In football, there are many routes that receivers can run on every play, with each having its own role in the playbook. One of the lesser-known routes is known as a “hot route”.
So, what is a hot route in football?
A hot route is a pattern that’s run by offensive players to take advantage of an aggressive defense or a defense that shows a weakness in coverage. Hot routes are usually called at the line of scrimmage as an audible when the quarterback senses pressure and wants to get rid of the ball quickly.
Throughout the rest of this article, we’ll cover the concepts of a hot route and discover what makes these routes so effective, and important, to offensive success.
How Do You Run a Hot Route?
When we say “run a hot route,” we can view this through two lenses: one is the procedural execution of the hot route and the physical running of the hot route by a specific offensive player.
We’ll look at the procedural execution of running a hot route which can be done in a number of ways.
The first way to run a hot route is to call the route as part of an offensive play inside the offensive huddle. Within this structure, the offensive team can call the play in the huddle, which contains a set of patterns, called routes, that tell the receivers what to do.
Second, a hot route can be run as a safety valve, to give the offense a more advantageous look against the defense, right before the play starts (pre-snap) or after it starts (post-snap). It’s a constant battle between offenses and defenses to put their team in the most desirable matchup possible.
For example, the offense calls a run play with five players to block against a defensive front of seven players. Five versus seven isn’t a favorable matchup. However, the defense would have fewer players to defend offensive receivers. Throwing a hot route to a receiver in this situation is advantageous because there are fewer players to defend the receivers.
Oftentimes, the quarterback is able to read the alignment of a specific defensive player in order to determine where the ball will be distributed. With two offensive receivers to the right, a defense is balanced if it has two defensive players able to cover those two receivers. However, if the defense wants to blitz, throwing the ball to the hot route receiver is typically a good option.
Finally, an offensive team can call and run a hot route through hand signals, code words, or any other means of communication that the defense can’t understand. Think of it as an encrypted message that gives the offense the flexibility to change their strategy on the field in real-time.
From a physical standpoint of running the hot route, a specific player needs to practice running certain routes. Popular patterns for running a hot route include vertical (or go routes), slants, and hitch routes. Each is used in a specific situation.
Picture an offensive receiver being defended by a defensive player. The defensive player is lined up 10 yards away from the receiver in order to prevent a deep throw over the top of the defense. It would be advantageous for the receiver to run a short hitch route because of the space between the two players.
A hitch route initially shows the defender the intention of the receiver to run deep. Then, very quickly, the receiver will stop between five and six-yard downfield, and turn to face the quarterback. This can result in an easy completion and a gain of 5 or 6 yards
Advantages of Hot Routes
Here are three distinct advantages of hot routes:
- Theoretically, the defense is unaware of their presence;
- They give the offense the ability to exploit weaknesses in the defense;
- They can be a part of a play structure or determined before or after the play has started
An offense that implements these three concepts stands a greater chance of having offensive success. An offensive team needs to be able to communicate and change their play without the defense knowing they made the change.
In football, it’s inevitable the offense will call a play that isn’t favorable against the defensive play called. Having the ability to change the play or rely upon a hot route as a “safety valve” gets an offensive team out of negative plays and can lead to big gains if the weak areas in the defense are exploited.
Offensive teams have the ability to choose hot routes within their preset play structures or in a more dynamic means right before or after the play starts. These methods on their own or combined can be effective.
Defending Against Hot Routes
Defending against hot routes can be tricky, especially if an offense does a good job of disguising their schemes. Nonetheless, learning how to defend and anticipate hot routes is possible and can lead to defensive success.
We have to understand the importance of recognizing tendencies and bad habits in football. If a team can identify tendencies in the way the offense aligns, certain plays called in specific situations (think down and distance), or the reliance on certain players in a given situation, then the defense has a great opportunity to exploit the offense come game time.
There are two approaches. The first requires a coach to study as much film as possible to search for tendencies and situations in which the offensive team uses hot routes. It would also be advantageous to understand how the offense implements the hot routes.
Remember our discussion from earlier- Are the routes part of the play structure or are they determined immediately before or after the play starts? Once any “keys” or weaknesses have been identified, this information can be shared with the players in film sessions. Players can also study film in order to collaborate with the coaches and players.
Second, the coach should curate and plan practice sessions to replicate what the players will see in the game. This conditions the defensive players to notice the important details of the situation and execute their assignments with proper technique in order to be successful during the game.
What Is a Hot Read?
A hot read is when the quarterback “reads” the defense in order to take advantage of the weaknesses the defense presents in a particular formation or alignment.
Whole books on this topic have been written, but there are several examples to share.
Football is a game of numbers. Teams want to create favorable matchups (numbers-wise) for themselves. Recall times throughout our lives where we played a game and felt that our team was outmatched because we had fewer players than the other team. Seven versus five feels unfair. But these numbers can be exploited and used in a football game.
An example is an offense with four receivers (two on each side of the offensive line) with a quarterback and running back aligned in the backfield. We refer to this as spread or “doubles” formation in reference to the number and alignment of receivers. This formation makes the numbers game easy to understand and it’s obvious when the defense is unbalanced.
Let’s say the defense lines up to this formation with four defensive linemen and two middle linebackers behind the defensive line.
Within the “box”, or the imaginary box that includes the offensive lineman, the defensive lineman, and any linebackers, there are six defensive players and five offensive linemen.
In this defensive formation, standard defensive coverage for passes is a cover 3, with one safety deep in the middle and two cornerbacks defending a third of the field to each side of the safety.
This leaves two more defensive players, often the outside linebackers, (aligned in relation to the two inside offensive receivers), as the players that the offense reads to win the numbers matchup.
The defense decides to take one of these outside linebackers and inserts them closer to the box to help support against the offensive run game. The result creates space. The offense can clearly see a numbers advantage– two receivers sharing an area with the lone defensive back to that side.
The hot read for the quarterback would be to audible, or change, to a play that gets the ball out quickly to this two versus one matchup. Remember, the defense has seven players in the box and there are only five offensive linemen to block them (this is before we get into quarterback zone reads; we want to understand the basic matchup first).
The offense can continue to take advantage of this matchup in spread or doubles until the defense readjusts. If they move the outside linebacker back out to the two receivers, then they can start running the ball with fewer defensive players in the box.
What Is an Audible?
An audible is a signal, code word, or any other means of communication that changes the offensive play to a different play with the intention of taking advantage of the formation or alignment of the defense before the play starts.
What Is a Screen?
In the most direct terms, a screen is a play in which a forward pass is caught behind the line of scrimmage (where the play initially started). Typically, a screen is used to allow the offensive linemen to go upfield and block smaller players. Doing so results in more offensive players blocking defensive players.
They’re also used to exploit defenses that love to blitz or bring a lot of pressure. The offensive linemen will hold up the defensive line and blitzing linebackers for a second or two, release them through to the quarterback, and travel downfield.
The quarterback, while this is going on, needs to complete a forward pass to a receiver or back behind the line of scrimmage who’ll then follow the blockers downfield. It’s a quick way to gain a numbers advantage and make the defense think twice about being so aggressive.
Please note, in football, the offensive linemen can’t go more than three yards downfield when the ball is thrown past the line of scrimmage. However, it’s okay for the lineman to go downfield if the forward pass is caught behind the line of scrimmage.