This post was written by a great friend and even better coach, Joby Turner. Joby was my roommate in college and we also coached together at Crawfordsville High School. Joby has a unique ability to connect with every athlete on the field, regardless of position. You can contact Joby at jobyturner[at]gmail.com.
Any heavy run team knows that after you have had a couple of good gainers or big plays, the defense starts adding defenders into the box and deep coverage players get closer and closer to the line of scrimmage. This can make it quite difficult to block everyone and create a running lane for the running back. The problem then becomes how do you free up room for your running backs to operate without overhauling your system? Throughout the rest of the post, I plan on presenting different ways to “Loosen Up the Box” while staying true to your system and the formations you already have. I have organized this into three (3) different categories. They are Quick Passes, Runs, and finally Screens. Each will present different ways to create room for the inside run. These are all done with the assumption that you are using some type formation or set with two backs being in the backfield.
The beauty of the Quick Passing Game is that the ball is out quickly and efficiently, and these types of passes can be run anywhere on the field. Whether you are backed up, or on the goal line, these types of quick routes can be used to provide an edge based upon the defense’s alignment to your formation. Other than the Out, these routes are also very cheap in terms of practice time it would take to install and rep during the course of the season leaving time to focus on what you really want to do.
Hitch Routes: The first type of Quick passing play you can implement is the Hitch. I have always taught the Hitch route as a 3-5 yard route that breaks back toward the Quarterback. This route is a solid route that will allow the receiver to have a chance for huge yards after catch (YAC) opportunities if the receiver turns back towards the outside after the catch. The beauty of the hitch is that any receiver can run the route from any position on the field. This route is best used against a deep corner in a Cover 3 type alignment by the corner, but is also highly effective by a tight end (TE) as well.
Pros of the Hitch Route:
- Very safe – Low risk throw that is almost like stealing yardage. The Hitch is probably one of the safest throws a QB can make. It can be thrown by tall QB’s, short QB’s, Left-Handed QB’s etc.
- Keeps you on schedule – When completing a hitch, you are guaranteed 3-5 yards, and this gain gives you a 2nd or 3rd and manageable. In my opinion, keeping on track to gain first downs is one of the most important traits of any offense no matter the style of offense
- Frees up Deeper Routes – After you have hit a few hitches, you now have the chance to run a hitch and go, and get the defense to play way off of the line of scrimmage (LOS)
- Can be run by any type of receiver – Bigger receivers can “box out” defenders, or smaller players can use speed and quickness to create separation from a defender.
Cons of the Hitch Route:
- Pick will generally equal 6 Points the other direction
- Slower types at wide receiver will probably not get as many YAC yards
- QB needs to have a decent arm to get the ball across the field on time
- OLB/Safety can make it tough to throw on a single receiver side, but you have now done your job.
Out Routes: Similar to the Hitch Route is the Quick Out Route. This route was popularized by Bill Walsh, Joe Montana, and the San Francisco 49ers of the 1980’s. This route is also ran at 3-5 yards, and is characterized by the receiver rolling outside toward the sideline at the desired depth. The only ways to stop this are to either have the corner play press coverage, or have the flat defender cheat out to get underneath of the cut.
Pros of the Out Route:
- Easy completion that steals yardage
- Gets the receiver going toward the sideline as he is catching ball, instead of having to get there after the catch
Cons of the Out Route:
- QB usually needs to have a better arm to make this throw
- Requires quite a bit of timing compared to the other quick passes
1 Step Slant Route: This route is becoming more and more popular in the NFL, because of the huge YAC opportunities and the overall size of the NFL wide receiver. The actual route is ran by taking one step forward with the outside foot as a plant foot, and cutting inside off of this foot at a 45° angle aiming for an area behind the MLB. After the catch, get North/South as fast as possible. One of the more famous examples is Larry Fitzgerald’s TD catch in Super Bowl XLIII vs. the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Pros of the 1 Step Slant Route:
- As mentioned earlier, great opportunity for YAC, since receiver will generally only have one defender to beat on the way to the endzone.
