards, plant off of their outside foot, and aggressively angle at 90degrees toward the middle of the field. Receivers are taught to run across the field or sit in an open hole in the defense.

Corner Route

The corner route, as the name implies, is run at an angle toward the back corner of the end zone. The receiver will run vertically, usually 5 to 10 yards, aggressively plant off of their inside foot and run an angle toward the back corner of the end zone.

Post Route

Posts can be “skinny” or more angled depending on the defense. The receiver will run a vertical route, typically 5 to 10 yards, plant off of their outside foot, and continue running at a 45-degree angle toward the middle of the field.

Fade / Vertical/Go Route

Arguably the most identifiable route even to those unfamiliar with football. The receiver runs vertically downfield to get behind the defensive coverage. All of the other routes are run off of this route because the offense wants to threaten the defense to go deep each pass play.

Hitch Route

Simple, yet effective. The receiver runs vertically five or six yards, sinks their hips, and turns back toward the quarterback. Like the curl, the receiver should come back to the football to prevent a defender from making an interception.

Snag Route

A combination of routes that will stretch a defense horizontally and vertically to take advantage of a flat defender. Receiver 1 will run vertically, receiver 2 to the sideline, and receiver 3 inside. The quarterback throws to 2 or 3 based on the flat defender.

Drag Route

Similar to a dig, but often ran at a shorter depth downfield. The receiver runs 5 to 6 yards downfield and crosses the entire field, angling toward the opposite sideline.

Swing Route

The swing route is typically run by a running back out of the backfield. The running back runs 3-5 steps horizontally and turns their head around to the quarterback while continuing to run. The running back looks to the quarterback to catch the pass before running up field.

Seam Route

Similar to a vertical route, the seam route is run by a receiver positioned toward the middle of the field. The receiver will run vertically up the hash marks on the field, running between the defenders. Running backs can run this route from the backfield, as well.

Stop and Go Route

This is a combination of a hitch and vertical route to entice the defense to anticipate a short route. The receiver runs vertically, stops 5 to 6 yards downfield, and turns to the quarterback, before turning once more to run a vertical route or seam.

Jerk Route

A jerk route is a combination of routes to influence the defense to jump on the first route they see. The receiver runs a five-yard hitch, turns to the quarterback for a brief moment, and then runs an in toward the middle of the field. The intention is to get the defender to jump the hitch route.

Double Out Route

A wide receive catches the ball and runs toward the end zone on a double out route.

Double out routes involve two receivers lined up on the same side of the field, running similar out patterns. Typically, this is to stretch a flat/sideline defender and force the defender to pick one of the receivers, leaving the other open.

Angle Route

An angle route, as the name implies, involves a receiver running three to five steps at a 45-degree angle toward the sideline, and then aggressively angling toward the middle of the field at a 90-degree angle.

Pivot Route

Highly technical to run and difficult to defend. The pivot route is a combination of a receiver running a slant, in, or drag for several steps before pushing off their inside leg and pivoting out toward the sideline. Pivot tries to get the defender to cover inside and overreact.

Sail Route

A three-route passing concept. Receiver 1 runs a vertical, receivers 2 and 3 run a combination of a deep out and a short route. Typically, the deep out is 10-12 yards and the short route is three to five yards to create proper spacing.

Wheel Route

A wheel route initially looks like the receiver running a vertical and then a flat. The receiver takes one or two steps vertically, angles toward the sideline, and then curves up the sideline.

Combining Routes (One Receiver)

Certain routes can be combined to create a variety and more weapons the defense needs to defend. Any route can be combined but there are certain combinations that are more effective than others.

The slant and go route, known as the “sluggo,” combines the slant and vertical route. It is intended to trick the defense to jump on a slant route. If the defense takes the bait, the receiver cuts up field to a vertical route and fills the void left by the defense.

The out and up is another route intended to get the deep coverage of the defense to jump up on a short route, allowing a receiver to get by the top of the defense. This route works very well against cover 3.

With cover 3, the cornerbacks and single safety cover the three deep parts of the field. An out route tries to bait the cornerback up field to try and intercept the pass.

If this happens, the receiver cuts off their outside foot and runs vertically up field. The receiver should expect the pass to be thrown immediately after they clear the defender.

