Understanding The Route Tree In Football

Written By: Mike Pina
Updated: February 12, 2024

The route tree is very important and common in football. Almost every team has a version of the route tree. This is what coaches will use to create a passing game.

The route tree in football is a numbering system used by offenses to identify which routes to run. Odd numbers indicate in-breaking routes while even numbers indicate out-breaking routes.

Different coaches also have different names for certain routes. The route tree that we’re going to explain below is universally run by offensive coordinators.

Coaches may tweak one or two things, but this is primarily what coaches mean when they identify routes on the “tree.”

Route Tree In Football

The reason why it’s called a route tree is that when looking at all of the routes, it somewhat resembles a tree.

The routes breaking off the main path resemble branches, and the vertical route resembles the trunk.

Here is what the route tree looks like.

Route tree in football
Standard Route Tree In Football

To start, it’s important to understand that odd numbers mean the route breaks toward the sideline, while even numbers mean the route breaks toward the middle of the field.

Below we’re going to examine the individual routes that are on the route tree.

Flat Route

quick out route

As I mentioned, certain coaches have different names for routes. The flat route is a great example. The aiming point for the receiver is between 3-5 yards, getting to the flats as soon as possible. This quick out breaking route is used by most offenses who throw combination routes.

The receiver is expected to get there quickly and should get his head around right away. The route can be run in two different ways.

The flat route is often coupled with a slant route or a dig route. Its main purpose to is take advantage of the empty space in the flats or pull an outside linebacker out of the box.

Slant Route

slant route

The slant route is often a staple in offenses and may be run from both slot and wide receiver positions. The receiver will threaten the defense by running to 3 yards vertically, then break off at a 45-degree angle.

The slant is another quick-hitting route that is commonly run when the quarterback is taking one or two-step drops.

For receivers running the slant on the outside, usually, you want a taller/bigger receiver so that they can use their size to get inside of the cornerback.

Receivers who are running a slant route to the middle of the field should be careful not to run too deep, or a safety could make a big tackle on you. This short route can yield big results if timed up properly.

Comeback Route

comeback route

The comeback route is typically run from the wide receiver and is an intermediate route. A standard comeback route is run at 10 yards with the receiver coming back to 8 yards.

The aiming point for the receiver may be different in certain situations. For example, if it is 3rd down and 10, the receiver will run to the first down marker. Therefore, he will run to 12 yards and break off his comeback to 10 yards. The receiver must push the defensive back vertically so that the DB retreats in a backpedal, making it harder for him to break on the ball.

If the route is run properly, it is up to the quarterback to deliver a good ball. The QB should throw the ball outside, toward the sideline. It’s a basic route that is one of the hardest to throw in football.

This way, the defensive back has a tough time making a play on the ball. In this case, it is better for the quarterback to throw the ball lower so that the receiver can easily secure the catch.

This route is similar to a hitch route (it can also be substituted by a hitch), as the receiver would just pivot to the inside instead of the outside.

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Curl Route

curl route

The curl route is similar to the comeback route, except the receiver turns inside as opposed to outside. Like the comeback, the aiming point for receivers when running the curl may vary. It is a great route to run on 3rd and medium.

It is the receiver’s job to threaten the corner vertically and make a strong break at 45 degrees to the QB. The best place for the QB to throw the ball on a curl is between the receiver’s heart and knees.

Both the quarterback and the receiver need to be on the same page when running the curl route. It’s up to the wide receiver to create space underneath when running this route. If the receiver doesn’t find open space and the quarterback throws the ball too soon, an interception can occur.

Out Route

out route

The out route may be run by an outside or the inside receiver. It is typically run by running to 10 yards, then breaking off in a flat 90-degree angle towards the sideline.

When an outside receiver runs the 10-yard out he should expect the ball right out of his cut, as the quarterback is expected to deliver the ball on a 3-step drop.

