route tree football

What Is A Route Tree In Football – The Ultimate Guide

Football majorly features running and passing. Players will take different routes when running and making passes. You probably know a few terms football players use. But do you understand football that well?

There are several routes that players take and run in football. Do you understand them?

What exactly is a route tree in football? A route tree is a diagram representation of the different routes players run on the field. They are patterns run by receivers to create openings for the quarterbacks. There are nine basic routes, with each route featuring a path and an opening.

Looking to understand football route patterns like a pro? I encourage you to keep reading.

Full Breakdown of Route Tree

The ROUTE TREE is a numbering used by the NFL’s defensive and offensive sides. It helps teams identify specific breaks/directions/stems that receivers take when passing plays.

Route Tree Diagram

Let’s have a breakdown of the routes. 

Route 1: Flat

This is a simple and quick breaking-out route where the wide receiver runs 2-3 yards beyond the scrimmage line before turning across. Running across the field provides the quarterback (QB) with yards. If the QB is under pressure, he can relieve the pressure by firing a bullet at the running back.

The receiver can climb vertically on the sideline or sit at the edge of the play depending on how the play goes.

Route 2: Slant

A slant involves a run from directly off the snap or vertically from the initial stem. The receiver usually takes one or three vertical steps on the outside foot. He then runs aggressively at a 45-degree angle towards the offense in the center.

It is a quick route and one of the hardest to defend. Defenders have no choice but to respect their intention to run a vertical.

Route 3: Comeback

The comeback route sees the receiver running 5-10 yards downfield at 45 degrees. It’s one of the hardest throws in the NFL for the quarterback. It usually breaks at 12 to 15 yards as the receiver breaks downfield on the sideline.

The receiver usually creates enough separation from the stem to make the QB productive. He does this by selling a fade and then running.

Route 4: Curl

A curl route sees the receiver run 5-10 yards downfield before stopping and angling down towards the QB. It is usually the opposite of a comeback. The only difference with the comeback is the direction the receiver takes.

You’ll often see a receiver running a vertical in the half circle before returning to face the QB. Receivers run toward the quarterbacks to prevent defenders from intercepting passes. It is a route where the receiver and the quarterback must be on the same page.

Route 5: Out

This is another key route that sees the receiver run 5-10 yards before breaking at 12-15 yards. They usually run on the inside of their foot before angling aggressively at 90 degrees to the sideline.

It is a move that requires space for the receiver to break and catch the ball at the same time without going outbound. In this route, you’ll see a receiver aligning or stemming at the bottom to create room.

Route 6: In/Dig

A route six or dig is pretty similar to the out, but the receiver will be running in the opposite direction. It’s a route that sees the receiver break 5-10 yards on the outside foot before angling at 90 degrees towards the middle of the field. 

football player in gray jersey running with the ball

They will usually break at 12 to 15 yards, creating separation at the top of the stem. Receivers achieve this by pinning the defense on the outside. In most cases, receivers sit in open holes in the defense or run across it.

Route 7: Corner

The corner route is an old flag route that sees the receiver run at an angle at the back corner of the field. As the name suggests, the receiver runs towards the back corner in the end zone. The run starts at 5-10 ards vertically on the inside foot before breaking at 45 degrees towards the back angle.

If there are receivers outside the numbers, they take an inside run and create room for the quarterbacks. The route is seen as a slot alignment and can be paired with the flat route. It is a popular route seen in the NFL where two cover beaters come against one cover. 

This happens in the red zone working away from safety to help the middle of the field.

Route 8: Post

This is a deep inside break where receivers run 5-10 yards vertically before breaking towards the middle of the field. The receiver will run on the inside foot and break at 45 degrees.

It’s a route that can be run in different ways depending on the defense. We can have a stem to the corner or a break back to the post. This widens the defensive back, creating more separation. 

In practical terms, a post route is a ‘skinny’ route breaking to the middle of the field but at an angle. The route attacks safeties and helps split defensive backs. It’s a route where the QBs lay the ball out deep in the middle of the field, and the receiver adjusts to meet it.

Route 9: Fly

The fly route is also called the fade or clear-out route. This is one of the easiest routes to identify in a football game. In the route, the receiver works to beat a defender’s cushion in a vertical stem. In the press-man or off-man, the receiver will stack on the defensive back down to the field.

One common fly route is the back shoulder fade, where the ball is thrown behind the receiver. It’s a pretty common route where most offenses try to threaten the defense on every pass. The aim is to make the defense go deep with each pass.