Next, the seam/post read route depends on the coverage of the defense. Two typical types of defensive coverage are cover 2 and cover 3. In cover 2, the defense has two safeties covering deep halves of the field; in cover 3, one safety covers the deep third of the field.

Common language is to call cover 2 a defense where the middle of the field is “open.” In cover 3, the middle of the field is considered “closed” because of the one defender in the middle of the field.

A receiver lined up over the hashes would first run a vertical route. If the middle of the field is open (cover 2), they should run a post between the two defenders to get open.

Against a middle closed defense (cover 3), the receiver should continue to run up the seam instead of directly at the middle defender. This pattern can influence the defender to shade toward the receiver and potentially open up the other deep part vacated by the defender.

If the defender does not shade over toward the receiver running the seam/post, then they have space to receive a relatively safe pass from the quarterback.

Combining Routes (Two Receivers)

A college wide receiver breaks free after running a combination route.

Two players running a combination of routes can influence a defense to incorrectly anticipate their movements and open up holes in the defense. Let’s discuss three often-used combinations of routes.

A slant and a wheel is an extremely effective route combination versus cover 3. A cornerback defending a deep third of the field is taught to stay deep. However, if the routes in front of the defender are short, there is a tendency for the defender to come up to make a play.

With two receivers to one side, the outside receiver will run a slant toward the middle of the field. This baits the deep defender to come up, especially when the inside receiver runs a flat route.

The inside receiver will then curve up the sideline to get behind the defender that started to cheat up field. This leaves the deep third of the field completely open and is sure to be a big play for the offense.

Here is another route combination that works well against cover 3– the hitch and corner. These two routes ran together is often called a “smash” concept.

Let’s imagine the same two receivers to one side against a cover 3 defense. The outside receiver will run a five-yard hitch with the intent of getting the defender to cheat up and play the hitch.

At the same time, the inside receiver runs a corner route. This receiver looks like they’re running vertically for the first five to 10 yards (depending on the level of play), before angling toward the back corner of the end zone.

In this scenario, the deep defender cheats up to defend the short route, while the corner route receiver travels over the top of the defender. This leaves the deep third completely open and can result in a big play.

Finally, there are potent route combinations against cover 2, despite cover 2 being well-equipped to defend against a spread offense (two receivers on each side).

An effective combination is that of vertical and out routes. In cover 2, there are only two defenders to cover the two-deep halves of the field. The advantage is that there are more defenders defending the middle of the field and flats.

The inside receiver can run an out route to occupy the underneath flat defender. Because there are only two deep defenders, they need to cover a lot of space.

The outside receiver can run a vertical route. As soon as they pass the flat defender, they should turn their head for the ball. The quarterback needs to throw the ball after the receiver clears the flat defender but before the deep defender is able to get over to cover.

This route combination can result in a big gain if the quarterback can time and deliver the ball over the top of the flat defender but underneath the deep defender. The ball is not thrown high like a normal vertical route; the throw is much lower and straight toward the receiver.

Route Trees

There are a number of variations to the route tree. For example, a “5” route in one route tree may be different from another. But, generally speaking, we can identify a route with the numbers 1 through 9.

What Is a 1 Route in Football?

A “1” route is a flat route.

What Is a 2 Route in Football?

A “2” route is a slant route.

What Is a 3 Route in Football?

A “3” route is a comeback route.

What Is a 4 Route in Football?

A “4” route is a curl route.

What Is a 5 Route in Football?

A “5” route is an out route.

What Is a 6 Route in Football?

A “6” route is a dig route.

What Is a 7 Route in Football?

A “7” route is a corner route.

What Is an 8 Route in Football?

An “8” route is a post route.

What Is a 9 Route in Football?

A “9” route is a fade, vertical, or go route.

Returning to the route tree and their numbers – they can be combined to call plays. Let’s use an example of four receivers in a spread formation. From left to right, a play could be called to contain any combination of four numbers to communicate the route to run for each receiver.

We can combine them to specify which receivers run which routes. A play could be called 9999, telling the offensive receivers to all run vertical routes. While 9559 would tell the two outside receivers on each side to run verticals and the inside receivers to run out routes towards the sidelines.

Steven G.

My name is Steven and I love everything sports! I created this website to share my passion with all of you. Enjoy!

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