Unlocking the Playbook: American Football Route Tree

John Rizzo

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Embarking on a journey through the intricate strategies of American football, we delve into the essence of offensive precision in the American football route tree.

In the dynamic realm of football plays, the route tree stands as a foundational map, guiding receivers through a spectrum of routes designed to outsmart defenders and create optimal passing opportunities. 

This blog post aims to unravel the complexities of the American football route tree, examining its purpose, numbering system, and the nuanced roles it assigns to different positions. 

From the intricacies of route depths and angles to real-time plays’ adaptability, we explore how this systematic approach enhances quarterback-receiver coordination and strategic flexibility on the field. So, stay focused. 

What Is the American Football Route Tree?

The American football route tree is a system of standardized routes that wide receivers follow during pass plays. 

It consists of a combination of straight lines and various angles, allowing receivers to create separation from defenders and giving quarterbacks clear targets. 

The tree typically includes routes such as the “slant,” “curl,” “out,” “in,” “post,” and “go” routes, each designated by a specific number. 

This system enables efficient communication between quarterbacks and receivers, enhancing the team’s passing game by providing a common language for play execution. 

The route tree is a fundamental aspect of football strategy, fostering precision and coordination in passing plays.

Basics of Route Trees in American Football 

In American football, route trees are a fundamental component of offensive strategies, providing a structured framework for wide receivers to execute pass plays effectively. Here are the basics of route trees:

Route Varieties

Route trees encompass a range of specific routes receivers follow during pass plays. 

Typical routes include the “slant,” “curl,” “out,” “in,” “post,” and “go” routes, each serving distinct purposes in creating space and opportunities for successful receptions.

Numbering System

Numbering System

Routes are often associated with specific numbers to facilitate quick and efficient communication between quarterbacks and receivers. 

This numbering system aids in the seamless execution of plays, as players can quickly reference the assigned route by its corresponding number.

Creating Separation

The primary objective of route trees is to enable receivers to create separation from defenders. 

Routes are designed with precise angles and movements to outmanoeuvre coverage and provide the quarterback with clear passing targets.

Quarterback-Receiver Coordination

Route trees enhance the coordination between quarterbacks and receivers by establishing a standardized language for play execution. 

This shared understanding allows for more effective and precise passing, contributing to the overall success of the team’s offensive strategies.


While route trees provide a foundational structure, they also allow for adaptability. 

Skilled receivers and quarterbacks can adjust routes on the fly based on the defensive coverage, creating opportunities for improvisation and strategic flexibility in the passing game.

Core The Components of a Route Tree

In American football, a route tree comprises essential components that define the various paths wide receivers take during pass plays. 

Understanding these core components is crucial for both players and coaches. Here are the key elements:

Basic Routes

The foundation of a route tree consists of primary routes, such as the “slant,” “curl,” “out,” “in,” “post,” and “go” routes. 

Each route aims to attack the defence, whether gaining short-yardage, stretching the field vertically, or creating separation from defenders.

Numbering System

Routes are assigned specific numbers to streamline communication between quarterbacks and receivers. 

For instance, a “dig” route might be associated with the number three, making it easier for players to grasp the play design and execute it seamlessly quickly.

Depth and Angles

Routes in a tree are characterized by their depth and angles. The depth refers to how far down the field a receiver runs, while the angles dictate the direction of the route. 

This precision in design allows for strategic positioning and adequate spacing on the field.

Complementary Routes

A well-constructed route tree includes complementary routes that work in tandem to exploit defensive weaknesses. 

For example, a “slant” route by one receiver may complement a “go” route by another, forcing defenders to cover multiple options and creating openings in the defence.

Adjustments and Option Routes

Adjustments and Option Routes

Route trees are designed to be adaptable. Skilled receivers may make in-game adjustments based on defensive coverages, turning predefined routes into option routes. 

This flexibility allows for real-time decision-making and can catch defences off guard.

Formation Variations

The exact route may be run from various offensive formations, adding complexity to the overall strategy. 

Different formations can create mismatches or confusion for the defence, and understanding how routes translate across formations is crucial for offensive success.

Role of Position in Route Running

In American football, a player’s position is integral to effective route running, as different positions demand distinct route responsibilities. 

Understanding the nuances associated with each position contributes significantly to the passing game’s success. Here’s a breakdown:

Wide Receivers (WRs)

Wide receivers are typically the primary targets in the passing game. Their routes range from quick, short-yardage options like slants and curls to deep routes like posts and go routes. 

Wide receivers need speed, agility, and precise route running to create separation from defenders and make themselves viable targets for the quarterback.

Tight Ends (TEs)

Tight Ends (TEs)

Tight-end players are often versatile players who combine blocking with receiving skills. 

Their routes may include a mix of short and intermediate options, such as our routes, curls, and seam routes

Given their size and strength, tight ends can exploit matchups against linebackers and safeties.

