Another post by my guest writer:
In Part I of this article, I wrote about how my offense coaches the Four-Vertical play as well as some different variations that could be created by simply tagging the base play. Previously, I focused on running the plays from a 2 x 2 formation, whereas now I will shift my focus into 3 x 1 formations. Please note that while the diagrams shown will be from true spread formations, attached formations can often yield effectively the same play. The key would be if an attached TE or Wingback can get to the same landmark as a displaced receiver and create the same spacing that the play requires. For example, if the ball is on a hash, a TE or Wingback into the boundary can execute the same assignment as a boundary slot receiver in a 2 x 2 formation. Another example with the ball on a hash would be to use a TE or Wingback to the field as the #3 receiver in a 3 x 1 formation.
The play-calling system for a 3 x 1 version of our Four-Vertical play is the same as in 2 x 2 formations: it starts with calling the letter of the player who runs the Locked-Seam. The slot receiver who is not running the Locked-Seam is still the Seam-Read. The outside receivers run a Stop or a Go route based on their respective Cornerbacks. Finally, the RB check-releases, and if he is able to release he runs a Dump route which breaks toward the Seam-Read if he is matched.
We will now start with our two basic versions of Four-Verticals before moving on to the different variations. In addition to talking about how the plays are run, I will also discuss why I would call one version over the other.
When studying how different passing offenses run this play, you are likely to find the coaches split on which guy is their Seam-Read or “Bender” as it is often called. While there are advantages to each, I believe that it is best to have both options available in order to create the most stress against the defense you are playing against. In the above example, the Rhythm Locked-Seam is by the #2 receiver, and the Seam-Read is run by the #3 receiver. The way we would call this is by giving the letter of the #2 receiver before the play, such as “H-Verts” or “Y-Verts” or “Z-Verts,” depending on who the #2 is in that formation. Our QB’s basic progression is the same as it was in 2 x 2, only now both his Rhythm and Read routes are on the same side of the field. Should both of those routes be CAPed, the QB would then go to the RB on the Dump as his Rush route. The specific coaching points for the Seam-Read do not change, as his goal is to get into unCAPed and unoccupied space. He is still looking to get vertical down the field first, and if he is CAPed he will break on whatever angle is best to work into the open grass. This may end up being a Post cut, a sharp 90 degree Dig break, or something in-between. The key is avoiding collision from the LBs and working to the unCAPed space in a time frame that allows the QB to know where he is going and deliver the ball after one hitch.
In the example above, the Rhythm Locked-Seam is run by the #3 receiver, and the Seam-Read is run by the #2 receiver. The way we would call this is by giving the letter of the #3 receiver before the play, such as “H-Verts” or “Y-Verts” or “Z-Verts,” depending on who the #3 is in that formation. Our QB’s basic progression is the same as it was in the previous example, only now the Rhythm and Read routes are run by different receivers. Should both of those routes be CAPed, the QB would then go to the RB on the Dump as his Rush route. The only thing that changes for the Seam-Read here is that he does not have a high-angle Post option because that space is occupied by the Locked-Seam. He is still looking to get vertical down the field first, and if he is CAPed he will make a sharp 90 degree break inside (Dig), or he can roll into something slightly deeper if the defense allows it.
In order to maximize the effectiveness of your Seam routes in the Four-Vertical play, the first thing you should look to do is create a situation where you have the potential to hit an unCAPed Rhythm throw. Since our Rhythm route here is a Locked-Seam, our only chance to hit it is if he is unCAPed when the QB’s hits the last step of his drop. With this in mind, a coach should call the play based on which slot has the best chance to be open based on the pre-snap defensive structure.
In the example above, the defense is showing a strong-side rotation into Cover 3. Traditional thinking is that you run the slots down the hashes and put the FS is in a bind. People have been doing that for years, and if that is how you do it and it works for you, then keep doing it that way. I used to coach the play like that, but since jumping into the world of R4, I learned that there were other ways to do it. The main reason in going away from defender keys is to eliminate the grey area. I could say to my QB “key the FS and if he goes right, you throw left, and if he goes left then you throw right.” Well, what if he doesn’t go anywhere? To eliminate hesitation by the QB (the main reason I was open to changing how I coached the passing game) he must have an initial plan of what he is going to do and something must force him to deviate from that plan. Instead of an “either-or” situation (which may not always be black and white), it is “throw the Locked-Seam on Rhythm unless you can’t, in which case you would move along in your progression.” Another benefit of the R4 system is the accelerated decision-making process. My QB has the potential to get the ball off faster since he is ready to throw the Locked-Seam at the end of his drop and without a hitch if it is unCAPed.
