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» Catch Radius: The Bigger, the Better?

Our season finale of catch radius focuses on the growing size of Josh McCown's talented receiving duos, including breakout stud Alshon Jeffery. Also: Anquan Boldin's incredible year.

14 Jul 2006

The Passing Game II: Slants and Flats

by Mike Tanier

The quick slant is the signature play of the West Coast Offense. Since the West Coast is the most prevalent offense in the NFL, it's not an exaggeration to call the slant the most important play in professional football.

The quick slant is a simple pass pattern: run three to five steps, slant toward the middle of the field, and look for the ball as soon as you make your cut. But like the Cover-2 defense or the zone blitz, the quick slant embodies an entire football philosophy, and it can form the core of a whole offensive scheme. A team that builds its plays around slants, like the Seahawks, attacks a defense much differently than does a team that builds around I-formation running, like the Steelers.

But even the Steelers execute the occasional quick slant: it's part of every NFL playbook. Because it is so ubiquitous, the quick slant makes a great introduction into the world of pass play design. If you can understand the quick slant, in all of it's myriad incarnations, then you can begin to comprehend how modern playbooks and gameplans are constructed.

Slant-and-Flats

The diagram to the right shows a classic slant play. This play is often called Slant-and-Flats or Slant-and-Shoot. In Jon Gruden's terminology, it is part of the Jet Smoke series: a set of plays featuring two slants and two flat routes. The play shown here is interpreted from a diagram Gruden used during a presentation at the 2004 coaching clinic, but similar plays can be seen in books like Football's West Coast Offense by Frank Henderson and Mel Olson and various other sources.

Let's examine each player's role in this Slant-and-Flats play:

Receivers: The left and right receiver each runs a slant route. Each stands at the line of scrimmage with his outside foot back and takes three long strides. Depending on the type of coverage and the preferences of the coach, the receiver's initial steps might be parallel to the sideline, angled slightly toward the middle of the field, or directed toward the body of his defender. Against press coverage, he must fight for a clean release while still moving upfield in the first three steps. If the defending cornerback is playing off the line of scrimmage or shading the receiver to the left or right, attacking straight toward his body will force him to backpedal, which will give the receiver plenty of room to make a cut.

On the third stride, each receiver plants and breaks at a 30-45 degree angle, anticipating the ball just after the break. The angle of the break depends on the coach's philosophy and the type of coverage; with safeties in the deep middle of the field, the receiver should take a tight angle so he doesn't drift into their zones. If the receiver failed to get separation from his cornerback, he can still shield the cornerback from the ball with his body as long as he has gotten inside the defender. The receiver must be ready to snap off the route and start eluding defenders as soon as he catches the ball.

Halfback: As the play is drawn, the halfback has blitz pickup responsibilities at the snap. If any defender blitzes wide of the left tackle's outside foot, the halfback must block him. If no one blitzes on that side, the halfback releases into the flat.

Fullback: The fullback is the hot receiver on this route. If a defender blitzes wide of the right tackle, the fullback must sprint into the flat and prepare for an immediate throw.

Both the halfback and fullback are check-down targets on this play. If the quarterback has nowhere else to go, he'll dump the ball into one of the flats for a short gain. But the backs are performing another important task: they are stretching the defense horizontally. Against man coverage, they are clearing the middle of the field of linebackers who could jump the slant routes. Against zone coverage, they are widening the flat defenders; in other words, they are forcing cornerbacks to disengage from the wide receivers and step up to defend the short passes.

Tight End: This play isn't designed for the tight end. He runs a seam route to occupy the attention of the safety covering him (or covering the zone behind the flanker on the right side). The tight end must release cleanly and attack the seam hard, ideally bringing a safety with him to the deep middle. If the safeties determine that the tight end is a decoy and start ignoring him, the offensive coordinator will spot it in the booth, and he'll tell the quarterback to look for the tight end deep the next time the play is called.