- Can be run by any type of receiver. Big players can create a great target for smaller QBs, and small players can use their quickness to rack up YAC.
- Unless their Joe is better than your Jimmy, they must place a defender inside of the receiver to negate the throw by alignment. You have now accomplished what you wanted to accomplish.
- Great on the goal line. Good for when you get single coverage on a bigger receiver toward the end zone. A whip route is also great after you have used this a couple times and the corner starts over playing the slant.
Cons of the 1 Step Slant Route:
- This route can be tough against a very physical corner, or a corner that is a better athlete than your player. Receiver must be a good technician in this situation
- Receiver can get jacked up by a LB/S if he is not paying attention.
This route is also limited by having an outside alignment. It is possible to run this from an inside alignment by a Flexed TE or slot, but it takes a much more accurate throw with all of the traffic inside, and the receiver has a much better chance of getting lit up. It is safer and more cost-efficient to keep it as an outside WR play only.
Bubble Screen/Route: The Bubble route, as most of you know, is slowly taking over College Football with the popularity of the Spread Offense. The way I have learned how the route is ran came from Gunter Brewer. The receiver takes a Carioca step with the outside foot for timing purposes, and then runs a fish hook type path towards the sideline all the while keeping the shoulders square toward the LOS. The receiver needs to make the catch while moving forward.
Pros of the Bubble Screen / Route :
- Really great YAC opportunity, especially with a small scat back type.
- The route pulls the flat defender fast from the box. If not, your player is off to the races.
- Great Decoy route. Can be used to hold the OLB/S for a second while you are actually running a play. Spread teams kill using this principle.
- Other secondary defenders must assist to stop the bubble. This will pull even more defenders away from where ever you are potentially running.
- Great PAP off of it. All the other blocker has to do is “miss” the flat player and it’s money.
- Usually ruled a forward pass if dropped.
Cons of the Bubble Screen / Route :
- Requires another blocker
- The extra blocker better be a good blocker or you will be in trouble.
- Pick = 6 points.
- Can be a loss of yardage if not blocked properly
- Must be run by a receiver in the slot, so you must have at least two (2) receivers to that side.
- Could be ruled a lateral if dropped.
Stand Up Route: The Stand-Up is another route that is becoming more and more popular in the NFL. The route is run by turning the shoulders toward the QB at the snap. Works best when perpendicular to the LOS. Teams that employ this type of strategy are the Packers and Giants, and it was a favorite of gunslinger Brett Favre.
Pros of the Stand Up Route:
- Very Quick. The receiver isn’t going anywhere and all the QB has to do is throw it out there.
- Versatile. Can be run to a 1 receiver side or 2 receiver side to either receiver.
- Can be used with run action by the other 9 players
- Can be called anytime the receiver has an adequate cushion on the DB over him
Cons of the Stand Up Route:
- Tougher throw if the DE gets in the way.
- You need to have space from the defender to actually throw it.
- Receiver better have decent acceleration, since he is standing still at the catch.
Fade / Go / Streak /POP Pass: The Fade/Go/Streak/POP pass is a quick route that’s purpose is to get upfield as fast as possible and take a shot deep. The fade/Go/Streak route is run by getting an outside release, while going no farther than the numbers outside. The idea is to make the catch over the outside shoulder.
Pros of the Fade / Go / Streak / POP Pass:
- Big play when caught
- Can work with any type of receiver
- Pass interference happens more frequently with this type of route
- It can be considered a punt if the pick is far enough down field
- “POP” pass can delay LBs on the run
Cons of the Fade / Go / Stream / Pop Pass:
- Really tough throw to get good at when throwing outside.
- Easy to pick if not accurate
- “POP” is only one that can keep you on schedule.