If both receivers were to run vertical in the example above, the #2 receiver is the most likely receiver to be unCAPed based on my pre-snap look. Granted, both receivers would have to avoid collision by the LBs, but #3 has the FS on top of him and inside. Traditional thinkers would say something like “Duh, the #3 receiver needs to get to the opposite hash so you can horizontally stretch the FS.” While that is the ideal end result, I again must go back to the principle of timing. The #2 receiver only has to avoid the rolled-down SS to enter into unCAPed space. The #3 receiver on the other hand must avoid collision by the Sam, as well as work across the FS’s face, where he may encounter the Mike. While a gifted receiver playing against inept coverage might make all that happen by the time the QB takes his drop (and a shotgun 3-step drop doesn’t take very long), it is likely that the QB would see the receiver collisioned or rerouted by the LB and have to move on in his progression. Regardless of what the FS does, collision and rerouting of receivers by the undercoverage throws off the timing of the play. This forces the QB to eliminate that route from his progression and move on to his next option if he is staying true to the timing of the play. These factors that help the QB make decisions faster are known as “accelerators” in the R4 system (for more information on the R4 accelerators, go buy the book). Maybe in 7-on-7 you can stay on a receiver indefinitely until he is open, but in real football there is a pass-rush, and those guys coming after the QB do not want to let him stay upright in the pocket for any period of time. Going back to the example above, if we make the #3 receiver the Read route, that receiver now has more time to work release moves, avoid collision, and then make a more distinct break to get to the unCAPed space. Bottom line is that by choosing the Rhythm route that has the best chance of success, you increase the likelihood of the QB being able to throw to him.
In the above example, the QB drops back with the intent of throwing the Locked-Seam to #2 on Rhythm. If that receiver is collisioned, or the FS makes a drastic move to CAP him, then the QB will move his eyes and he hitches to throw to the Seam-Read. Again, being the “Read” route has given that receiver extra time to work himself around the Sam and into the unCAPed space near the hash. Should something happen to take away the Seam-Read (deep dropping Mike, hard-walling Sam, etc…), the QB will move his eyes hitch again to his RB on the Dump.
In the above example we see a defense that appears to be in Cover 2. If both slots were to run vertical, which one has the best chance of being unCAPed? If you said #3, you are correct. Against the defense shown above, I would make #3 the Rhythm Locked-Seam, and #2 would be the Seam-Read. There are other many other ways to attack a defense like this (and we will look at some of those later), but this is the version of the base Four-Verts play that I would use.
In the example above, the QB drops back looking to throw the Locked-Seam to #3 on Rhythm. If that receiver is CAPed or collisioned, then the QB will moves his eyes as he hitches to the Seam-Read, which again has had the benefit of extra time to work himself around the Sam and into the unCAPed space between the Sam and the Mike. Should something happen to take away the Seam-Read, the QB will move his eyes as he hitches to throw to his RB on the Dump route.
In the first two examples, we have seen defensive structures that were set up to allow the likely Rhythm throw to be chosen pre-snap. There are also defensive structures that appear to not allow Rhythm throws. When this is the case, two things must be considered. These are if the CAP can be eliminated, and if not, what is the best Read route option?
There are some cases where a pre-snap CAP can be eliminated post-snap. This can often be determined through film study (both coverage scheme and personnel), as well as in-game analysis (both scheme and personnel). Some Safeties will align with some cushion (8-10 yards) and dare you to try to run by them, and you can’t. Others will show cushion, but post-snap will allow you to get behind them. Personnel should be strongly considered, both offensively and defensively. Utilize your best personnel in positions that you think you have the best chance of winning. Remember, we are talking about the ability of a receiver to quickly close the cushion on a defender and be in a position to clearly get behind him in the time-frame of a Rhythm throw. It doesn’t do any good if the receiver needs 50 yards to run by a defender, because the QB will have long since moved on in his progression.
The next thing to consider when you cannot win on a Locked-Seam is which player/position has the best chance of winning on the Seam-Read. If you know that you won’t be throwing to the Rhythm route, it wouldn’t make sense to waste your best receiver there unless there was a ridiculous defensive overreaction that made it much better to throw to your second-best guy. Otherwise, the Rhythm route becomes a sacrificial lamb, and serves to give the QB a natural look-off as he allows his Read route to develop. (It should be noted that sometimes better Rhythm routes exist other than verticals, but for the purposes of this article we are sticking with a Four-Vertical concept. There are definitely times when you should just take a quick drop and throw the dang Hitch route if the coverage is playing 10 yards off).
