The Playbook Unveiled: Mastering the Football Underneath Pass

John Rizzo

Football Underneath Pass

In the dynamic world of American football, where strategy and execution collide on the gridiron, there exists a playbook full of tactical gems. Among them, the “Football Underneath Pass” stands as a foundational technique that holds the power to shift games and shape victories. 

In this blog post, we dive into the intricacies of this play, uncovering its nuances, benefits, and impact on the field. 

Whether you’re a passionate fan, a coach, or a player seeking to refine your skills, join us as we unravel the secrets behind the art of the football underneath pass. So, stay focused. 

What Is a Football Underneath Pass?

A football underneath pass, commonly referred to as a “short pass” or “underneath throw,” is a fundamental technique in American football. It involves the quarterback throwing the ball to a receiver who is positioned relatively close to the line of scrimmage.

This type of pass is executed over a shorter distance and is often used to gain modest yardage or to quickly move the ball forward in a controlled manner. 

Underneath passes are commonly used to exploit gaps in the defense, gain yards after the catch, or keep the opposing defense off balance. Timing and precision are crucial in executing these passes, as they rely on the receiver’s ability to catch the ball in stride and create yards after the catch.

When to Use an Underneath Pass in Football?

An underneath pass, also known as a short pass, is strategically used in American football in various situations:

Quick Gains

Underneath passes are effective for gaining short to moderate yardage quickly, especially when the offense is facing a manageable down-and-distance situation.

Zone Coverage

Against zone defenses where defenders cover specific areas rather than individual receivers, short passes can exploit the gaps and seams in the coverage.

Blitz Situations

When the defense sends extra pass rushers (blitz), an underneath pass can be used to counteract the pressure by getting the ball out of the quarterback’s hands swiftly.

Yards After Catch (YAC)

Skilled receivers can turn short passes into significant gains by making defenders miss tackles and using their agility to create yards after the catch.

Maintaining Possession

Underneath passes can help sustain drives by completing high-percentage throws that keep the chains moving and the clock running.

Play Action

Employed after a successful play-action fake, short passes can catch the defense off-guard as they expect a run or deep pass.

Red Zone

Inside the opponent’s red zone, where the field becomes condensed, short passes can create passing lanes and exploit defensive gaps for touchdowns.

Third Downs

On third-and-short or third-and-medium situations, a well-timed short pass can move the chains and extend the offensive possession.

Ball Control

Coaches may opt for short passes as part of a ball-control strategy to maintain possession, limit turnovers, and manage the game’s tempo.

Youth and Novice Levels

At lower skill levels or when developing a young quarterback, underneath passes can build confidence, rhythm, and timing before progressing to more complex throws.

Strategies to Execute an Underneath Pass

Strategies to Execute an Underneath Pass

Executing an effective underneath pass in American football involves a combination of strategic planning, timing, coordination, and skill. Here are some key strategies to consider:

Pre-Snap Read

Before the snap, the quarterback and receivers should analyze the defense’s alignment, coverage schemes, and potential blitz tendencies. This information helps in identifying favorable matchups and areas to exploit with the underneath pass.

Quick Release

Given the shorter distance of the pass, the quarterback must have a quick release to get the ball out of their hands rapidly. This minimizes the time defenders have to react and reduces the risk of a sack.


The offensive line and any blocking backs or tight ends must provide solid pass protection to give the quarterback enough time to make the throw. This is especially crucial when facing potential blitzes.


Proper timing between the quarterback and receiver is essential. The receiver’s route and the quarterback’s release should sync up to allow the ball to arrive just as the receiver reaches their designated spot.

Route Precision

Receivers running underneath routes, such as slants, drags, or quick outs, need to maintain precise routes at the correct depth. Sharp cuts and maintaining separation from defenders are crucial for successful receptions.

Reading Defenders

Both the quarterback and receiver need to read the defenders during the play. If the defense is playing off, the receiver should find an open space; if defenders are tight, the receiver should use leverage to gain separation.

Ball Placement

The quarterback’s throw should be accurate and well-placed, allowing the receiver to catch the ball in stride and continue moving forward. A well-placed ball also reduces the chances of the pass being deflected or intercepted.

YAC Opportunities

Receivers should be prepared to secure the catch quickly and efficiently. After the catch, they should be ready to make defenders miss and maximize yards after catch (YAC).

Checkdown Option

Underneath passes can serve as a check-down option for the quarterback when primary targets are covered downfield. The quarterback’s ability to quickly identify the open receiver is vital.

Route Combinations

Combining short routes with other route concepts can create confusion for defenders and open up opportunities for receivers on underneath routes.

Shallow Routes in Underneath Pass

Shallow Routes in Underneath Pass

Shallow routes are a common type of underneath pass route used in American football. These routes involve the receiver running horizontally across the field at a shallow depth, usually within a few yards of the line of scrimmage. 

Shallow routes are designed to exploit the space underneath the coverage and gain yards after the catch. Here’s an overview of shallow routes in the context of underneath passes:

Route Variations

  • Drag Route: The receiver runs horizontally across the field from one side to the other, typically just a few yards beyond the line of scrimmage. This route aims to create separation from defenders in man coverage and take advantage of open areas in zone coverage.
  • Slant Route: The receiver takes a short step toward the center of the field and then quickly angles diagonally toward the sideline. This route is effective for quick-hitting throws and can be used against both man and zone coverages.
  • Flat Route: The receiver runs parallel to the line of scrimmage toward the sideline. This route is often used by running backs and tight ends, and it’s designed to quickly get the ball to a player in space, giving them a chance to make a play after the catch.
  • Quick Out Route: The receiver breaks towards the sideline after a few steps, creating separation from the defender. This route is used to capitalize on defensive cushions and can be effective against both press coverage and off coverage.

