Learn To Stem & Stack At Wide Receiver

Written By: Chris Haddad
Updated: February 12, 2024

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 that are commonly taught at the wide receiver position are the stem and stack techniques. The stem in football allows receivers to neutralize leverage on a defensive back within the first 5 yards by running inside or outside. Stacking helps receivers gain leverage in the vertical pass game.

In this article, we will 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 that their size, speed, and natural talent alone set them apart. However, they are also very technical route runners.

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 is 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.

Stem In Football

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

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

If your coach calls a “fade” route or a “slant,” running as fast as you can downfield is only half the battle. Again, running three steps inward is 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 correctly.

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

Gain 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.

Stack In Football

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. The receiver takes an inside release in the video 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 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 throw the football downfield by giving him a better angle.

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 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.

That’s why we created the Wide Receiver University course to help you learn exactly how to be a dominant receiver.

Keep Learning

Playing wide receiver is a very technical position. There are so many things to learn before the snap and after the snap.

If you’re looking to learn more about fundamental wide receiver play, read the articles below.

What Is a Slot Receiver Or A Slot Corner?

How to Beat Press Coverage In Football

Why Do Wide Receivers Point At The Sideline?

What Does A Tight End Do In Football?

Why Do Wide Receivers Wear Gloves?

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 and understanding coverages, and defensive tendencies will help you become a better wide receiver.

About the author 

Chris Haddad

Chris Haddad is the founder of vIQtory Sports & high school coach for over 12+ years. He has been featured as an authority on Hudl, Bleacher Report and countless other football-centric platforms. Chris continues to study and provide valuable content for those looking to learn more about the game of football.