To close my discussion on the Quick Game, I want to bring up the point that there are many different ways to skin a cat with these types of routes. It is all how and what you want to accomplish with them. I would also suggest that if you plan on using the Stand-Up, Bubble, or 1 Step Slant you plan a part of practice especially for practicing these plays on the defense. Your players must be willing to throw these anytime in the game to get the full effect of throwing uncovered. For more reading, I recommend Andrew Coverdale’s Quick Passing Book/Movies. There are 3 volumes in the series. The link is to the first. Footballs Quick Passing Game
The Quick Passing Game is not the only way to “Loosen Up the Box” and exploit the alignment of defenders. Other run plays can also accomplish the task. The main plays I am discussing fall into the category of “Sweeps.” There are many types of different sweeps, and I will try to give them all justice in how they can help eliminate defenders from the box. The basic premise behind all of these different types of sweeps is to get the ball out on the perimeter quickly in order to “pin” the defense into the box and get a huge gain. Some of these sweeps are easily adaptable to what you may be doing already, others may not. My intent is to offer a smorgasbord of a selection to show you how different people attack the same problem of getting players out of the box.
Types of Running Plays
Jet Sweep: This Sweep comes in with a variety of different blocking schemes, due to the reason that it is very modular. The sweep is recognized by a sweeper back moving in full speed motion directly behind the QB at the snap of the ball. The sweep back is then in good position to attack the perimeter before the defense has a chance to adjust. The idea of the play is to get outside of the defense before they can react and find the ball. In order to stop the play, the defense must over shift toward the perimeter leaving valuable room inside to run the ball.
Pros of Jet Sweep
- A very fast Sweeper can do some serious damage on the perimeter
- You don’t have to block that many people
- Spread the touches out between players
- 2 for 1 chance getting a secondary player to suck up on the sweep
Cons of Jet Sweep
- Somewhat time intensive to get the mesh point down pat
- A little tougher for slower RB’s
- Chance to get behind schedule
- Can’t allow penetration on the play side
Rocket Sweep/Toss: The Rocket Sweep/Toss is very similar to the Jet Sweep in terms of what it is trying to accomplish. It wants to get a player on the perimeter as fast as possible. The main difference between the Jet and the Rocket is in the mechanics of the play. The Rocket wants to hit outside of the tackle on the catch by the sweep back. The Rocket also wants the sweep back deeper and away from the QB at the snap of the ball. As is the case with the Jet, there are numerous ways to block it, so I will not go into detail. I will let you explore it more on your own.
Pros of Rocket Sweep/Toss
- Fastest hitting of all the sweep plays
- You do not need to block many people for it to work
- Quick sweeper back will devastate a defense
- 2 for 1 chance getting a secondary player to suck up on the sweep
Cons of Rocket Sweep/Toss:
- Fumbled toss can be a disaster
- Somewhat practice intensive
- RB needs to be good at reading blocks
Quick Pitch: Quick Pitch is a staple play used by many old school Pro-Style teams, but most notably with Split Back Veer teams. Quick Pitch is a hybrid between the Old School Toss Sweep and the newer Jet and Rocket Sweeps. The actual toss is usually to a stationary back at the snap, who is offset of the midline in a formation. This play can also be blocked a number of ways, but they are generally similar to the way people block Rocket, Jet, and the Old School Sweep.
Pros of Quick Pitch:
- Can get a perimeter run by a player who may tend to run inside more
- Hits perimeter quick. LB/SS can get outflanked in a hurry.
- Can run no matter the WR situation
Cons of Quick Pitch:
- A dropped pitch can be bad news bears
- May get you behind schedule
- Can’t allow penetration
Old School Toss Sweep: The old school toss sweep is generally characterized by a Quarterback reversing out and the entire “Student Body” all going outside to block while the running back gets the pitch. The Fullback generally attacks the Force player hopefully springing the back for a touchdown. The blocking could also be a Pin and Pull type of scheme popularized by the old Colorado Buffaloes and more recently the Indianapolis Colts and Howard Mudd.
Pros of Toss Sweep:
- Everybody and their brother is blocking for you.
