Understand the Passing Game in the NFL

An Introduction to the NFL Passing Game:

Every Sunday we see quarterbacks throw passes for hundreds of yards. However, for the typical fan the passing game is magical event. The quarterback drops back to pass and the ball magically appears in the receivers hands. In these articles I hope to be able to better explain how the passing game works.

I will start off by explaining passing concepts. Passing concepts are how the routes that the wide receivers run are classified. While NFL coaches are known for having playbooks that are thousands of pages long all of the vast majority passing plays can really be broken down into less than twenty passing concepts. Now before dismissing this claim keep in mind that each passing play can contain multiple passing plays and that the way these plays are run in the game is meant to confuse even NFL defensive coordinators. Below is a description of these passing concepts as I can best tell. Now keep in mind that I am not a coach or player at any level, just a college student who loves the game of football.

Four Verticals:

Four Verticals is a very common passing concept, it was memorably used by the Bengals in the last minute of the Ravens first victory. However, it is also common concept in the New Orleans Saints passing offense.

Four Verticals is a particularly simple concept. The idea is that by sending four receivers deep down the field the four receivers will create a situation where the safeties and cornerbacks are forced to cover two receivers at once. The receivers are often given the options of cutting off their routes to undercut the defensive backs if the defensive backs are playing deep coverage.

In a Four Wide formation the two outside receivers head directly up field running go-routes, with the option to cut off their routes at about 14 yards deep if the defensive backs play deep coverage, one slot receiver runs straight up the hash marks. The option to cut off their routes against deep coverage makes this play not always one that leads to deep bombs being thrown down the field. Instead, the play is usually converted with these deep curl routes, or with the divide route described below.

The opposite slot receiver typically runs a divide route (where he reads M.O.F.O. or M.O.F.C.), but sometimes the receiver will be presented with more options. This slot receiver is the key to this play. His divide or "beater" route allows him to get open versus most any coverage.

Here is how this would look on the chalkboard.



The Quarterback will watch the safety to determine where to go with the ball. If the safety retreats deep to cover the go-routes the slot receiver will come open running the divide or "beater" route. If the safety slides over to cover the divide or "beater" route the opposite slot receiver will be open or single coverage. In a situation where both four defensive backs drop back into deep zones, or a Cover 4 defense , the receivers will cut off their routes and should be open for a modest 14 yard gain.

Here is video of this play being run by the Bengals in their last minute victory over the Steelers.

This play can also be run out of a trips formation. This is something that is often done to force defenses into playing a Cover 1 or single safety high defense. When an offense comes out in a trips formation defense will practically be forced into not calling the common Cover 2 defense, because it would mean one safety covering three wide receivers. In this formation the receiver closest to the offensive line will run what looks like a deep crossing route, but in fact is just a vertical route run to the opposite hashmark.

Here is this passing concept on the chalkboard out of a trips set.



The reads will be the same as for when the play is run out of a four wide set, here is video of this concept being run against the Eagles by the Saints.

Three Verticals:

This is another common passing concept among N.F.L. offenses. This concept is obviously very similar to the Four Verticals concept described above.

The outside receivers will run post-corner routes, while a slot receiver runs a divide or "beater" route. The other receivers will run flat or shoot routes. The flat or shoot routes should hold the underneath coverage downfield of the deep routes, while the receivers running the deep routes should adjust their routes to beat the deep coverage.

Here is a diagram of the play out of a four-wide set and out of the I-Formation as a play-action:



All three receivers running deep routes have routes that need to be adjusted on the fly. The outside receivers running post-corner routes need to read the cornerback who is directly over them. If the corner back drops straight back the receiver needs to turn his route into more of a deep-out route. However, if the defensive back heads more inside than directly back the receiver need to run a corner route. The slot receiver running deep is again running a divide or "beater" route so he will read M.O.F.O. or M.O.F.C. and adjust his route accordingly.

Here is a video of the New England Patriots running this play out of a Four Wide set, where the receivers line up tight.

The Quaterback’s reads on this play are simple. The Quarterback will watch the strong safety. If the strong safety goes deep into a Cover 2 shell or if the safety rotates down to the weak side of the field the Quarterback’s will read from the strong side outside receiver (B) to the slot receiver (Z) to the tailback. However, if the strong safety drops straight back or rotates down to the strong side of the field the Quarterback will read the field the opposite way, from the weak side outside receiver (X) to the slot receiver (B) to the tailback.