When this is run by an inside receiver, the ball may be delivered right after he makes his break at 10 yards or a little after the receiver makes his break to the sideline.

This route on the route tree is one of the hardest to throw, as the timing between the wide receiver position and the quarterback needs to be on point.

Dig Route

dig route

The dig route is another route that may be run from an inside or outside receiver. The dig is run by the receiver sprinting to 8-10 yards then breaking off in a 90-degree angle inside to the quarterback.

There are different aiming points for where the receiver may end up when catching the ball. Depending on the defense, the receiver may “settle down” his route after his break if he sees open grass.

This route is also called a square in, or a simple in cut. This route is great against zone defense and is one of the staple routes on the football route tree.

Corner Route

corner route

The corner is run from an inside receiver. It is run at 10 yards and the receiver breaks off up the field towards the sideline.

Like the dig, the corner can be run in a few different ways. Once the receiver comes out of his break, he will determine if he can get open by running his corner over the top of the defense or if he should break it off toward the sideline.

For example, in man-to-man coverage, the receiver is expected to beat the defender over the top. In a cover 2 defense, the receiver will break his route off toward the sideline to give the QB an open target.

This route is also known as a flag route. These deeper routes are harder for the quarterbacks to throw, as the route is farther from the line of scrimmage. Corner routes are often run by slot receivers and the tight end position.

Post Route

post route

The post is a route that is a deep route. Here the receiver breaks off at a 45-degree angle towards the middle of the field. An inside or outside receiver may run it.

The post can be thrown in a few different ways. It can be thrown on a line right when the receiver comes out of his break, or it may be thrown over the top of a defense letting the receiver run underneath it.

This is a route where the quarterback and receiver must be on the same page. They have to determine where the route will end up by reading the defense.

For example, if the defense is in cover 3, the ball should be thrown before the middle safety. If it is cover 2, the ball should be thrown in between the 2 deep defensive backs.

The best way to run a post route is to get close enough to the defender where you’re almost stepping on their toes. Once close enough, bend the route slightly to the end zone (goal post). This route is great against man coverage.

Fade Route

Fade route

Last but not least, is the fade route. When done correctly a well-executed fade route is one of the best routes in football.

The fade may be one of the deepest routes in football, as the receiver is expected to get past the defensive backs and make a play on the ball.

Most teams have a quick fade in their playbook, where the quarterback takes a one or two-step drop and throws the fade. But, if the defense is in a cover 2, the quarterback must throw the ball on a line between the cornerback and safety.

The fade route is also known as a seam route, streak route, and a 9 route.

If you want to learn more advanced routes, look at the video below to learn more.

What Is a 0 Route In Football?

The 0 route is also known as a “now” route or a smoke route. The quarterback will get the ball and throw the ball out to the receiver as quickly as possible.

Teams will overthrow the 0 route when the defensive player is playing coverage from 5 or more yards off.

This allows the player to catch the football and get as many yards as possible before they are contacted by a defensive player.

What Is A Whip Route?

A whip route, also known as a return route, is when a wide receiver runs a slant, stops, and bursts toward the sideline.

This route is highly effective against teams who run slant routes, as it will often cause the defensive player to overplay the slant, leaving the whip route wide open.

Keep Learning

Now that you’ve learned the introduction to the route tree, we highly recommend you watch this video on advanced routes.

There are many ways to implement the route tree in offensive schemes. Quarterbacks and receivers need to get on the same page, and learning the route tree is a great way to do that.

The route tree can be changed by each coach, as it depends on the system they run. Deeper routes may appear less or more, depending on the quarterback’s arm.

If you liked learning about wide receiver play, we recommend you check out our Wide Receiver University course. It has everything you need to become a dominant receiver.

About the author 

Mike Pina

Mike Pina is the co-founder of QB Velocity, one of the top football training programs in New England. Mike currently coaches the running backs at Worcester Polytech Institute, in Worcester, Massachusetts.