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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Getting Vertical with Dan Gonzalez

I asked Dan Gonzalez, author of the new book "Concept Passing: Teaching the Modern Passing Game, to discuss his take on the famous four verticals" route concept. I've discussed it only briefly, and even then as part of discussing other concepts.

So this is a great opportunity to look at the play in depth; it is a foundational route in several respects. After Dan's lucid explanation of the route I have some video and a brief description of how the Airraid guys run this route. But I'll begin with a brief overview before we dive into the details.

First, the concept is a great introduction for coaches, quarterbacks, and all players (as well as fans) to how to "stretch" or break down coverage. At core, the route involves four guys running "vertically" -- hence the name. They split the field four ways, and as a result typical "two-deep" (Cover two, Tampa Two) or one- or three-deep coverages (Cover three, Cover one man, certain zone blitzes) should not be able to defend the route.

Although when you talk about a "vertical" or "streak route," most people think of a deep bomb down the sidelines, the four-verticals concept really attacks the safeties; the outside routes will be thrown at times based on matchup, but usually you're trying to make the free safety wrong.

Above the the typical route setup. It carries some dynamic aspects, most usually the use of a "bender" receiver -- an inside receiver who will "bend" to a post route when the middle of the field is "open" (i.e. two deep safeties on the hashes, rather than a single one down the middle), and will stay on his seam route up the hashmark when there is a deep middle safety, as with Cover Three. Most college and even pro teams run it this way; it's a good play. I've discussed this "bender" or "divide" route in more depth previously.

But Dan's take is interesting because it goes a step further, which reflects his version's run and shoot origins. The "bender" receiver actually is given a far more dynamic "seam read," which gives him a wider variety of options to get open against the deep coverage, and even to come underneath the safeties if they play too deep. Also, the outside receivers are given "steak reads," where they are not locked into just going deep; they can stop and come back to the ball if the defender plays them deep.

As an example of this, on Texas Tech's famous final drive against Texas this past season, the Red Raiders called four-verticals on nearly almost single play of the drive (there was a bubble screen on at least one play). They never hit the seam routes and never threw a deep bomb, but they hit the outside receivers on "fade stop" routes, including on Michael Crabtree's famous game winner. (Tech's technique tells the receiver to go deep, but if he can't get deep -- and the defender is in press coverage with his back to the quarterback -- the QB will rifle the ball to the back of the defender's head and let the receiver stop and make a play. Video of the final drive and final play below.)

Finally, Dan's approach is also good because he shows how the play can be readily adapted to different formations while keeping it simple for the players (and coaches). As a side note, when people talk about being "pro-style," this is what they are talking about, or at least what they should be. Versatile, attacking passing concepts that let's the offense do a variety of things to a defense. In my view, unless you're an option team (and maybe even if you are), this is how your should be running your four-verticals play.

Dan Gonzalez's four verticals, in his words:

[Ed Note. This part is all Dan.] The "four verticals" pass play has become increasingly popular at all levels of football. What we have done that’s a little different is conceptualize its teaching. This gives us more flexibility and allows the time we invest in it in practice to carry over to other parts of the offense.

Let’s look at the basic setup:

1. We have one guy on a locked seam (Usually the "Y" receiver; vertical in 2-2 or crossing the hash in 3-1) who "owns" the hashmark AWAY from the seam reader, who we always consider part of the "frontside."

2. The seam reader is taught to take the highest angle through the defense (which eliminates the confusion of Cov two, three, four, etc.). His two caveats are: he must cross the face of any man defender [ed. break inside on a post or in-breaking route] and he must look to the quarterback as he passes by the linebacker (thus, versus a blitz, he looks as soon as he comes off the ball).

3. The outside wide receivers run streak reads: first, win deep if you can, but break down if you cannot. They will make this decision at 10 yards, while running full speed. If the defense maintains deep leverage, the receiver must slam on the breaks and come back down the stem of his route (i.e. rather than an out or an in or curl) towards the line of scrimmage.

4. The back drags toward the seam reader.

With twin receivers to both sides:

From three by one (trips):

Quarterback: The QB starts his eyes on the locked seam, timed up with a quick five-step drop (from shotgun, a quick three-steps). The quarterback will throwwill turn it loose with no hitch step. If he has to hitch, his eyes must move from the locked seam to the other slot, the "seam reader" (this allows the pattern to develop). [Ed. Note: This means he takes a full drop but must be ready to throw the moment his back foot hits; you see a lot of QB's "hitch up" or step up in the pocket, which is fine, but the first read must be thrown as soon as the back foot hits. It is what is known as a rhythm throw, and the ability to do this often separates quarterbacks. Also, it's not just an arm strength thing, it's a discipline, footwork, rhythm, and timing thing, though arm strength can sometimes be a factor.]

The quarterback must be ready and have a window with which to deliver the ball to the seam reader. If he can't, then its not open. If he hitches again he has to move his eyes to the back.