Here is video of this play being run in Madden 10 practice mode:

The NCAA Pass or the Post-Dig:

This passing concept is called the NCAA Pass because every NCAA football team runs it. It is also quite common on the professional level. It was made most famous by Steve Spurrier during his time with the Florida Gators. It is a downfield passing concept that is both very easy to understand and execute, but at the same time is very hard to stop. McDaniels uses this concept often while calling max-protect play action passes (often he will only send out the two outside receivers).

This passing concept is only dependent on two receivers, the two outside receivers. The weak side receiver either runs a 15 yard in-route, while the strong side outside receiver runs a deep crossing-route or a post. One underneath receiver will run a shallower crossing route while a back or another receiver will try to create a rub by running a drag under the shallow crossing route.

The two outside receivers running the deep-in and the deep-post create a situation where the safety defending the middle of the field is forced to cover one receiver or the other leaving some open. This concept is particularly effective off of the play action where the linebackers are sucked down towards the line of scrimmage. The other receivers with the mesh routes will often create a rub against man coverage and will just sit in the empty hole against zone coverage.

Here is an example on the chalk board:



As you can see in the drawing the reads go from deep to shallow or hi-lo. The Quarterback will first check the X receiver running the deep-post hoping for the deep play. However, if he is not open the X receiver running the deep-in should be open underneath the safety. Lastly, the receiver will check the mesh with the Y receiver and the tailback.

Here is some video of Miami running this concept as a play action pass:


This is a staple concept in Tom Moore’s Indianapolis offense which has been successfully run by Peyton Manning for years. This passing concept is also now a common site in both the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots passing games.

In a four wide spread set typically the strong side outside receiver runs a shallow five-yard in route and the strong side slot receiver runs a deeper ten-yard in route. The weak side outside receiver can run most any route (typically a go-route or deep comeback route) while the weak side slot receiver will run a divide route down the seam.

The weak side slot receiver will read M.O.F.O. (middle of the field open) or M.O.F.C. (middle of the field closed) by reading the deep middle of the field while run a divide route. If the weak side slot receiver reads M.O.F.O. he will cut inside on a post route into the open area in the deep middle of the field, but if the weak side receiver reads M.O.F.C. he will continue straight up field running into the seam between the deep middle and deep outside zones.

Below is an example of what this will look like.



After the ball is hiked the Quarterback will look at the receiver running the divide route. If that receiver is covered the Quarterback will then read short-to-deep. The Quarterback will look to throw the ball to the Z-Receiver running the quick-in so that the receiver gets the ball in space. After the short throw has been completed multiple times the linebacker might jump the short route, this will allow the Quarterback to throw the deep-in.

This passing concept is designed to attack the common Cover 2 defense. This passing concept puts the ROLB (N) in a bind as he is being asked to cover both the deep and quick in-routes.

If these routes are covered the Quarterback can just dump off the ball to the tailback. (The only way they can both be covered is if the MLB covers the deep in-route while the ROLB covers the quick in-route, or vise versa. However, in both cases the tailback is being neglected and will be open for an easy completion.) Against a man defense the receiver running the quick in-route will just run under the nickel-back covering the deep in-route. This will create a rub and both receivers running in-routes will be open.

Here is a video of this play in action in the 2007 Superbowl between the Giants and Patriots.

This passing concept is also commonly run out of a trips formation. If this is the case the deep-in and shallow-in are still run, but there is often another in-route run by the middle receiver on the trips side. The core concept remains the same, but the follow concept is also added (which will be explained below). On the weakside of the formation a very simple passing concept is usually run, such as the curl-flat concept (using the tailback for the flat), or as in the example below a streak-out concept.

Below is how this play can look on the chalkboard out of an empty trips formation.



Now here is video of this play being run by the Green Bay Packers.

Here is video of this play being running Madden 10 practice mode:


The smash concept creates a vertical stretch on the sideline in the same way that Four Verticals creates a horizontal stretch deep downfield. The smash concept is run by most every team because of well it does against the common Cover 2 defenses.

The smash concept is only a two receiver concept. The outside receive runs a quick six yard hitch route while the slot receiver or tight end runs a twelve yard corner route.

The corner either drops into deep coverage to take away the corner route (this would make the hitch open because the linebacker could not get over to the flat fast enough to cover it) or stays in the flat to prevent the hitch (the corner would be open against the safety as the corner route would have inside position).

