What Is The Route Tree In Football?

route tree for receivers

The route tree in football is a fundamental concept that underpins the passing game, offering a structured framework for wide receivers to run precise and varied routes. This system not only enhances the understanding between quarterbacks and receivers but also plays a crucial role in strategizing against defenses.

Understanding the Route Tree

At its core, the route tree is a diagram that represents various passing routes a receiver can run. Each route is assigned a number, typically 1 through 9, with each number corresponding to a specific pattern. The tree is symmetrical, allowing for these routes to be run on either side of the field.

What Are The Routes Of The Route Tree?

football route tree

Flat Route (1)

A quick, outward cut towards the sideline, used often to get the football quickly to the receiver in space. The flat route provides the quarterback with a quick and safe option to release the ball, especially under pressure. It’s a reliable outlet when deeper routes are covered or when the quarterback is facing a blitz.

Slant Route (2)

A sharp, 45-degree angled cut towards the center of the field immediately after the snap, effective for quick gains. The sharp, sudden movement of the slant route makes it highly effective against man-to-man coverage.

Also, in zone coverage, slant routes can exploit the gaps between defenders, especially in areas just beyond the line of scrimmage where linebackers may not cover immediately. Lastly, since the receiver is usually moving across the field with momentum, there’s a significant opportunity for gaining yards after the catch

Comeback Route (3)

After driving downfield for about 10-20 yards (depending on the play design and situation), the receiver makes a sharp, 45-degree turn back towards the sideline. This route is particularly useful against defenders playing deep coverage or prevent defense. Since the route typically ends near the sideline, it allows the receiver to step out of bounds, which can be crucial in managing the game clock.

It’s the toughest throw for the quarterback. And the QB and receiver must have good chemistry and timing to nail this route.

Curl Route (4)

Similar to the comeback but at a shorter depth, where the receiver turns back and angles towards the QB. This route works well against man coverage due to the change of direction, and against zone coverage as the receiver can find and settle in gaps “to sitdown in” within the zone.

Out Route (5)

The receiver runs straight before making a 90-degree cut towards the sideline. This cut is crucial and must be crisp to create separation from the defender. It’s important that the receiver doesn’t round off the route; a sharp break is more effective in shaking off defenders.

Out routes can be integrated into various play designs, including combination routes where one receiver’s route opens up space for the out route, or in play-action passes where the defense’s focus on the run can leave the out route open.

In/Dig Route (6)

Also known as an “in route”, this mirrors the out route. But the cut is towards the center of the field. The dig route targets the intermediate areas of the field, often exploiting the spaces between linebackers and safeties in zone coverage or creating separation in man coverage.

And since the receiver is usually moving across the field with momentum, there’s a significant opportunity for gaining additional yards after the catch

Corner Route (7)

A deep route where the receiver breaks at an angle towards the corner of the field. The corner route is particularly effective against zone defenses, like Cover 2 or Cover 3. It targets the vulnerable areas between the deep safeties and the sideline, where coverage can be weak.

Post Route (8)

A deep route where the receiver breaks towards the goalposts, effective against single-high, two deep safety looks. Due to its depth and angle, the post route is ideal for creating opportunities for large gains or even touchdowns.

It’s a key route for stretching the defense and attacking downfield. And this route is often used in combination with other routes, such as in a “post-corner” or “over-under” concepts, where it either clears out space or benefits from space cleared by other routes.

Fade/Go/Fly Route (9)

A straight vertical route, testing the defense deep and stretching the field. A fade route is a type of deep passing route in football, often used in one-on-one situations to exploit a receiver’s speed and size advantage.

Plus, the close-quarters play and high ball can often lead to pass interference penalties against the defense, especially in tight coverage situations.

Other Football Routes

What is a Skinny Post Route?

A skinny post route is a variation of the traditional post route in football, offering a slightly different angle and purpose. Instead of making a deep 45-degree cut towards the goalposts (as in a regular post route), the receiver makes a less pronounced, more gradual inward cut. This angle is closer to 20-30 degrees, giving the route its “skinny” characteristic.

It blends elements of both the post and the slant routes, providing a dynamic option for quarterbacks looking to attack intermediate areas of the field. Its success depends on precise route running and strong timing between the quarterback and receiver, making it a preferred choice for attacking defenses down the middle of the field.

What is a Hitch Route?

A hitch route, also known as a “hook” or “stop” route, is a basic and highly effective pass pattern in football, commonly used to achieve quick, short gains and provide a reliable option for quarterbacks under pressure. Typically a favorite route for tight ends.

The receiver begins by running straight downfield, creating the impression of a deep route. This initial movement is typically about 5-10 yards, depending on the play design and situation. At the top of the route, the receiver abruptly stops and turns back towards the quarterback. This turn is usually about 180 degrees, allowing the receiver to face the quarterback and present a clear target.

What is a Seam Route?

A seam route in football is a vertical passing route typically run by tight ends, slot receivers, or running backs. It targets the “seam,” which is the vulnerable area between defenders in certain zone coverage schemes, particularly against defenses utilizing multiple deep safeties. Tight ends or slot receivers running seam routes can often create mismatches against slower linebackers or smaller defensive backs, especially in man coverage situations.

The player starts by releasing directly upfield, often aligning their route with the seams or gaps between defenders in zone coverage. And the player needs to quickly get past any linebackers and into the deeper middle area of the defense.

What is a Whip Route?

A whip route, also known as a “pivot” or “zigzag” route, is a more complex and deceptive passing route used in football, primarily by slot receivers or tight ends. It’s designed to create confusion and misdirection, making it effective for shaking off defenders, especially in man-to-man coverage.

The receiver starts by moving inward, similar to the start of a slant or in-route. After moving a few yards inside, the receiver abruptly stops and pivots sharply back towards the outside. Following the pivot, the receiver accelerates outwards, effectively reversing their initial direction.

Variations and Combinations

While the basic route tree is standardized, teams often introduce variations and combinations to exploit specific defensive weaknesses. For instance, a receiver might run a double move, where they initially simulate one route before transitioning into another, thereby deceiving the defender.

Strategic Importance

The route tree’s true value lies in its strategic application. Quarterbacks and receivers study these routes extensively to develop timing and chemistry. Moreover, understanding the route tree helps in reading defenses and adjusting routes on the fly. A well-executed route tree can systematically dismantle even the most robust defenses by exploiting gaps and creating mismatches.


The route tree is more than just a set of routes; it’s a language that enables intricate communication and strategy in the football passing game. Its mastery is essential for quarterbacks and receivers, and its effective utilization can be the difference between a stagnant offense and a dynamic, unstoppable force. By blending precision, timing, and creativity, the route tree remains a cornerstone of offensive strategy in football.

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