The Offensive Line: This diagram shows a likely blocking scheme against a four-man front. The center checks for defenders coming through the A-gaps, then assists the right guard. Protectors on the right side of the line block the gaps to their right. As shown, there's a big hole in the protection in the B-gap between the left guard and tackle. The halfback might be asked to read this gap and block before releasing into the pattern.

Quarterback: Pre-snap, the quarterback reads the coverage, looks for potential blitzes, and determines if the cornerbacks are playing press or loose coverage. This play works best on the strong (right) side; the tight end is clearing out defenders, and the flanker is off the line of scrimmage and more likely to release cleanly. But the play is largely symmetrical, so the quarterback can switch sides and see nearly identical routes. But he must decide while dropping to pass. Slant and flat routes are completed quickly, and the quarterback probably won't have time to switch sides in the pocket.

At the snap, the quarterback takes a three-step drop and reads the cornerback and linebacker to the preferred side of the field. If the cornerback is in loose coverage and the linebacker is chasing a running back, the slant will be open. If the receiver gets a clean release in press coverage, the slant will be open. If the linebacker blitzes, the quarterback hits the running back in the flat. He may also target the running back if the defense is in man coverage, the flanker is well covered, but the linebacker is slow in getting to the flat. If nothing opens up, he can try to reset his feet and throw the other way, dump the ball to the running back and hope for a two-yard gain, or throw the ball 20 yards over the tight end's head.

Variations on a Slant-Flat Theme

The Slant-Flat play explained above dates back to the Joe Montana-to-Dwight Clark days. If you play video games, you probably executed the split-back Slant-Flat play a few thousand times. If quick slants only worked out of split-back formations, they wouldn't be very popular today. Luckily, this versatile play can be run from any formation, and it can be tweaked to fit a variety of situations.

Here is a very similar Slant-Flat play, this time from a single back set with an H-back in motion. After the H-back crosses the formation, there are three receivers flooding the right side of the field. This makes the quarterback's reads easier: he can tell if the split end to the left is isolated against his cornerback, and the shifting of the defense should tell him if they are in man or zone coverage underneath.

Once the ball is snapped, this play is nearly identical to the one run from the split-back formation. The receivers run their slants. The running back hits the weakside flat, possibly after reading for blitzes. The tight end attacks the strong side gap. Instead of running a seam pattern, the H-back runs a curl in the middle of the field. That makes him part of the quarterback's progression of reads: if the outside linebackers dropped into zones around the hashmarks ("hook zones") to stop the slants, there should be plenty of room underneath for an alert H-back to sit and wait for a short pass.

As shown, the tight end and H-back cross each other, creating a potential "rub" which could help either player get open. In another variation of the play, the H-back could slip into the flat, while the tight end runs the curl. Either player could stay in to help boost the pass protection. The choices are limitless.

Here is a Slant-Flat variation from a Twin WR set, with two wide receivers on the left side of the formation. In this iteration, three players run slants: the split end, the flanker in the slot, and the H-back. The tight end and running back work the flats; the diagrammed play has the tight end pass blocking before releasing.

In the NFL, most defenses counter a twins formation by bringing a safety or nickel defender to cover the slot receiver, while the left cornerback plays the "force" position outside the tight ends on the right side of the offense. That often creates a mismatch, with a starting receiver facing a safety or backup defender. If the quarterback reads an obvious mismatch or a blitz from the twins side, he throws the slant to the flanker. If the defense brings an extra safety into deep coverage on the twins side, that deep safety is usually assigned to help with the inside slant, leaving the split end in single coverage. If both cornerbacks line up in man coverage on the twins side, the receivers can clear them out, and the running back should have plenty of room to run after catching the flat pass.

If defenses adapt to the Twin WR Slant-Flat, the offense can counter attack by making the flanker run a curl route, having the split end run a drag across the middle, or sending the running back on an angle route across the middle of the field. And of course, a few running plays to the two-tight end side will keep defenses from loading up against the twins.

A Play with Staying Power

That's pretty much it: the play that turned Bill Walsh into Socrates, Joe Montana into a bronze bust, and the power-running NFL into a precision aerial show. How could one play, a short pass no less, change the way football is played?