While neither receiver has any reads to make while running his routes the outside receiver running the hitch does have a bit more to do than run a simple hitch. Once the outside receiver has run his six yard hitch he must get open. This does not mean he should run all over the field, instead he should mimic the cornerback’s motions, but in the other direction. Basically if the receiver sees zone coverage he will drift inside to a hole in the zone and if the receiver sees man coverage he will shoot towards the sideline to gain separation.

Here is a diagram of the play, as the Steelers ran it for the game winning touchdown against the Cardinals in the 2008 Superbowl (you can see how the outside receiver adjusted his route to get open).



The Quarterback has a simple read. The quarterback simply watches or "keys" the cornerback on the side of the smash route. If the cornerback drops back to defend the corner route the quarterback throw the quick hitch and if the cornerback stays to defend the hitch the quarterback throw the corner route.

Here is video of the game winning play. Rothelisburger must have seen the defense jump on the hitch route which allowed Holmes to get behind the defense for the game winning score.

Fade/Deep-In with an Out-Route:

This is a passing concept that is very similar to the smash concept or snag concept that was described above. The routes are just inverted. The deep route is on the outside and the shallow route is on the inside. Brady has perfected this route combination with Randy Moss and Wes Welker in the New England Patriots offense.

The outside receiver will run a deep route along the sideline typically a go-route (fade route) or a deep-in route. This route will pull the defensive backs far away from an out-route the inside receiver is running. The inside receiver will then running an out-route or some other route that breaks to the sideline. Welker typically runs a pivot route, a route that cuts inside then cuts quickly back out towards the sideline.

Here is a diagram of one of the variants of this concept that the New England Patriots use:



Against defenses playing man coverage Welker is usually left in single coverage against an inferior athlete like a nickel back or an outside linebacker. The defender simply cannot stay with Welker as he makes the cut in his route. Against zone Welker again will be matched against inferior athletes. However, instead of outrunning them he simply will sit in the holes in zone coverage.

Here is some video of Welker running this concept against the Giants in the 2007 Superbowl:

Shallow Cross:

This passing concept was invented by our very own Mike Shannahan while he was the offensive coordinator in San Francisco. The play is designed to get the ball to a playmaker in space and allow him to turn upfield. Again this play is common across the N.F.L., but is expertly run by the New England Patriots.

This passing combination can be run in many different forms. Typically one receiver will run a drag route, or a shallow crossing route. This route is usually run in conjunction with a deep-in route. However, the deep-in route can either be across the field from the shallow cross, run behind the shallow cross, or any other series of combinations.

The concept is typically run as shown below: with the drag route being ran underneath the deep-in route with the outside receivers running directly upfield (often the receivers will run some type of choice routes like the divide route described above). The quarterback will first check the receiver running the shallow cross the look to the receiver running the deep-in and finally to the receivers running go routes down the sideline.



This is a great way to run the concept, it put the inside linebackers in zone coverage in a real bind. They must either drop back to cover the deep-in, giving up the shallow cross, or they must stay shallow to cover the shallow cross, giving up the deep in. The receiver running the deep-in also has the option to sit in holes that he sees in the zone coverage. Against man a nickleback or outside lineback is expected keep up with a slot receiver running at full speed across the formation, this is next to impossible for most defenders.

Here is video of this concept being run:

This concept can also be run in a slightly different way, known as the drive concept. This concept is set up to get the Z receiver running full speed across the formation while opening up a big hole for a deep completion to the tight end. This differences in how this play is diagramed can be seen below when compared with the previous diagram.



This time the drag is being run on the same side of the field as the deep-in route. The outside receivers routes are also more important. The receiver running the drag is often in motion (not shown in the above diagram) which allows him to be at full speed when he begins his route, again he will blow by the defender in man coverage. Against zone their will be a large window to pass to the tight end because of the bind the linebackers are put in.

Here is some video of this play being run by the New England Patriots against the Giants in the 2007 Superbowl:

Notice again how the quarterback reads the drag, the deep-in, and then the deep routes.


This concept is not that popular at the N.F.L. level, but extremely popular at the college level. Again the concept is extremely simple, two receivers run routes right by each other, and this creates a rub against man coverage and allows the receivers to simply sit in the holes against zone coverage.