Route Tree

A route tree is now a diagram where you’ve put all the routes together. You’ll get something that looks more true, hence the name route tree.

Route Tree Diagram

Keenly look at the numbering system. These are the nine routes I’ve discussed above. You’ll notice that all in-breaking routes are even numbers while out-breaking routes are odd numbers.

Other Routes

Well, these are the main routes you’ll see in a football game. However, there are several other routes players can take depending on the play. When receivers want to blast past defenders, they can combine routes.

A good example is when they use a fly route and a slant combination to draw defenders before running past them. This combination is a “slant and go” better known as “Slugo”.

Other common routes include the “tunnel” and “bubble” routes that usually involve screen passes. They involve a receiver taking steps behind the scrimmage line. The receiver then runs away or toward the QB, then breaks up the field.

We also have the drag route, which involves breaking around the scrimmage line.

There is also a wheel route where the receiver runs a flat route and then suddenly breaks the field on the corner or fly route.

Overall, receivers can take various routes. Some routes see the receiver breaking in a corner route then suddenly making a double move or cutting back on the post to confuse the defender. 

Combining Routes

Receivers can run any route in different plays to try and achieve their objectives of drawing the defense and creating holes. It’s pretty okay for receivers to combine routes.

player catching football while running

There are endless combinations that receivers can use to try and draw defenders or pull them. Teams also use routes to help free the receivers.

For example, taking a player deep helps draw the safeties to the middle. Once safeties are drawn, there can be an open space for other players to perform different roles.

Another way teams can do it is by running crosses on the field. This can draw defenders and have them bumping at each other. Other combinations add depth to QBs.

The routes combine to create gaps and holes in the defense. Imagine a wide-end receiver and a tight running in-route and post route, respectively. This leaves space for the running back to come into the backfield on a wheel route.

Overall, different route combinations are aimed at giving the quarterbacks options. They are usually separated by depth depending on their positions from the line of scrimmage. Slants can clear on the left side and try exploiting the wheel route.

To pull a safety from the tight end of the field, receivers can make deep routes from the right end and run a post route.

Generally, a lot happens when combining routes. Coaches draw diagrams to teach various routes. The route tree forms the basis for the numerous combinations of routes. There are also hard and soft versions of routes that are advanced, and we will not cover them today.

What Is the Purpose of a Route Tree in Football

A route tree in football will help you see the importance of a passing game in the NFL. Some concepts are never understood in pre-snap splits in football. However, a clear understanding of the route tree can help you understand what’s going on.

For the players on the field, a route tree is an adjustment wide receivers make after a snap. The adjustments are beneficial to the team, giving the QB a chance to attack in a blitz.

The purpose of a route tree is for the offense coaches to teach, organize and call plays pretty fast. Every movement from the wide receiver is nicely coordinated and emerges from the route tree.

It was created in the 1960s by Dan Coryell in the state of San Diego. He would bring it to the NFL in the 1970s with the Cardinals and Chargers.

Who Uses a Route Tree in Football

The route tree in football is run by the wide receivers, running backs, and tight ends. However, there are no rules on who uses the route tree. Depending on how a team is set up, any player in the team can run the route tree.

football receiver in white jersey running

Wide receivers, tight ends, and running backs use the route tree often to create draw defenses and give yards to their quarterbacks.

Related Article: Do you want to learn how to be a good wide receiver? Check out our comprehensive guide to learn how.

Route Tree FAQs

Who Invented the Route Tree?

The Route tree was invented in the 60s by Don Coryell in San Diego. As the head coach of the Cardinals and Chargers, he then brought it into the NFL.

How Many Football Routes Are On The Route Tree?

There are nine different routes in the route tree in football. Of the 9 routes, odd numbers are for breaking on the outside, while even numbers are for breaking on the inside.

However, teams can have several combinations of these routes to match any defense. The football tree makes the heart of all calls in football. With different combinations, wide receivers, running backs, and tight ends can create up to 36 routes.

How To Call Football Plays Using A Route Tree?

You can call football plays using a route by using the positions attached to the routes. Secondly, you can use the advanced tree numeric. Calling the play starts with a formation and alignment call. An alignment is needed in formations that are not balanced.

Next, you’ll need to call the receiver pass routes either from the left or right before breaking to the center route.


That’s it from me! Hopefully, you now know what is a route in football. A route tree shows the patterns wide receivers take in the field when making passes. Taking different routes can confuse the defense and provide some yardage for your quarterbacks. 

Overall, teams employ different routes depending on the defensive formation. There are 9 routes on the route tree, but teams always create combinations of routes to suit their play.

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