Walsh built his version out of necessity when he began coaching the 49ers in the late 1970s. He had already helped design a technical, short-passing offense for the Bengals, but his offensive line in San Francisco wasn't good enough to keep quarterback Steve DeBerg upright for more than a second or two. So Walsh emphasized the three-step drop and developed pass routes that opened up quickly.

It was the right offense for the right time. The five-yard chuck rule had been instituted, and defenders could no longer batter receivers up and down the field. Defensive coordinators struggled to adapt. Cornerbacks didn't want to risk a penalty by getting too physical, and they didn't want to risk getting burnt. So they all but allowed those quick slants, hitches, smashes, flats and curls. Walsh (and later Montana) built an empire one five-yard pass at a time.

What came to be called the West Coast Offense met every challenge that 1980s defenses offered. Hot routes and running backs in the flat were perfect antidotes for the heavy blitzes applied by outside linebackers in 3-4 defenses. When the 46 defense moved a safety close to the line of scrimmage, it opened up the middle of the field: one cut, and a good receiver could turn a short slant into a 50-yard touchdown.

Zone coverage can neutralize the Slant-and-Flat family of plays, and the rise of the Cover-2 scheme can be traced to its efficiency against the West Coast Offense. Linebackers can take away the slant passing lanes by dropping into hook zones. Cornerbacks can jam receivers, pass them off to the safeties, and guard the flats. Of course, the West Coast Offense is more than just a series of Slant-and-Flat plays, just as the Cover-2 defense isn't just a playbook full of two-deep, five-under coverage schemes. But in many of the chess matches that we watch each Sunday, Slant-and-Flat and Cover-2 are the opening gambits.

Summing it Up

Grab some graph paper or a video game with a play designer, and you can experiment on your own. You can build Slant-and-Flat plays from any alignment, from a power I-formation to a five-wideout spread to some zany Pop Warner triple stack. The principles remain the same. The combination of routes stretches the defense horizontally. The receiver breaks quickly and expects the ball immediately. The quarterback reads, sets and fires before the defense can mount a pass rush.

The variations are endless, and a coach like Jon Gruden or Mike Holmgren might have several hundred of them in his playbook. The variations give the West Coast Offense its complexity, and they make it difficult to defend. But the basics are deceptively simple. Watch carefully, and you'll see this route combination executed several times in every game, even if you're not watching a "West Coast Offense" team.

(Note: The term "West Coast Offense" has several meanings, and football historians know that it is most properly applied to Sid Gillman's AFL offenses in the 1960s. But the term is more commonly used to describe Bill Walsh's offense, and that is how it will be used in this series of articles. Deal with it.)

Posted by: Mike Tanier on 14 Jul 2006

29 comments, Last at 25 Jul 2006, 11:22pm by Vern

Comments

1
by jetsgrumbler (not verified) :: Fri, 07/14/2006 - 12:18pm

First In? Sweet. The strategy mini camp series really is great. Little details like explaining which foot a receiver puts in front at the line and why they might run at a defender instead of away are what sets these apart. Nice work, as usual.

2
by the peepshow (not verified) :: Fri, 07/14/2006 - 12:50pm

Great article. Its easy to understand why this type of offense would take three or four years to learn, and why it requires a smart and accurate passer under center (sorry Vick, keep tryin'). Hasselbeck seems to be the current master of the West Coast, which makes me respect him all that much more.

Any chance we could get a run down of the teams that run West Coast?

3
by sam_acw (not verified) :: Fri, 07/14/2006 - 1:11pm

Is there going to be a mini camp on the deep passing offense? I'm thinking of the Packers about 2/3 seasons ago running with 5 or 6 lineman on 1st and 2nd downs and then looking deep on passing downs.

4
by Wanker79 (not verified) :: Fri, 07/14/2006 - 1:54pm

Re 3:

Here's the last paragraph from the first installment's intro.