The first difference in this concept from others is how closely the receivers will line up to each other. Since the receivers are hoping to cross each other it makes since that they would line up closer together. Both inside receivers will run drag routes, very similar to the ones run in the Shallow Cross concept described above. There are only two minor differences, first the receivers running drag routes head slightly upfield once they pass each other, second the receivers running the drag routes have the option to stop in the holes of zones that they will run through. While the outside receiver will either run a post or a corner route (this play is often run out of the three receiver sets, however in four receiver set the outside receiver not running a post or corner will just run a go or fade route). Both tailbacks will run swing routes where they head to the flats and then head directly upfield.

Here is a diagram of the play as Mike Leach runs it at Texas Tech:



I have already described how the mesh routes effect the defense. Against man coverage they create rubs that allow the receivers to get open and against zone the receivers running the crossing drags sit in the holes in the zone coverage.

The receiver running the post or corner route forces the safeties to stay honest and not come closer to the line of scrimmage to stop the mesh routes. The tailbacks do something similar to the outside linebackers, they force them to leave the center of the field and cover the flats. So, all the receivers besides the receivers running the mesh pull the defenders away from the mesh.

Here is video of New Mexico and Texas Tech running this concept:

The quarterbacks reads are very simple on this play. He will first check the post or corner route to make sure the safeties are staying deep, he will then check the tailbacks to make sure the flats are being covered and then he will wait for a receiver to break out of the mesh.

For even more clarity here is video of it being run in NCAA 09:

All Curls:

This passing concept is a concept that horizontally stretches the field. Against defenses with a single high safety (teams running Cover 3 and Cover 1) this is an extremely effective concept. Just like the Four Verticals matches four vertical routes up against three or less defensive backs this concept matches five underneath routes against four or less underneath defenders.

Both outside receivers will run simple 12 yard curl routes. A slot receiver and a tailback (or both runninbacks) will run shoot or flat routes. Then the tight end or other slot receiver) will run a sit route at about six-eight yards deep (this is a route where the reciver runs about six yards to the center of the field then turns and faces the quarterback). Below are some diagrams of this concept in different formations:



The quarterback will read the safety if he rotates away from the sit route (he rotates weak side) the quarterbacks reads will go sit route, curl route, and then the flat route. These three routes create a horizontal stretch to one side of the field. The flat defender must cover both the flat/shoot and the curl while the other linebacker in zone on that side must cover the sit route and the curl route.

If the safety drops to the strong side the quarterback will read the curl/flat combination on the weak side. This concept forces the flat defender to stay near the line of scrimmage to cover the flat/shoot route and allow the corner route, or to drop back to cover the corner route and allow the flat/shoot route.

If the safeties begin to sit on the curls the tight end or slot receiver can run a post or corner route to keep the safeties honest.

Here is a video of the Saints running this play:

And here is video of this play being run in Madden 10 practice mode:

The Slant Concept/Double Slants:

This concept is prevalent throughout the any level of football. This concept was one of the staples of Bill Walsh’s famed west coast offense. Like the shallow cross and mesh concepts this concept is meant to get the ball to your playmaker with space for him to run.

Two receivers on the same side of the ball will both run slant patterns, one at aimed slight further up field. Another receiver on the other side of the field will also run a slant pattern. Lastly, a slot receiver will run a shoot route either underneath the two slants (in a trips formation) or underneath the lone slant (if the tailback does not stay back to block he will run a flat route to the opposite side of the shoot route). Here is a diagram of Iowa running this play against Michigan State:



The two slant routes force zone receivers to choose whether to drop deep and cove the deep slant or to stay shallow and cover the shallow slant, either way a receiver will be open against zone coverage. The shoot and flat routes also cause a problem for zone defenses. The cornerback covering the slant route must either allow the receiver running the slant route a free release and not follow the receiver inside for a few yards (allowing an easy completion to the slant route) or bump the slant receiver and follow him inside a few yards (allowing an easy completion to the flat/shoot route).

Against man coverage the receiver running the slant opposite of the double slants should be in single coverage, which should allow an easy completion with room to run. Below is a video of the play diagramed above being run for a touchdown:

The quarterback will usually using pre-snap motion to identify whether the defense is in man or zone (in the video above the tight end is motioned). Once the quarterback has identified man or zone he knows which half of the field to read. Against man he should look for the single coverage against the lone slant route and against zone there is a flood with the double slants and the shoot route.


