What Is a Wheel Route in Football? A Complete Overview


A high school football player catches the ball during a wheel route.

Keeping up with football passing routes can be tricky! With different names paired with each route and dozens of routes for each position, players and fans alike may find themselves scratching their heads at the mention of a wheel route.

So, what is a wheel route in football?

A wheel route refers to an offensive play where the quarterback makes a short pass to a receiver who runs parallel to the line of scrimmage before turning upfield towards the end zone. Wheel routes usually include the running back acting as the intended receiver, but occasionally a wide receiver will be used.

If you’re looking to learn a little about how the wheel route got its name and why a well-run wheel route can be dangerous, this is a great resource. When a catch is made by the player running a wheel it can often feel like the offense pulled off a trick play – as in most cases the offense will have tricked their defender into getting so open. Let’s take a look at what makes the wheel route such a slick play and how the offense can benefit from running it.

Why Is it Called a Wheel Route?

The wheel route got its name because the receiver running the play will eventually roll out and around their defender, moving in a curved line or cutting a rounded corner after running laterally across the field. The rounding of the route is reminiscent of a circular wheel, thus earning the route its name.

The wheel route is sometimes also referred to as a “chair route” or the “out and up,” but these two types of wheel routes each have unique characteristics.

The chair route refers to a wheel route that has the longest lateral run – usually requiring the running back to cover half of the field or so before turning upfield. On paper, this play would be represented by a flat route line curving or turning sharply where the player is meant to catch the ball before running upfield. The image would be reminiscent of a chair with a backstop attached.  

Similarly, the out and up consists of the offensive player going “out” and then turning up the field. This version of the wheel route is generally a pretty standard short pass, with the player following a wide curved diagonal route after freeing themselves from coverage. On paper, this play tends to look more like a wave than the seat of a chair.

How Do Wheel Routes Work?

One of the most common reasons wheel routes work is because the receiver, in this case, a running back, can easily lose their defender when moving laterally across a crowded line of scrimmage.

The running back or wide receiver running the wheel route is taught to move towards any holes that are left open in the defense. Usually, the linebacker is the defensive player responsible for covering a short pass or a running play.

In the case of a wheel route, the receiver is hoping to complete the “out” or “flat” part of the route by running past the linebacker – and then beating them to open space down the field that the quarterback can lead them into with a throw. 

Once the receiver has reached the place on the field where their route turns “up” towards the end zone they should be open to receive the pass. If a wheel route is successful it’s because the defender has fallen too far behind the receiver and is unable to deflect or intercept the pass.

The most successful wheel route occurs when the running back or receiver gets free long enough to catch the ball and run the full length of the field to score.

How to Run a Wheel Route

As noted previously, there are multiple ways to run a wheel route. Each version of the wheel route has its own name but they all follow the same basic design – starting with a lateral, or “out,” before running a vertical, or “up.”

The first option for running a wheel route is calling an inside route. This is the centermost route and requires only a short lateral motion. Alternatively, coaches may call a vertical wheel route which tends to look similar to running a fade. The vertical wheel route is much wider and pushes the receiver out towards the sidelines.

Regardless of which version of the wheel route the coach calls, a receiver should never telegraph their intentions by turning to look at the ball or passer before reaching the break or curve in their route.

A wheel route will end up successful with a catch if the receiver has successfully managed to outmaneuver their defender at the line to gain separation for long enough to get open.

Why Are Wheel Routes Effective?

A college wide receiver lines up to run a wheel route.

The wheel route is well known for being one of the most effective routes in football. The greatest irony in the success of the wheel route, however, comes from the fact that it is often a running back who ends up catching the ball.

Since running backs are generally the fastest players on the field, they are a serious threat to the defense if they can catch the ball in the open field with room ahead of them.

One common mistake made by defenders is that they’ll pause in their pursuit of the receiver to check on the movement of the quarterback. This hesitation in coverage grants the receiver just enough time and space to get open near the outside edge of the field to catch the pass without any interference.

You may very well spot a defender attempting to read the play call while frozen on the line, waiting for offensive receivers to cross their routes. Unfortunately, a lot can happen during the time that a linebacker or safety might take to react to the play that’s been called.

Besides losing their man on the line, a defender might also fall for the trickery of the running back if they’re not careful. An experienced running back will work their way across the field as if they are running a short lateral route – only turning upfield when their defender has lost interest in the route after the play has developed somewhat.

If the defender has fallen behind in their coverage and the quarterback goes to the receiver at the peak of the wheel route then the defender will be too far behind to catch them. It’s important to remember that in the case of the wheel route your receiver is probably a running back and they can give you the best chance for a large gain after the catch.

Finally, success with the wheel route can also come from the fact there are plenty of ways to set up the route, with one of the most successful methods being to send out numerous receivers out wide along the line of scrimmage.

The wheel can find big-play potential when the receiver or back running the wheel is accompanied by two or three other receivers to create traffic and serve as a distraction, allowing the RB to reach the outside edge of the field unprotected.

These receivers also can serve as blockers for the running back after he makes the catch and heads towards the end zone.

Two of the most common distractions you’ll see on the field when a wheel route is called are the post and the go route.

What Is a Post Route in Football?

A post route is a long passing route where a receiver runs downfield about 15 to 20 yards before cutting in towards the center of the field to catch the ball.

A post route is usually the deepest route on the field, with the receiver catching the ball at the peak of his route before continuing to run the length of the field to score if everything works out correctly.

If you’re responsible for running the post you’re going to need to be quick and decisive. Any receiver assigned to a post route needs to be fast off the line.

This is useful for the offense because it’s nearly unheard of for a defense to leave a post route receiver uncovered – ensuring the defense has at least one safety or corner preoccupied downfield.

As noted above, the post is frequently included in the design of a play that’s intended to leverage the success of the wheel route. A post route is often used to distract defenders while the running back looks to catch the ball on a wheel route.

It is common for the receiver running the post to cross paths with the running back who is running the wheel route. Immediately after the start of the play the receiver and the running back will cross paths near the line of scrimmage, creating traffic and making it hard for the defensive players to maintain any man-to-man coverage.

What Is a Go Route in Football?

A go route is similar to a post in that it is intended to be a long passing play. The go route is run by a wide receiver who leaves the line of scrimmage in a straight line heading straight downfield to the end zone. The “go route” is specifically intended to be run on the side of the field as opposed to in the middle, like a seam.

A go route should be run by the quickest wide receiver on the team, allowing the offensive player to get downfield as quickly as possible. This presence downfield stirs up the defense, causing panic in both man and zone coverage, but it draws attention away from the running back if a wheel route is also in play.

On defense, the go route will usually be covered by a cornerback due to their speed being comparable to the fastest receiver on the offense. 

The go route has many different names and is often referred to as a fly pattern or a streak. In simple terms, it is a vertical route, and like the post route, it can be used to draw attention away from short route receivers. One of the most common times you’ll see the use of a fly route is when the offense attempts a “hail mary” pass.

What Is a Seam Route in Football?

Like the post route and go route, a seam route is a long passing route intentionally designed to be run in the center of the field. A seam usually involves a tight end moving up the center of the field between zone coverage defenders. The receiver should find the soft spot in the zone between zone defenders.

While the seam route may be used to distract receivers while a wheel route is in play, it is also used to keep the middle of the field clear for other pass options. If you’re interested in learning more about how and when a seam route is used check out this article.

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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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