The backside streak read comes into play if the free safety's pre-snap location puts him in a spot which tells the quarterback that the locked seam will be there (this is referred to as "displacement"). If the locked seam isn't there when this free-safety displacement says it should be (the backside linebacker must be taking it away), the QB hitches and throws the 1 on 1 streak read.

The big thing about the way we teach the four verticals concept is that when we get to these other looks (diagrammed below), we introduce absolutely no new learning for the QB or the key players:

From two backs:

From no backs:

With “Switched” releases from three-by-one or two-by-one sets, respectively:

Using an outside receiver as a drag runner:

Using the tailback as a vertical threat:

Variations on a theme (other approaches to four-verticals)

[Back to Chris] So that is Dan's introductory breakdown of the four-verticals concept. As noted above, there is more about this concept to be found in his book, along with lots of other material. I recommend it.

Below is video of some Airraid teams -- Texas Tech (Mike Leach) and New Mexico State (Hal Mumme) -- running their version of the four-verticals route. It is similar, with these differences:

  • They use the same "landmarks" approach with the outside receivers up the numbers (about 4-5 yards from the sideline) and the slots just up the outside of the hashmarks. (In high school the hashmarks are wider so the receivers just head up them; in the NFL they are narrower than college so the landmark is further outside the hashmarks.)

  • The outside receivers use a similar technique, except as observed above they use more of a "fade-stop" approach than Gonzalez's true route conversion to comeback to the football. If the receiver cannot beat his defender deep and that defender has his head turned away from the quarterback, the QB has the option of drilling the ball at the back of the DB's head, thus letting the receiver make a play.

  • The inside receivers don't have a "bend" or true open/closed read. Instead, the Airraid guys just have them try to get deep, but if they get to 12-14 yards or so and cannot, they will break down and effectively run curl routes at about 14-16 yards. In this way they get their variety and can attack different coverages.

  • The runningback runs a true "option" or dodge route: he pushes to a depth of five yards and tries to "step on the linebacker's toes" (break any cushion). If the linebacker plays inside leverage, he breaks out; if he plays outside, the RB breaks in. If it is zone he will settle down in the hole underneath. As you can see from the clips, the RB often comes wide open when the defense retreats too much for the four-verticals.

    Otherwise the QB's read is basically the same: he reads inside to out from the free-safety and looks for the best one-on-one matchup (Michael Crabtree). The cut-ups are below, thanks to Court Allam of Olathe South High School (Olathe, KS).

    Finally, below is some video of of the "verticals" concept (though with some variance to both what Dan does and the Airraid guys does) courtesy of Bruce Eien, coach of Brethren Christian High School.


    The four-verticals is a staple of nearly every modern passing game, be it spread, pro-style, or option-based. But even though it is common doesn't mean it can't be better. Dan's approach should give food for thought to anyone who has just been sending four guys down the field (or watching their team do it) without the minor coaching points that make the play really go.

    Anonymous said...

    Man, some serious holding on that Texas Tech/Texas video. Otherwise, outstanding post. thanks.

    Chris said...

    Gary, Dan would probably agree: he was a letterman in football at UT. I'm not sure how he feels about me using all that Tech video in his post.

    Jon said...

    A question about vertical passing:

    Does this work against a team with a strong pass rush? Would the QB have enough time to throw a 20+ yard pass?

    Anonymous said...


    Maybe the base thing about this play is that the seam ball is released wll before the receiver hits the 18-22 yard mark. The ball is typically gone in under 2.5 seconds - hte same time it takes most to throw a curl route.


    Anonymous said...

    Coach Gonzalez,

    I purchased your book and really enjoyed and learned alot from it. I do you have one question concerning the veritical concept.

    Does the QB still start his progression against with the fixed seam against 2 high safety defense or is an adjustment made.

    I fully understand the thought process against 1 high safety defense, but I am unsure of the progression versus 2 high.

    Any help would be greatly appreciated!

    Thanks for your time

    Dan Gonzalez said...


    Yes - the QB still has his eyes in the same place in the same rhythm. He must confirm 2 high at the snap, then hitch up and move his eyes to the seam read.

    This is the key to beating disguise coverage -- something that few realize: the better the disguise, the more out of postion defenders are at the snap. We've had really big plays to the "locked seam" start from a 2 high look, because the defense was trying to disguise. At ths snap, when the rotation occurs, the route is even more open than if the D had just lined up in 1 high!

    Anonymous said...

    Alright. now once he hitches and come to seam read. Do the same rules apply. 1) if Mike takes away post or dig: check down to protection route (RB). If Sam is is taking away the seam read, hitch up again and throw to vertical read.

    Or in this case do we say that the seam Readers route is going to beat the Sam backer? and only focus is if Mike is invading the route?

    Thanks for taking the time to exoplain this to me, I really appreciate it