Running Backs (RBs)

Running backs also play a role in the passing game, running routes out of the backfield or lining up in the slot. 

Their routes typically involve short passes like swings, screens, and check-downs. Running backs with good receiving skills can be valuable assets in providing additional options for the quarterback.

Quarterbacks (QBs)

While quarterbacks are not running routes themselves, their understanding of route running is crucial for success. 

Quarterbacks need to anticipate the movements of their receivers, read defenses, and make accurate throws based on the routes being run. 

A quarterback’s chemistry with receivers, understanding of their capabilities, and timing in delivering the ball are vital components of effective passing.

Offensive Line

The offensive line’s role indirectly affects route running by providing the quarterback with the necessary protection. 

A solid offensive line gives the quarterback more time to read defenses and allows receivers to complete their routes. 

Poor protection can disrupt the timing of the passing game, impacting the effectiveness of the route running across all positions.

Mastering the Art of Route Running 

Mastering the Art of Route Running 

Mastering the art of route running in American football is a skill that elevates a player’s effectiveness in the passing game. 

It involves a combination of technique, awareness, and athleticism. Here are fundamental principles to excel in route running:

Technique and Fundamentals

Focus on the fundamentals, including footwork, body positioning, and hand usage. Sharp, precise cuts during route transitions are essential for creating separation from defenders. 

Understanding how to effectively release off the line of scrimmage is also crucial in gaining an early advantage.

Change of Speed and Tempo

Incorporate changes in speed and tempo within routes to keep defenders guessing. 

Varying the pace during a route, such as accelerating out of a break, can make it challenging for defenders to anticipate movements, creating additional space for receptions.

Head and Eye Movement

Master the art of using head and eye movement to deceive defenders. 

Strategic head fakes or looking in the opposite direction of the intended route can create confusion, allowing the receiver to gain an advantage and potentially break free from coverage.

Understanding Defensive Coverages

Develop a deep understanding of defensive coverages to adjust routes accordingly. 

Recognizing whether the defence is playing man-to-man or zone coverage influences route choices. Identifying and exploiting mismatches against specific defenders is a crucial aspect of advanced route running.

Creating Separation

Work on techniques to create separation from defenders, such as using subtle push-offs, leverage, and body positioning. 

Understanding the defender’s movements and reacting accordingly is essential. Effective separation increases the likelihood of successful receptions and yards after the catch.

Film Study and Mental Preparation

Dedicate time to studying game film to analyze opponents’ tendencies and defensive strategies. 

Mental preparation, including understanding situational football and anticipating defensive reactions, enhances players’ ability to make quick, informed decisions during a game. 

Mental acuity complements physical skills in mastering the art of route running.


What is the purpose of the American football route tree?

The route tree is a standardized system of routes that wide receivers follow during pass plays. 

It provides a common language for quarterbacks and receivers, enhancing communication and coordination to create adequate passing opportunities.

How are routes in the American football route tree numbered?

Routes are assigned specific numbers for quick communication. For example, a “slant” might be associated with the number two. 

This numbering system streamlines play execution by providing a precise reference point for each route.

Can route trees be adapted during a game?

Yes, skilled receivers can make in-game adjustments based on defensive coverages, turning predefined routes into option routes. 

This adaptability adds a strategic layer to the passing game, allowing players to exploit defensive weaknesses in real time.

Why are the depth and angle of routes important in the route tree?

The routes’ depth and angles determine the receivers’ positioning on the field. 

Precise route depths and angles help create strategic spacing, making it easier for quarterbacks to target receivers effectively and exploit defensive coverages.

Are route trees specific to certain positions in American football?

Yes, different positions have distinct route responsibilities. Wide receivers run various routes, tight ends may focus on intermediate options, and running backs often run short passes. 

Understanding position-specific roles is crucial for effective route running and overall offensive success.

Wrapping Up

In American football, where precision is paramount, mastering the route tree is a gateway to offensive prowess. 

This intricate system defines players’ movements on the field and exemplifies the strategic chess match between offence and defence

As we conclude our exploration, it’s evident that the American football route tree is not merely a set of patterns; it’s a dynamic language, enabling teams to communicate and execute plays with finesse. 

Whether you’re a seasoned fan or a newcomer to the sport, understanding the route tree adds a new layer of appreciation for the strategic brilliance woven into every pass play. Thank you for your endless support. 

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John Rizzo

I am a professional rugby player in the Washington DC-Baltimore area. I have been playing rugby for over 10 years and have had the opportunity to play in many different countries. I am also a coach for both youth and adult rugby teams. I graduated from Johns Hopkins University with a degree in Sports Management and Marketing. I am currently working on my MPA from American University and plan to pursue this career path after graduating next year. LinkedIn