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16437303-mmmainBy Mike Kuchar, Senior Research Manager, X&O Labs

The fact is 94.6 percent of coaches utilize the four vertical pass concept in their offense. We’ve found that the coaches that have had the most success with it have done away with the true “linear” structure of vertical streaks; instead implementing various tags by the receivers or backs to get one-on-one mismatches. The end result is outstanding; 47 percent of them claim they have netted between 11-15 yards per completion using these exact tags detailed in this report.


By Mike Kuchar
Senior Research Manager
X&O Labs
Twitter: @MikekKuchar

Insiders Members: Login here to access the full-length version of this report.



16437303-mmmainIt’s no secret that the four vertical concept is the most popular pass scheme in football today, at least not to the thousands of coaches that completed our survey on spread pass concepts last month.

In fact, 38 percent of these coaches said it was their most utilized pass concept last season, over ten percentage points higher than Snag, Shallow or Mesh concept. It seems the proficiency of the concept was increased as well. 47 percent of coaches, the majority, said this concept netted between 11-15 yards per completion. We all know it can be a homerun ball if executed correctly, but the execution of this concept is what we wanted to uncovered. We found the concept is easy to install but harder to master.

Before we divulge our data, it’s important to note that we already conducted a two-part research study on the four vertical concept some time ago, which could be accessed below:

Four Verticals Study - Part 1
Four Verticals Study - Part 2

While these reports relied mainly on the quarterback progressions and route structure of the purely linear four vertical concept, this report is centered on the various tags coaches are now using in the concept as it relates to the outside receivers, inside receivers and the back. While the four vertical concept can be utilized with a multitude of formations, we did find that 84 percent of coaches are still utilizing the scheme out of 3x1 open and 2x2 open spread formations. So, much of our research and diagrams will be focused on those structures.

Case 1: Running Back Tags

We wanted to start our research on discovering what four vertical teams are doing with their back if he’s not tied to protection. Seven on seven tournaments are filled with coaches who decide to match the back on a linebacker, but we’ve found this route often goes unnoticed on Fridays and Saturdays in the Fall. So, we reached out to a select group of coaches who do utilize the back in the concept and practice what they preach.

Stay Route Tag

Jeff Russell at Wethersfield High School (CT) uses a stay route with his back in his four vertical game. He can either start from the backfield or motion to line up behind one of the outside receivers to execute it. If the flat defender rushes out too quickly to defend it, the bender route on the inside opens up (Diagram 1). If the corner or deep third defender comes up to defend the stay route behind the line of scrimmage, the outside release vertical route is hit in the hole before the safety.


“If teams adjust by bringing players over, we'll either get a great one on one matchup backside or we'll motion a fourth receiver to that side and get three vertical routes with two benders and one perimeter on the same side as the stay route and we'll take advantage of the most displaced defender,” Russell told us.

Cross Route Tag

Scott Anderson, the offensive coordinator at Pearl River Community College (MS) will use both a cross and angle concept for his back based on the action of the middle hole player. It becomes more of an option route for the back.
“Our cross route is a drag back across field to window over ball,”said Anderson. “We run the route to go under (but towards) the bender. However, against Tampa two coverage, we try to break at a 45 degree angle.”


Kim Nelson, at Roosevelt High School, will also use motion to free up the back in four vertical concepts. “We usually run him in motion to create a trips formation from 2x2 formation,” said Nelson. “If not, we have him work outside release on the outside LB, (or whoever is re-routing him) lean hard to the inside and out run the defender (Diagram 6). Motion works best if he can't avoid the re-route.”


“Back Attacks Mike” (BAM)

John Marzka, the head coach at Albright College (NY), has a “default” check down which he calls a “Bam” route ”Back Attacks the Mike.” “He’ll run a 6 yard option route off of the drop of the MLB,” said Marzka. “He will settle in the open window against zone coverage (Diagram 13) or stay on the move against man coverage (Diagram 14). We can also tag the running back check down to either attack the front side flat area (Back Attacks Strong) or the backside flat area (Back Attacks Weak), depending on which linebacker or nickel back we want to put in a high/low divide dilemma, which personnel group/formation we are using and which hash we are on. We will run 4 verticals from 2x2, 3x1, 1x3 and even out of some two-back sets and you’re going to get different reactions from different defenders with these different sets. We also tag different variations on the backside read seam and backside read boundary routes so having flexibility with where you put the check down helps to both attack different defenders and avoids him running into some of our backside route variations.”