Key Points

  • YAC Emphasis: Shallow routes are designed to generate yards after the catch (YAC). Receivers should catch the ball in stride and use their agility to make defenders miss and gain additional yardage.
  • Timing and Precision: Both the quarterback and receiver must have precise timing for the route to be successful. The quarterback’s throw should arrive as the receiver makes their break, ensuring minimal disruption from defenders.
  • Read and React: Receivers need to read the defense and adjust their route based on the coverage. Against man coverage, they can exploit openings in the defense, while against zone coverage, they can find the soft spots between defenders.
  • Complementary Routes: Shallow routes can work well in combination with other routes. For example, a deep route can clear out space for the shallow route to operate effectively.
  • Blocking: Shallow routes often require good downfield blocking from other receivers or offensive linemen. Clearing the path for the receiver after the catch can lead to larger gains. Shallow routes are a fundamental component of an effective short-passing game.

Impact of Underneath Pass in Football

The underneath pass has a significant impact on American football, influencing various aspects of the game, offensive strategies, and team dynamics. Here’s a look at its key impacts:

Ball Control and Time of Possession

Underneath passes, with their higher completion rates and lower risk of turnovers, enable teams to maintain possession and control the clock. This keeps the opposing offense off the field, limiting their opportunities to score.

Drive Continuation

Short passes help move the chains on crucial downs, extending offensive drives and allowing teams to sustain momentum. This is especially important in third-down situations.

Quarterback Confidence and Rhythm

Underneath passes provide quarterbacks with high-percentage throws that can build their confidence and rhythm, helping them settle into the game and make more accurate throws downfield.

Defensive Reactions

The threat of successful underneath passes forces defenses to adjust their coverage and potentially allocate more resources to cover these routes. This can create opportunities for other types of plays, including deeper passes.

Exploiting Zone Coverage

Underneath passes are effective against zone defenses, as they can find gaps and soft spots in coverage. This forces defenders to react quickly, potentially leading to mismatches or open receivers.

Yards After Catch (YAC)

Skilled receivers can turn short passes into significant gains through their ability to make defenders miss and gain yards after the catch. YAC becomes a crucial factor in maximizing the impact of underneath passes.

Balancing Offense

Underneath passes complement deep passes and running plays, creating a balanced offensive attack that keeps the defense guessing. This prevents defenses from keying in on one aspect of the offense.

Blitz Counter

When defenses send extra rushers (blitz), underneath passes provide a quick way to get the ball out of the quarterback’s hands before pressure can arrive, potentially exploiting the spaces left by blitzing defenders.

Red Zone Efficiency

In condensed red zone situations, underneath passes can create opportunities for short-yardage touchdowns, as receivers can find pockets of space close to the goal line.

Youth and Novice Development

Underneath passes are often employed at lower skill levels to teach young quarterbacks about timing, accuracy, and reading defenses before progressing to more complex throws.


What exactly is a football underneath pass?

A football underneath pass, often known as a “short pass,” is a core maneuver in American football. It involves the quarterback delivering a pass to a receiver positioned relatively close to the line of scrimmage. 

Executed over shorter distances, this pass is strategically designed to gain modest yardage, maintain possession, and control the pace of the game.

When should an underneath pass be used on the field?

Underneath passes find their glory in several scenarios. They shine during quick gains, against zone coverage, to counter blitz situations, and in the red zone. 

They also offer a dependable option on third downs and can be a powerful tool for quarterbacks to develop their skills.

What strategies can enhance the execution of an underneath pass?

Executing a successful underneath pass involves a symphony of components. Strategies include reading defenders, precise timing, quick release, effective protection, creating yards after catch (YAC), and utilizing route combinations. 

These tactics combine to orchestrate a play that efficiently moves the ball downfield.

How do shallow routes contribute to the underneath pass?

Shallow routes, a type of underneath pass route, play a pivotal role. These routes, like drags, slants, and quick outs, see receivers traverse horizontally at shallow depths, exploiting gaps in the defense and optimizing yards gained after the catch. 

Timing, precision, and the ability to read the defense are crucial for their success.

What impact does the underneath pass have on the game?

The underneath pass wields a multi-faceted impact. It bolsters ball control and time of possession, prolongs drives, builds quarterback confidence, forces defensive adjustments, maximizes yards after catch, and creates offensive balance. 

Its influence extends beyond the field, shaping team strategies and overall gameplay.

Wrapping Up

In the symphony of American football plays, the underneath pass emerges as a cornerstone, with its ability to orchestrate controlled progress and strategic advancement. 

Whether a quarterback threading the needle with precision or a receiver turning a short toss into a game-changing play, the underneath pass embodies the essence of strategy, teamwork, and skill. 

As we conclude this exploration, remember that within the confines of each scrimmage line, this play’s execution can unravel the potential for victory, making it an indispensable page in the playbook of football excellence. Best of luck. 

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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