Consider this week's Minicamp an introductory course: a primer on the language and concepts of the passing game. Next week, we'll examine quick slant routes and principles of the West Coast offense. After that, we'll look at the spread offense. In the last installment, we'll run some bootlegs and a waggle or two. At the end, you'll have a deeper understanding and appreciation of football strategy, and you may pick up some pointers for your favorite video game.

5
by Andrew (not verified) :: Fri, 07/14/2006 - 2:10pm

WCO Teams (as of 2005):

Seahawks
49ers
Broncos
Bucs
Eagles
Packers
Falcons
Lions
Raiders
Jets

I'm sure there are more.

6
by pound4pound (not verified) :: Fri, 07/14/2006 - 2:14pm

Great article Mike. Quick question: can someone explain exactly what a "hot route" is? I hear this phrase thrown around all the time, but after seeing it referenced in this article, I'm not sure what exactly they're referring to. Thanks.

7
by Wanker79 (not verified) :: Fri, 07/14/2006 - 2:18pm

A hot-route is the receiver who becomes the primary target in the event of a blitz. So in the first example, if a defender blitzes from the right side instead of the FB trying to pick it up he'll instead get outside the blitz and look for the quick throw.

8
by SlantNGo (not verified) :: Fri, 07/14/2006 - 3:25pm

Re: 7
Maybe some teams do that in the NFL, but I've never seen a hot route like that. In most protections, there will be one gap (usually either the outside the LT or outside the RT) that will be left unblocked because there's not enough people to block that gap. In the event that there is a blitz from that side, the QB needs to stop his drop at 3 steps and hit the pre-set "hot" receiver. Sometimes the hot receiver needs to alter his route, and sometimes not.

In the example presented in this article, the FB was running a flat route anyways so he doesn't need to change his route. Sometimes a wide receiver becomes the hot receiver, and he needs to pay attention to see if there is a blitz in the unprotected gap. If so, he changes his route to a "hot route", usually a short hitch pattern.

Quite a few of the really silly interceptons you see every week are due to miscommunications in the hot routes, or defenses picking up on the hot routes. When a receiver is altering his hot route, he may have something different in mind than the QB, for example. Or, if in the play described in the article, suppose that the defense knows that the FB is the hot receiver. All they have to do is blitz on the unprotected gap then send a corner to jump the flat route, and they've got an easy 6.

9
by Sergio (not verified) :: Fri, 07/14/2006 - 3:47pm

FYI, Dave Wannstedt & Co. (allegedly) didn't have hot routes installed in the offense in 2004...

I still sob at nights...

10
by Pat on the Back (not verified) :: Fri, 07/14/2006 - 4:56pm

Basically, adding on to what they said about, a hot route is a "pull in case of emergency" pass. If there is a blitz, or a lineman screws up a block, or the quarterback has shell-shock and wants the ball out of his hand that instant, most plays have a quick "dump-off" pass that will hopefully get a few yards rather than a sack or an incomplete. Usually, though not always, this is to a RB.

11
by Pat (not verified) :: Fri, 07/14/2006 - 5:06pm

Maybe some teams do that in the NFL, but I’ve never seen a hot route like that.

How is that different than what he said? That looks exactly the same. The gaps unblocked are the D gaps on the left/right side, since the right TE's running a route. The B-gap's open as well, but the RB's got that responsibility (as well as the left D gap).

As for why the gap's unblocked, though, I think in the example given, it's not because there aren't enough blockers there - same problem on the left side, and the RB's covering that - but because the TE and the WR out on routes should provide enough traffic for the FB to have some room to run in the case of a blitz. If the TE sees what happens, he could change his route and be a lead blocker for the FB, as well. The RB on the left would just be nailed by a linebacker.

12
by Nags (not verified) :: Fri, 07/14/2006 - 6:01pm

Sorry about the double post, but great article. Good depiction of how Walsh's offense stretches the defense horizontally to open up short as well as deep passes. Check out www.westcoastoffense.com for a great in-depth overview of several aspects of this offensive system. Great job FO. Strategy minicamps are some of my favorite articles to read.

