American Football Passing Patterns

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When watching an American football game at home or in the stands, you can look for basic pass patterns that are used in all levels of football. By knowing these pass patterns (also known as pass routes), you can discover what part of the field or which defensive player(s) the offense wants to attack, or how an offense wants to compete with a specific defense.

The following list includes the most common patterns that receivers run during games:

  • Comeback: Teams use this pass pattern effectively when the receiver is extremely fast. The receiver runs hard downfield, between 12 and 20 yards, and then turns sharply to face the football. The comeback route generally is run along the sideline.

    To work effectively, the quarterback usually throws the ball before the receiver turns. He throws to a spot where he expects the receiver to stop and turn. This kind of pass is called a timing pass because the quarterback throws it before the receiver turns and looks toward the quarterback or before he makes his move backward.

  • Crossing: The crossing pattern is an effective pass against man-to-man coverage because it’s designed for the receiver to beat his defender by running across the field. The receiver can line up on the right side of the line of scrimmage, run straight for 10 yards, and then cut quickly to his left. When the receiver cuts, he attempts to lose the man covering him with either a head or shoulder fake (a sudden jerk with his upper body to one side or the other) or a quick stutter-step.

    This route is designed for two receivers, usually one on either side of the formation. It allows one receiver to interfere with his teammate’s defender as the two receivers cross near the middle of the field. The play is designed for the quarterback to pass to the receiver on the run as the receiver crosses in front of his field of vision.

  • Curl: For this 8- to 12-yard pass beyond the line of scrimmage, the receiver stops and then turns immediately, making a slight curl before facing the quarterback’s throw. The receiver usually takes a step or two toward the quarterback and the ball before the pass reaches him. The curl tends to be a high-percentage completion because the receiver wants to shield the defender with his back, and the intention is simply to gain a few yards.

  • Hook: Number 6 in the following figure. This common pass play, which is also known as a buttonhook, is designed mostly for a tight end, who releases downfield and then makes a small turn, coming back to face the quarterback and receive the ball. A hook is similar to a curl, except the turn is made more abruptly and the pass is shorter, at 5 to 8 yards. It’s a timing pass, so the quarterback usually releases the ball before the tight end starts his turn.

  • Post: Number 7 in the following figure. This is a long pass, maybe as long as 40 to 50 yards, in which the receiver runs straight downfield, and then cuts on a 45-degree angle toward the “post,” or goal posts. A coach calls this play when one safety is deep and the offense believes it can isolate a fast receiver against him. The quarterback puts enough loft on the ball to enable the receiver to catch the pass in stride.

  • Slant: Number 5 in the following figure. This pass is designed for an inside receiver (a flanker) who’s aligned 5 yards out from the offensive line, possibly from a tight end or the offensive tackle. The receiver runs straight for 3 to 8 yards and then slants his route, angling toward the middle of the field.

  • Square-out: Number 4 in the following figure. The receiver on this pattern runs 10 yards down the field and then cuts sharply toward the sideline, parallel to the line of scrimmage. The square-out is also a timing play because the quarterback must deliver the pass before the receiver reaches the sideline and steps out of bounds, sometimes before he even cuts.

  • Streak (or Fly): Number 8 in the following figure. This is a 20- to 40-yard pass, generally to a receiver on the quarterback’s throwing side (which is right if he’s right-handed or left if he’s left-handed). The receiver, who’s aligned wide and near the sidelines, runs as fast as he can down the sideline, hoping to lose the defensive man in the process. This pass must be thrown accurately because both players tend to be running as fast as they can, and often the cornerback is as fast as the receiver.

  • Swing: This is a simple throw to a running back who runs out of the backfield toward the sideline. The quarterback generally throws the pass when the running back turns and heads upfield. The receiver’s momentum most likely will take him out of bounds after he catches the ball unless he’s able to avoid the first few tacklers he faces.

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