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Learn To Stem & Stack At Wide Receiver

Running a route when playing wide receiver requires speed and precise football. Running better routes from the wide receiver position requires the receiver to understand leverage and body positioning. This is why receivers will stem and stack to get open faster.

Two techniques are commonly taught the stem and stack techniques. Stemming allows receivers to neutralize leverage on a defensive back within the first 5 yards. Stacking helps receivers gain leverage in the vertical pass game.

In this article, we’re going to show you how to run better routes at wide receivers.

Stem and Stack

Every step the wide receiver takes when they get off the line of scrimmage matters.

We often see players like Julio Jones or Larry Fitzgerald dominate on Sundays. The casual fan thinks because of their size, speed, and natural talent alone, it sets them apart.

Players like Larry and Julio are technicians, and their craft is running routes. In the NFL, players are almost equally matched in the speed category, so they must find a way to win off leverage and positioning.

First Steps When Running A Route

The two route running terms we’re going to be studying are the stack and the stem.

As long as receivers have been running routes, they’ve been trying to gain leverage on the defender. Using the stem and stack techniques against defensive backs are quite common, especially as offenses continue to innovate the spread system.

If you’re unfamiliar with the terms stem and stack, we’re going to walk through each phase to help you better understand.

The Stem

The receiver wants to stem the defender for a few reasons:

  1. Neutralize The Leverage
  2. Keep The Defender’s Hips Square
via myfootballmentor youtube

If your coach calls a “fade” route or a “slant,” running as fast as you can downfield is only half the battle. Running 3 steps and inward is again only half the battle for the slant.

This is a common mistake by young athletes. One thing that we, at vIQtory, believe should be taught at an early age is the ability to identify the routes to stem on and how to stack properly.

Besides stance and start, this is the second phase to getting open and creating more opportunities for your Quarterback.

Neutralize The Defender’s Leverage

Stemming is often used to neutralize the leverage on a defensive back.

Defensive players will often start the play with inside leverage. This gives the defensive back an advantage to play between the quarterback and wide receiver. If the ball is thrown to the WR, it puts the cornerback in a better position to break on the ball.

Receivers can neutralize this leverage within the first few steps of the route. Splitting the defender down the middle keeps the hips of the defensive back square.

Keeping The Defender’s Hips Square

As shown in the video above, the wide receiver needs to keep the defensive back’s hips facing him as long as possible. We do this for a few reasons:

  • Get to top speed in our route
  • To keep him guessing which way we’re running

Especially if the wide receiver is stretching the route vertically, we need to keep the defensive back from turning his hips and running as fast as he can with us.

As the WR approaches, the defensive back eventually turns his hips (as shown in the video above). Closing this gap on a defensive back not only puts pressure on him but forces him to guess which way to open his hips. If we’re lucky, we can have him guess wrong and spin him.

The Stack

Now that the player has successfully been stemmed, we engage the stack. The stack is used to gain vertical leverage on a defensive back.

via my football mentor

Wide Receivers often stack for multiple reasons:

  • Obtain vertical leverage on the defensive back
  • Make the throw easier for the Quarterback

Vertical leverage is beneficial because it puts the defensive back in a trail position. In the video above, the receiver takes an inside release and immediately works back on top of the defensive back.

The stack is a great move to help slower receivers gain leverage downfield. Once the receiver has successfully stacked the defensive back, he now controls the situation.

If the ball by chance is under-thrown, the receiver can slow his route down (which creates a natural lean on the trailing defensive back) and then speed up to gain natural separation.

Helping The Quarterback By Creating More Separation

Stacking helps the quarterback by giving him a better angle to throw the football downfield.

For example – If the wide receiver just took an outside release and didn’t stack, the defensive back would naturally be between the receiver and the ball. This means the quarterback would have to throw an arcing pass which got over the defensive back. Very tough to do.

If the wide receiver stacks the defensive back, the quarterback can miss left, miss right, or overthrow, and the defensive back will have a hard time recovering because they are in a trail position.

The video above will give you a better visual of how the small receiver controls the stem and stack situation.


Wide receivers, coupled with a good scheme, will help the quarterback throw to open receivers. As shown above, there’s much more to running routes than just lining up and running what the play art tells you to.

The great wide receivers of the game ( Larry Fitzgerald, Julio Jones, Jerry Rice, etc.) are all technicians at their positions. Learning how to watch film, understanding coverages, and defensive tendencies will help you become a better wide receiver.

Related Q & A

What Is The Route Tree In Football?

The route tree is all the routes that a receiver can run from a wide receiver position. They call it a tree because every route breaks off a vertical route, thus looking like a tree when all the routes are drawn. Each coach has his own version of the route tree, and no one tree is the same!

What Does A Wide Receiver Do?

A wide receiver is responsible for catching the football thrown to them by the quarterback and blocking the defensive backs. Wide receivers are typically taller and more athletic players who can stretch the field vertically.

What Are Wide Receiver Numbers In Football?

Wide receivers typically wear numbers in the range of 80-89. However, in college and high school, it’s typical for a wide receiver to wear the number in the range of 1-30.

Why Does The Wide Receiver Point To The Sideline?

The wide receiver points to the referee (who’s on the sideline) to tell him he’s lining up on the line of scrimmage or lining up off the line of scrimmage. This helps the referee in making sure there are at least 7 players on the line of scrimmage.

Do you have a different variation of the stem or stack? Do you teach it differently? We’d love to hear about it! Leave a comment in the comment section below and tell us how you do it!