- No motion needed
- Chance to have a big play
Cons of Toss Sweep:
- Slower hitting play, since no one is moving at the snap.
- Better have some good in space blockers
- RB must be good at making reads and reading blocks
- Fumbled Toss could be a disaster
- Get behind schedule on a tackle for loss
- Not the most effective method for removing people from the box.
Fly Sweep: The Fly Sweep is probably one of the least used plays in the Sweep family, but it can be one of the more effective plays. The play is characterized by a receiver moving in motion at the snap away from the intended play side behind the QB in a reverse type look. The purpose is to hold the backside pursuit from destroying the play. The beauty of the play is that you only have to have success on a couple of plays to get the attention of the defense. The inside run then becomes more equitable. Some more recent teams that use the Fly Sweep are USC under Pete Carroll and Oregon State with the Rodgers Brothers. Also, check out Mark Speckman’s DVD devoted to the entire package. Coaching the Fly Offense
Pros of the Fly Sweep
- Gives you a can to get a stud WR a carry or two in a game
- Creates a cloudy picture for the D. The D must waste precious time figuring out who has the ball
- Very formation friendly
- Can gain a numerical advantage by having more than one player attack the sweeper back.
Cons of the Fly Sweep
- Very time intensive to install and time up.
- Need to have some decent speed with the Sweep back
- Can bring a front side defender into the box which can be counter productive
Some additional resources for checking out the different types of sweeps are listed below.
The last type of play that I would like to look at while we are discussing ways to “Loosen Up the Box” are Screens. Screens function similarly to the Quick Passing Game, yet they allow you to get blockers down field and create bigger gains. I have picked two screens to discuss in this section, and they are the Rocket Screen and the Running Back Fast Screen. (I have already discussed the Bubble Route, therefore I did not want to include it again.)The reason I chose these two screens is because they really place stress on the Curl/Flat player to make a play, and they take advantage of too many players being in the box. Air Raid teams use these screens to take advantage of hard pass rushing players, but run first teams can use them to force an adjustment in the alignment of the defense.
Rocket Screen: The Rocket Screen is an Air Raid Staple used heavily by Texas Tech in the Mike Leach years, but has also been used arguably more successfully with the Purdue Boilermakers and the Indianapolis Colts. The receiver who is running the route generally will take one step up field and retrace his path behind the line of scrimmage following his blockers to the endzone. Some of you may also know this play as “Tunnel Screen.” I will not discuss blocking scheme as there are numerous ways to block that could themselves be a post. However, I will include a diagram of one of the more popular ways to block it.
Pros of the Rocket Screen:
- Can be run anywhere
- Tons of YAC yards
- Slows pass rush down too
- Forward pass
- Easy throw with receiver coming toward the QB
Cons of the Rocket Screen
- Better have good in space blockers (OL and WR)
- Receiver can get jacked up if a block is missed
- Can get ball batted down
- Pick will probably be 6 the other direction
- Somewhat time intensive to get players where they need to be going
Running Back Fast Screen: This play has been utilized heavily by Rich Rodriguez when he was at West Virginia. While he has used this out of the Spread Gun, I think it can be particularly useful for an under center run team as well. The play is characterized by the running back shooting directly towards the sideline at the snap of the ball. There are generally receivers in position to block for the RB. I think this play can be made even greater with a flash fake to an offset FB to the playside.
Pros of the Runningback Fast Screen:
- Another good way to get a good RB the ball with emphasis on being on the perimeter
- Hits perimeter quick
- Slows DL & LBs down
- Secondary players must wait a second before going to play.
Cons of the Runningback Fast Screen:
- Dropped pass could be ruled a fumble
- Need good perimeter blocking
In conclusion, I hope you are able to add one or two of these different ideas to your current package to “Loosen Up the Box” for your bread and butter inside runs. I realize some of these descriptions are not very detailed, but I hope I have piqued your interest in learning more about some of these different types of play on your own. Feel free to direct any questions to CoachCP or myself. My email is jobyturner[at]gmail.com
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