This concept is used primarily to defeat zone. The concept involves three receivers who all run routes at different depths on the same side of the field. Just like Four Verticals and All Curls this passing concept is a play that stretches the defense; however this is a vertical stretch instead of a horizontal stretch.

An outside receiver will run go or fade route up the sidelines, a tailback or slot receiver will run a flat or shoot route, and a tight end or slot receiver will run a corner/deep-out route. All three of these routes are attacking the same sideline. The outside receiver on the weak side of the field will run a deep post while the other tailback stays in to block or runs a curl route. Below is a diagram of the play as Norm Chow ran it at U.S.C.:



The receiver running the go or fade route pulls the defensive back on the sideline away from the line of scrimmage and the other two routes. The shoot or flat route keeps any flat defender near the line of scrimmage so that he does not drop back. The slot receiver or tight end running the corner/deep-out then attacks the hole in the zone on the side line. The hole has been expanded by the flat/shoot and go or fade route allowing an easy throw. The other receiver running the post route keeps the safety from cheating down to cover the corner/deep-out. The tailback often stays in to block, but can run a curl to the middle of the field just to occupy another defender.

Here is a video of BYU running this concept with a slight tweak (the tailback runs an angle or texas route):

The quarterback has some simple reads. He will first check the post route and go route just to make sure the defense is not cheating down against the corner/deep-out. Then he will go to the corner/deep-out and if that is covered the tailback is his outlet receiver.


This is a simple concept I will not devote much time to as it is very similar to the All Curls concept.

The outside receiver will run a mini curl (he heads directly up field for four yards, then inside for three yards, and then turns towards the quarterback). The inside slot receiver runs a sit route (see the All Curls concept for description) at a depth of above five yards. The tailback or slot receiver then runs an arrow route (runs in a straight line) aiming at the sideline about four or five yards up field. The outside receiver opposite these routes will often run a post or something similar to keep the safeties honest. This concept is often run out of a bunch as shown below:



The three receivers are creating a horizontal stretch on one side of the field. The flat defender and nearest linebacker are forced to cover three receivers. Against man the defenders will often pick each other will trying to cover the receivers in the bunch formation.

The quarterback will first look at the post to keep the defense honest. Then will stare down the arrow route to pull the flat defender from the mini-curl. The quarterback will then hit the mini-curl for a small gain.

Here is an instructional video of the passing concept:


This concept is another short yardage passing concept. It is a quick three step pass and does well against both zone and man coverages. Lastly, due to how quickly the ball comes out it is a good play to use in blitz situations.

The y-stick passing concept, like All Curls and Four Verticals is a horizontal stretch play. The strong side outside receiver runs a go route straight up field. This receiver must be able to get open deep against man coverage with no safety help. The strong side fullback runs a flat route. The slot receiver or tight end runs the stick route, which is a six yard hitch. On the weak side of the formation the wide receiver runs a choice route where he either runs a slant route or an extended stick route. The wide receiver runs past the inside linebacker and if he sees man coverage he continues his route, but if he sees zone he sits in a hole in coverage and turns and faces the quarterback. Lastly, the tailback runs a swing route. Here is a diagram of the play.



The Z receiver’s go route pulls the defense deep and away from the stick route. The fullback’s flat route is supposed to the pull flat defender toward the line of scrimmage. The tight end receiver running the stick route is supposed to fill in the hole in the zone. This creates a vertical stretch on the strong side of the formation. The weak side receiver’s stick route over the middle of the field creates a horizontal stretch of the defense that compliments the vertical stretch on the sideline. The tailback’s route compliments the weak side receiver’s route to create the same passing concept seen on the weak side of the Double Slants concepts. While the zone stretches this play creates are readily apparent the way this play attacks man is even simpler. In a Cover 1 or Cover 0 man defense the receiver running the z-route is open for the deep option. Against a 2 Man Under defense the receiver running the choice route is suppose to out run the receiver. The receiver running the stick route is suppose to drift just like the receiver running the hitch route does in the Smash concept. Below is a video of the play being run by Houston.

The Quarterback reads are: receiver on the go route, fullback in the flat, receiver running the stick route, then the combination on the other side (outside receiver then tailback).


Part 2 will cover pass protection

Part 3 will cover running plays and play action passing

Hope you learned something.

If anyone knows how to center the pictures or fix other formating I could use some help.

Thanks for reading.

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