The example above shows a form of Quarters coverage with the FS aligning almost over #3. Assuming that you don’t anticipate winning on a Locked-Seam, your thinking should go to figuring out which player has the best chance to win on the Seam-Read. To determine that, there are a few factors to consider. First, does one safety look to be giving more cushion than the other? More cushion typically means softer coverage, and a less-contested throw. The next would be horizontal leverage. Outside leverage on an inside-breaking route is ideal, while heavy inside-leverage on the same break offers the defensive player a better chance to CAP the route horizontally. The third thing to look for is a possible bracket or disruption by underneath coverage. This could vary game to game, but hopefully a coach has an idea of how the underneath coverage of an opponent plays when they see vertical route stems. In the example above, both Safeties are giving the same amount of cushion, but the FS is much further inside of his respective receiver than the SS. So far the thinking is that #2 is the best option for the Seam-Read. Lastly, the alignment of the Sam being so far inside #2 indicates that #2 should have a free release and most likely will not have to worry about collision by the Sam.
At the snap of the ball, #3 bursts down the middle of the field on the Locked-Seam. The FS drops back, CAPing that route. Seeing this, the QB eliminates the possibility of throwing the Rhythm route, and moves his eyes to find the window for the Seam-Read as he hitches to set the hallway for the throw. It is possible that the undercoverage could somehow take this route away, in which case the QB would move his eyes as he hitches again to the RB on the Dump as his Rush route.
The next situation to look at is a disguised secondary rotation. I am referring to a situation where the offense is totally fooled and has the play called to defeat the pre-snap look, only to have the defense change the coverage (and the CAPs) at the snap. The example above shows a pre-snap look of a Quarter-Quarter-Half coverage. You decide to use #3 as your Rhythm Locked-Seam.
At the last second, the defense rolls into Cover 3. With the FS dropping to the middle of the field and the Mike walling off the Locked-Seam, the QB knows that this route is CAPed, and moves his eyes to the Seam-Read. The Seam-Read, upon recognizing the SS rolling down, knows that he is now unCAPed and continues vertical down the hash. The QB sees the adjustment by the Seam-Read as he hitches to set the proper hallway and fires the ball on a line to the #2 receiver. If something were to happen to the Seam-Read to prevent the QB from throwing to him, there would not be a Rush route available due to the RB having to block the blitzing Sam. In this case, the QB would be forced into an early release, which could either be a scramble situation or simply taking off and running for positive yards.
Now that we have established the basic versions of 3 x 1 Verticals, the next thing to do is look at how tags can be used to create different variations. The one shown above is a strongside directional tag, and is the same tag discussed in Part I. The directional tag tells the QB that his Rhythm and Read routes will be the two left-most or right-most receivers (not always on the same side of the field). The play-call will include the #2 receiver called as the Rhythm Locked-Seam, followed by the directional tag (the example above shows a “Right” tag). As stated previously, the directional tag tells the RB which way to go on his Dump route if he is matched. A good time to use a directional tag is to create a horizontal stretch on an OLB (or a rolled-down Safety) in Cover 3 or Quarters coverage, or as a way to horizontally stretch a Cover 2 Safety. Even though OLBs in Quarters coverage don’t have to carry Seam routes, sometimes they get overzealous about collisioning the slot receivers, and do not get out to the flat. To take advantage of these players, we want to have the Rhythm and Read routes next to each other.
In the diagram above we see the defense in a Cover 3 look. Hypothetically, let’s say the SS has been collisioning and running with the Locked-Seam by #2. In doing this, he is neglecting his flat coverage responsibility, therefore opening up the Stop route by the outside receiver. The QB will still take his drop and look to hit his Rhythm Locked-Seam by #2. If he sees collision by the SS, he will moves his eyes and hitch to throw to the outside receiver, who still will run his route based on the cushion of the CB. If the outside route is not there, the QB moves his eyes and hitches again to the RB on the Dump route.
Here we have another example of a strongside directional tag (Right), in this case against Cover 2. The QB starts with his Rhythm route, which is #2 on the Locked-Seam. Something that was mentioned before is that the Locked-Seam does not deviate from his vertical track unless that ball takes him off of it. A Cover 2 Safety might play deep and outside of the Locked-Seam, and the QB could treat this as unCAPed and throw the Seam slightly inside. If the Locked-Seam is CAPed by the SS, the QB would move his eyes outside to the #1 receiver (who should outside release a hard CB and get vertical outside) and hitch to set his feet to the throw. As always, the directional tag would have the RB work in that direction if matched.
