There was a fantastic example of the deep cross this past weekend in the NFL playoff game between the Arizona Cardinals and the Carolina Panthers: Kurt Warner hit Larry Fitzgerald dragging across the field for a touchdown late in the first half.
So this is a play worth examining. Moreover, it is an Airraid staple, and Bill Walsh himself put this route and related concepts to great use.
In this article I will to first discuss the route itself. Then, using a little video from the Cardinals game (hence the Larry Fitzgerald reference) I want to show how the Cardinals and many other teams combine the deep crossing route within an overall route structure or pass concept. And finally I will briefly discuss how the route is used in the West Coast or Airraid offenses, within a similar but slightly different route structure. I have video of Texas Tech to further demonstrate.
The route is simple to describe but takes a lot of practice to perfect. The receiver must have a medium to tight split from the tackle (i.e. in closer to the line rather than split out too wide) and he begins his route inside as if he is running maybe an inside curl. He of course climbs to a depth of around 10-12 yards before breaking across the field, to a point roughly 17-22 yards from the sideline. Against man, the receiver will keep running. Against zone, he will find wherever the open grass is. Sometimes that involves just continuing to run to the open spot near the sidelines; other times the open grass is found by settling in a window between defenders.
Here's where technique comes into play. While, as with any crossing route, the receiver has a lot of freedom, there are some specific guideposts for anyone running it. The biggest is he wants to go under Will (or Sam) and over Mike. What?
To explain: the receiver wants to slip underneath or inside the outside linebacker and over the middle linebacker. (Mike = Middle linebacker; Sam = strongside; Will = weakside.) There are a few reasons for this. One is that, if done correctly, the receiver should have a clean release while still distorting the zones as he passes through them. Second, there are specific distortions he's looking for.
The outside linebacker is typically responsible for some kind of outside or hook (intermediate) zone; going inside him is the best way to get away from that guy, but if the linebacker tries to cover the crosser in any way, he will have to chase him rather than wall him off.
Going over the middle linebacker is consistent with general route-running strategy, which is that the easiest way to lose a guy is to go so he can't see you. If the receiver cuts in front of him the defender can see exactly where he's going and break on the ball and the player. By going behind him, the receiver not only stretches the linebacker deep, but the receiver also is more likely to lose him. You'll see in the video below that Fitzgerald goes over the middle linebacker, number 52 for the Panthers. (Of course, especially in the NFL, it's not easy to see what coverage they are in. NFL announcers misidentify coverages all the time; good coaches in the booth say they can't always even identify what they are doing. This is one reason why routes like this are good: they are versatile, by flooding zones and breaking away from man, and generally giving the receiver freedom. I think on the play below the Panthers were in some kind of man coverage with some defenders, including the middle linebacker, acting as floaters.)
As a final note, if the middle linebacker refuses to let the receiver go over the top, there are two responses: one, the crosser can break underneath because the Mike is either out of position or is actually playing the deep middle ("Tampa-Two," which is not really two-deep at all), and, second, the coach should call an inside curl by that player the next time to take advantage of this super-deep drop by the middle linebacker.
Deep Cross with a Double Post
Below is how the Cardinals ran the play, with the split-end (here, Larry Fitzgerald), running the deep crossing route underneath two receivers on the playside running post routes.
In the clip below, both the runningback and H-back stay in to block, but my guess is that their responsibility is to "check-release," i.e. look for blitzers and release if no one comes. See here for more on check releasing and pass protection in general. Below is a clip of the Cardinals running the route from a few angles. And do forgive my nascent internet video editing skills. There's a slight pause in the middle but the clip keeps going.
And below is a diagram of how the Colts use the play off of a play-action look for their stretch run play. (They like this as play-action off the stretch run to the weakside, with the tight-end staying in to the backside.)
As you can see from the diagrams, the first thing that the overall route structure does is pull the secondary deep to open it up for the deep cross. Nothing too exciting there. Also, the underneath tight-end, H-back, and runningbacks pass protecting and leaking into the route (along with play-action) helps suck up the intermediate defenders to create that window for the cross. The play is a type of vertical stretch.
But more specifically, let's look at the double-post. Actually, the outside receiver (here, "Z") will run a "skinny post" or "glance" route -- he will burst off the line and at around 10 yards will stick his outside foot and angle just slightly inside the corner, and the ball will not be chucked down the field as a bomb but instead quickly into the seam at around 15-18 yards as a kind of deep slant. But, if he gets press man coverage with two deep safeties, he will typically convert his route to a "go" to get a stretch with the nearby safety between him and the post runner.
The inside receiver running the post has a relatively simple route. If the middle of the field is open (i.e. Cover two-deep) he just runs right down the middle of the field. If there is a deep middle safety (Cover 3, Cover 1) he will try to cross that defender's face as he heads for the opposite hashmark. This puts the safety in a bind. If he comes up, however, that receiver can still just head for the end zone.
Below is how that concept looks against Cover 2:
Below is the double-post concept against Cover 3:
Airraid Deep Cross
Below is how the Norm Chow and the old BYU guys and the Airraid types run this route.
Most of the routes here are self-explanatory, but a note on the route by the halfback (left back). It is an option route: he pushes to five yards, tries to "step on the toes" of the defender over him. If it is man and the defender is trying to guard him, he will slant in against outside leverage by the defender, or break out against inside leverage (usually out). If it is a zone and defenders try to bracket him, he will find the hole and just sit in it. Now, onto Norm Chow's reads in brief form:
Quarterback: Five-step drop; hitch-up in the pocket only if you need to.
Read: Eye the half-back (left runningback). Read half-back #1 in your progression, then the Y (deep crosser) #2.
QB and receiver must make eye contact vs. man. Against zone, receiver finds open grass. Only time quarterback will throw to the deep-crosser is if the Will linebacker and Mike linebacker (middle and outside linebackers) squeeze the half-back -- i.e. take the HB's option route away.
The Airraid guys read this basically the same, except they use a more pure progression: (1) Split-end on the "Go," (2) Y on the deep cross, (3) runningback on the option (sometimes just runs a basic flat route), (4) flanker on the square-in/dig route, and (5) other runningback in the flat as an outlet.
Otherwise the Cardinals and Airraid versions are the same: it is still a vertical stretch play; you still try to get the defense to defend deep and have the cross come underneath. The big difference is that, with the Cardinals version, you get a ton of frontside pressure with the two posts and the crosser. But if the weakside defenders -- safety, linebackers -- cheat and collapse down, you really need a different play.
With the Airraid version you have less frontside pressure, but on the backside you get a great combination between the deep-crosser and the backside deep in route. If the linebackers or safeties collapse on him as he heads up the field and breaks across, the backside flanker often comes quite open in the hole in the zone. Below is some video of Texas Tech running this route. Sorry if it is difficult to see, but that's often the nature of game cut-ups.(Hat tip: Hueytube)
It's a good play.