13
by Sean D. (not verified) :: Fri, 07/14/2006 - 8:20pm

Re: 5 That sounds about right given the lineage of Head Coaches and Offensive Coordinators on those teams. The Jets and Lions probably won't run the WCO anymore in 2006, not sure about the Raiders. Minnesota probably will go to something more West Coast with Childress coming from Andy Reid's team and the Texans have Gary Kubiak who came from Denver. I would think that Arizona would be somewhat WCO since Dennis Green is a Walsh guy and if that's the case then maybe the Ravens are too since Billick was Green's offensive coordinator in Minnesota. Linehan was also a coordinator for Green and he was the offensive coordinator for Miami in '05 and now is StL's head coach.

14
by Trogdor (not verified) :: Fri, 07/14/2006 - 8:51pm

On hot routes - one of my first good looks at football offensive theory was when Mouse Davis was brought in to coordinate Detroit's offense, and SI did a report on the run-and-shoot. They had a play diagram showing the routes for each receiver, with something like 13 different variations per receiver based on how they read the defense. The receiver could run his route longer or shorter, turn inside or out, at various angles, based on how he thinks the defense will play. And all I could think was, wow, if the receiver and QB read things even slightly differently, the throw will be off (or the receiver will be in the wrong place, depending on the announcer), and it could be a disaster. Hot routes can be the same way - if one reads blitz and the other doesn't, look out.

Anyway, this article mentions that the cover 2 is great against the WCO, and it is. But I think an even greater menace is the zone rush/blitz. Nothing throws off a timing route quite like a 6'4", 290 pounder showing up in the slant lane unexpectedly. The more you look at the chess match that is football, the greater it becomes.

15
by James, London (not verified) :: Fri, 07/14/2006 - 8:52pm

Fantastic. Minicamp rocks.

Am I right in thinking that to run a deep passing attack with 'slant-and-flats', the QB takes a deeper drop, and the WRs go further up the field before making there cuts, or is there more to it than that? And isn't that basically the offense that Mike Martz runs?

16
by BillWallace (not verified) :: Fri, 07/14/2006 - 9:41pm

One question. You say "But the backs are performing another important task: they are stretching the defense horizontally. Against man coverage, they are clearing the middle of the field of linebackers who could jump the slant routes"

It would seem to me that with the LBS starting inside and the WRS outside, that a LB following an RB into the flat would be running right into the pass pattern, or at least right through the line that the ball will travel when thrown. So then they're relying on the LB going through and past that line? Which makes the timing much harder it seems.

17
by SlyPumpkin (not verified) :: Fri, 07/14/2006 - 9:59pm

RE: 16

The reason that the running backs are stretching the defense horizontally actually does play into the offense's hands. If the LB is in man coverage then he shouldn't be watching the QB as he would be in a zone coverage, he'll be racing to cover the RB. This makes the throwing lane much more open than if he was in zone. Timing is still important, but if the QB makes the correct pre-snap read and even a quick post-snap read to check the LB then the proximity of the LB to the throwing lane is irrelevant.

18
by SlantNGo (not verified) :: Fri, 07/14/2006 - 11:41pm

Re: 11

He said that the FB, instead of trying to pick up the blitz, releases into the flat to catch the pass. I've never seen that a back purposely refuse to pick up the blitz in order to catch a pass on a "hot" read. If he's the hot read, then he was running a pattern to begin with, as far as I've seen. Maybe in the NFL some teams actually do instruct their backs to let the blitz get through to catch a quick pass.

19
by Nathan (not verified) :: Sat, 07/15/2006 - 12:35am

This was one strong. Bravo for picking it up a notch. You may not have added a whole lot of new information, but you didn't forget to include anything. That is the work of someone who is passionate and detailed.

Great Job.

20
by Nathan (not verified) :: Sun, 07/16/2006 - 12:57pm

Maybe in the NFL some teams actually do instruct their backs to let the blitz get through to catch a quick pass.

They do, but with a screenish block.

I.E. not a full block, oh you got through?

flat, catch right over blitzer's head.

TE/RB play generally. Normal flat pattern, but that becomes the play. Not just a dump off because obviously the QB needs to be aware of the gentleman running at him.