While it is possible to use weakside directional tags to go from a #3 Locked-Seam to the Singleside #1 as the Stop/Go, it is not recommended for every situation. The above example shows a Quarters look with the Will in the box. This play would be called by using the letter of the receiver running the Locked-Seam, followed by the directional tag (Left in this case). The Rhythm Locked-Seam by #3, while it is possible that it could be open, does not do anything to affect the drop of the Will. However, the natural look-off created by looking at the Rhythm route could hold the Will in the box, and therefore open up the Stop route on the sideline. If the Will does end up buzzing out to take away the Stop route, the Dump route still has a chance, although he does not have nearly the same space he has when working toward the field. If your goal is to feed the ball to the singleside receiver and the Will is buzzing after reading pass, you may be better off signaling a Hitch (or Out) the pre-snap look is there and the quick throw does not give the Will time to get out to cover him.
Here we see another weakside directional call (Left in this case) against a Cover 2 look. The idea here is to horizontally stretch the FS. The QB starts with his Rhythm Locked-Seam by #3. The possibility exists that it could be unCAPed. The final decision will be based on how the Mike and FS play post-snap. A Mike who walls deep creates a need to throw the ball further downfield, which allows the FS more time to react to the ball in the air. More on that later… Bottom line is if the Locked-Seam is CAPed, the QB moves his eyes and hitches to the boundary #1 receiver who will have read the coverage and run the appropriate route based on the cushion of the CB. Against a clouded CB, the receiver should attempt to outside release, but not get himself run out of bounds. If the CB widens to maintain his leverage, slip him inside, stack him, and get vertical. If for some reason the CB should bail and cover deep, the receiver still has the option to run a Stop route. If the outside receiver cannot win, the QB moves his eyes and hitches again to the RB on the Dump route.
Back to the Locked-Seam against Cover 2- A coach with a really gifted QB could teach a back-shoulder throw, which creates more opportunities to stay with that route even if the Mike is running stride-for-stride with it. At the end of the day, the QB needs to have a set structure in place of how and when he can/should throw the Locked-Seam against Cover 2. I can provide a rigid definition of when to throw it, but that may cause you to miss out on opportunities to throw and catch some balls deep down the middle if your QB/Receiver tandem is very talented. If you know that you will have opportunities to call this route against a look like this, then it would be worth spending a little bit of time to figure out exactly what throws your QB can make and come up with your own guidelines, which will provide your QB with a structure he can be confident in working within.
Just like we saw in 2 x 2, a backside Shallow route can be tagged in a 3 x 1 set to give the QB a different Rush route. In this case, the #3 receiver should be the Locked-Seam in order to prevent the Seam-Read from being thrown working into the unoccupied defenders on the weakside (which would happen if #3 was the Seam-Read). The QB starts with his Locked-Seam by #3 as his Rhythm, and if that is CAPed, moves his eyes and hitches to #2 on the Seam-Read. If that isn’t there, the QB moves his eyes and hitches again to the Shallow route. Because the Rush route here is being run by a receiver, there is no risk of losing him in blitz pickup, which makes it great in the case of defensive pressure. Even if the defense does not blitz, the Shallow tag is a great way to hit an athlete on the run out in space when the coverage has dropped off to defend the vertical routes. This may offer a great chance at converting 3rd and long when the defense has softened to defend the sticks, and is now out of position to tackle your best athlete in the open field. A reminder that when a Shallow is tagged, the RB on the Dump route works to where the Shallow came from, and is sure to let the Shallow clear before working through the line of scrimmage (after checking for blitz).
The last tag I’m going to discuss is a “Fin” route by the strongside #1 receiver. The picture created is essentially a “Levels” look. We want the Fin route to be adjacent to the Seam-Read, so the #3 is must be the Locked-Seam. QB starts here, trying to throw on Rhythm if it is unCAPed. If it is CAPed, he moves his eyes and hitches to #2 on the Seam-Read. If that isn’t there, the QB moves his eyes and hitches again to the Fin which is his Rush route. The RB’s job when a Fin is tagged is to check-release Dump and work away from the Fin route if matched. The Fin tag is a great adjustment when OLBs become aggressive in walling off Seam routes, or when OLBs let go of Seam routes when #1 runs the Fin route. It is also a way to guarantee a Rush route in the case of a blitz.