Shoot Route Tag

Travis Cole at Luther High School (OK) tags either a swing or shoot to his back based on coverage. “We liked swing to a one-high safety, trips look because we felt like it spaced defenders out better,” said Cole. “We used the shoot route against two-high safety rotation, but we would convert the number two receiver to a curl (Diagram 15). The shoot helped pull the OLB with it to open up curl to a cover four corner. We felt like it threatened the flat faster with a squat two corner.”


Case 2: Interior Receiver Tags

Bender Route Tag

It’s clear that against two-high safety structures, most coaches are using bender routes for their interior slots it the four vertical concept. In fact, according to the coaches we spoke with, bender routes have a 56 percent rating as the most efficient route in the four vertical scheme. While different coaches approach the teaching of the bend route, the consensus is to get behind the second level and under the third level of coverage against one high coverage structures (Diagram 16), which could turn into a speed cut against one-high coverage structures (Diagram 17).



Pump Route Tag

Chris Merritt at Columbus High School (FL) uses pump route variations with his inside vertical in order to create separation against man coverage. “We add a double move component to the route in order to gain some separation between the number two receiver or tight end,” said Merritt. “This route is more vertical. At 8-9 yards, he will make a hard three-step out route plant with a head fake and then bend it back to the middle behind the outside linebacker (Diagram 22).”


Option Route Tag

Scott Mueller, the offensive coordinator at Washington University (MO), will use an option route by number two or number three as a changeup. “We sit number two down or number three down at 6-8 yards (Diagram 23). We use this if there is a technique we want to take advantage of. If linebackers are flying to carry a number two receiver on the seam, we sit our guy under and away from him.”


Ray Hradek, at Berea-Midpark High School (OH) uses the same tags, but classifies them below:

Change = Outside two receivers exchange responsibilities


Switch = Inside two receivers exchange responsibilities.


Swap = All three receivers to three receiver side exchange responsibilities.


Case 3: Exterior Verticals and Break-Off Routes

There are varying breaking points coaches are teaching their outside receivers to use when deciding whether to continue their route or to break it off in the four vertical concept. Some coaches are teaching a specific length, such as 10 yards, while others have them read the reaction of the corner. In either case, there are specific routes that can be used by the exterior receiver as a tag. We detail that information below.

Comeback Tag

This tag has been the more popular tag for outside receivers in the four vertical game. It’s something that Tyler Hasty the offensive coordinator at Southern Arkansas University teaches. “We teach our wide receivers to break the route off at 15 yards,” said Hasty. “If they are not running past the defensive back, we run a comeback at 15 yards (Diagram 30). Their rule is if they are even with the DB at 15 yards to continue on their path.”


Dig Route Tag

We’ve found other coaches using digs for their outside receivers. Tyler Hasty will tag the outside receiver in 3x1 formations while the number two receiver will replace him on the numbers (Diagram 35). The number three receiver stays vertical. “Essentially, it clears all defenders out for the dig by number one,” said Hasty.


Curl Tag

Scott Hansen at Hinsdale South High School (IL) uses curl routes as outside receiver adjustments. Hansen correlates them with the CAP Accelerator concept in the R4 system. CAP refers to whether or not a defender is on top of a receiver. “We set his pre-snap depth at seven yards,” said Hinsdale. “During the pre-snap read, any secondary players who are deeper than 7 yards make our receivers ‘capped.’ That means that we are thinking of breaking off the vertical route to a 10-yard curl (Diagram 38. Any secondary players who are aligned at 7 yards or less make our receivers ‘uncapped.’ That means we are thinking about running the vertical past him. The post-snap read is similar and may change based on how well the defenders back pedal. If our receivers can ‘uncap’ the defender by 10 yards, then they continue vertically. If not, then they curl up at ten yards. Capped/uncapped rules only apply to safeties and corners.”


What You’re Missing…

Join X&O Labs’ exclusive membership website, Insiders, and get instant access to the full-length version of this research report. Here’s a small list of what you’ll find in the full-length report:

  • How coaches are tying the back release with the weak side number one receiver, which provides for one on one mismatches with linebackers.
  • The four variations of RB releases most commonly used based off the leverage of the Mike linebacker.
  • The landmarks and progressions of various in-breaking tags coaches are using for their interior receiver based off coverage.
  • Why hitch routes and stop routes are starting to supplant comebacks as the preferred route by exterior receivers.
  • What 12 coaches tell us are the most important coaching points in teaching the back shoulder vertical route.
  • VIDEO: Watch game film on all these concepts.

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If you’ve been utilizing the four vertical concept for a while now, you will notice that defenses have found ways to use coverage structure to take the big throw away. By implementing some of these simple tags, you will see the proficiency of the scheme continue to increase.




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