How to tell you're facing a Cover 2?

All 3 linebackers backup in a fan pattern. First read, at least to my video game self.

21
by Arkaein (not verified) :: Sun, 07/16/2006 - 1:34pm

This was a great installment. I've developed entire offenses on Madden (click my name to check them out) and I'll bet that 90% of my pass plays have a quick slant or a RB swing/flats pattern built in, and many plays use both. It really is a great combo, but I agree with the article that it is definitely built for attacking man coverages more than zones.

22
by David (not verified) :: Sun, 07/16/2006 - 5:18pm

we all already know this, Right?

23
by Arkaein (not verified) :: Sun, 07/16/2006 - 10:48pm

David, I think it was covered pretty well in the comments for the first installment, but not everyone knows all of this. Many people have never played organized football at all (the only organized football I've played involved flags strapped around the players' waists). Most who have haven't played beyond high school level, and in high school football most teams "just run and fumble" as a cousin of mine once so eloquently put it.

That leaves televised broadcasts, pre- and post-game shows, newspaper articles and video games to fill in the gaps. The problem with media sources is that the knowledge they provide is shallow and repetitive. You can watch a thousand pre-game shows without getting even the depth of this article. Some shows are better than others in this respect, but they spend too much time of showing highlight reel clips and player interviews and cover too many games to provide a lot of depth into specific styles of offense. Deeper reading materials are few and far between. The book "Football's West Coast Offense" mentioned above is a pretty common reference and recommendation, but I own a copy and it really isn't very good. The writing is poor, it spends too much time discussing basic technique which is not WCO specific, and a lot of what it says doesn't apply well to NFL level WCO teams (e.g., it says several times that a QB should throw a pass after he sees the WR turn to look for the ball. Maybe it's just from watching too much Brett Favre, but I've see plenty of routes, especially post routes or deep outs where the ball is released before the WR has completed his break so that the DB has less chance to react the WR's break).

Still, most people on a site like this know most of this material. But it's still nice to fill in gaps in knowledge (for example, I learned something about O-line blocking assignments, an often neglected part of the passing game), and there will always be up and coming football fans who are still learning the basics.

24
by Megamanic (not verified) :: Sun, 07/16/2006 - 11:42pm

#23 Or, like me people who love American Football but grew up outside of America. We pick up what we can from TV & expensive imported books. And now websites like this one.

Thanks for another great article.

25
by Wanker79 (not verified) :: Mon, 07/17/2006 - 10:36am

Re 18:

As I said in last week's thread, the depth of my knowledge of the intricacies of football is pretty shallow. And your explanation seemed much more in-depth than mine, so I wouldn't be surprised if you were correct. And now that I'm rethinking it, the example that popped into my head may have been a screen (the FB chips a blitzer then releases for a pass into the flat) instead of a hot route.

26
by perrin (not verified) :: Mon, 07/17/2006 - 12:43pm

Terrific article, Mike. If you aren't writing these minicamps with the goal of eventually combining them all into a book that explains NFL football, well, I think you should be. Excellent work.

27
by sanel (not verified) :: Mon, 07/17/2006 - 6:50pm

how long does the first step have to be because thats a problem i have when im throwing a slant, by the way nice article

28
by Aaron Brooks (not verified) :: Tue, 07/18/2006 - 10:18am

I always thought Rhonde Barber was the hot receiver!

29
by Vern (not verified) :: Tue, 07/25/2006 - 11:22pm

RE: 23
You hit the nail on the head. These "football basics" books target young people who want to know how to play the game. They do not describe the NFL game, nor do they target a fan watching on TV or at the game.

I think a book called "How to Watch the NFL" based on articles like this in the beginning, and then deeper specific things later on would be a best seller. As a season ticket holder watching half the games in person, I'd love to be able to make a read based on a formation I see on the field, and then switch to some key defender or route to focus on. And with HDTV, you can still watch a bit more of the field these days, and I'd much rather being breaking it down that listening the announcer going on about what a SHOT someone just took three plays back.