14 J ul 2006

The Passing Game II: Slants and Flats
by Mike Tanier
The quick slant is the signature play of the West Coast Offense. Since the West Coast is the most
prevalent offense in the NFL, it's not an exaggeration to call the slant the most important play in
professional football.
The quick slant is a simple pass pattern: run three to five steps, slant toward the middle of the field,
and look for the ball as soon as you make your cut. But like the Cover-2 defense or the zone blitz, the
quick slant embodies an entire football philosophy, and it can form the core of a whole offensive
scheme. A team that builds its plays around slants, like the Seahawks, attacks a defense much
differently than does a team that builds around I-formation running, like the Steelers.
But even the Steelers execute the occasional quick slant: it's part of every NFL playbook. Because it
is so ubiquitous, the quick slant makes a great introduction into the world of pass play design. If you
can understand the quick slant, in all of it's myriad incarnations, then you can begin to comprehend
how modern playbooks and gameplans are constructed.
The diagram to the right shows a classic
slant play. This play is often called Slant-
and-Flats or Slant-and-Shoot. In J on
Gruden's terminology, it is part of the J et
Smoke series: a set of plays featuring two
slants and two flat routes. The play shown
here is interpreted from a diagram Gruden
used during a presentation at the 2004
coaching clinic, but similar plays can be
seen in books like Football's West Coast
Offense by Frank Henderson and Mel Olson
and various other sources.
Let's examine each player's role in this Slant-and-Flats play:
Receivers: The left and right receiver each runs a slant route. Each stands at the line of scrimmage
with his outside foot back and takes three long strides. Depending on the type of coverage and the
preferences of the coach, the receiver's initial steps might be parallel to the sideline, angled slightly
toward the middle of the field, or directed toward the body of his defender. Against press coverage, he
must fight for a clean release while still moving upfield in the first three steps. If the defending
cornerback is playing off the line of scrimmage or shading the receiver to the left or right, attacking
straight toward his body will force him to backpedal, which will give the receiver plenty of room to
make a cut.
On the third stride, each receiver plants and breaks at a 30-45 degree angle, anticipating the ball just
after the break. The angle of the break depends on the coach's philosophy and the type of coverage;
with safeties in the deep middle of the field, the receiver should take a tight angle so he doesn't drift
into their zones. If the receiver failed to get separation from his cornerback, he can still shield the
cornerback from the ball with his body as long as he has gotten inside the defender. The receiver
must be ready to snap off the route and start eluding defenders as soon as he catches the ball.
Halfback: As the play is drawn, the halfback has blitz pickup responsibilities at the snap. If any
defender blitzes wide of the left tackle's outside foot, the halfback must block him. If no one blitzes on
that side, the halfback releases into the flat.
Fullback: The fullback is the hot receiver on this route. If a defender blitzes wide of the right tackle,
the fullback must sprint into the flat and prepare for an immediate throw.
Both the halfback and fullback are check-down targets on this play. If the quarterback has nowhere
else to go, he'll dump the ball into one of the flats for a short gain. But the backs are performing
another important task: they are stretching the defense horizontally. Against man coverage, they are
clearing the middle of the field of linebackers who could jump the slant routes. Against zone coverage,
they are widening the flat defenders; in other words, they are forcing cornerbacks to disengage from
the wide receivers and step up to defend the short passes.
Tight End: This play isn't designed for the tight end. He runs a seam route to occupy the attention of
the safety covering him (or covering the zone behind the flanker on the right side). The tight end must
release cleanly and attack the seam hard, ideally bringing a safety with him to the deep middle. If the
safeties determine that the tight end is a decoy and start ignoring him, the offensive coordinator will
spot it in the booth, and he'll tell the quarterback to look for the tight end deep the next time the play is
The Offensive Line: This diagram shows a likely blocking
scheme against a four-man front. The center checks for
defenders coming through the A-gaps, then assists the right
guard. Protectors on the right side of the line block the gaps
to their right. As shown, there's a big hole in the protection in
the B-gap between the left guard and tackle. The halfback
might be asked to read this gap and block before releasing
into the pattern.
Quarterback: Pre-snap, the quarterback reads the coverage, looks for potential blitzes, and
determines if the cornerbacks are playing press or loose coverage. This play works best on the strong
(right) side; the tight end is clearing out defenders, and the flanker is off the line of scrimmage and
more likely to release cleanly. But the play is largely symmetrical, so the quarterback can switch sides
and see nearly identical routes. But he must decide while dropping to pass. Slant and flat routes are
completed quickly, and the quarterback probably won't have time to switch sides in the pocket.
At the snap, the quarterback takes a three-step drop and reads the cornerback and linebacker to the
preferred side of the field. If the cornerback is in loose coverage and the linebacker is chasing a
running back, the slant will be open. If the receiver gets a clean release in press coverage, the slant
will be open. If the linebacker blitzes, the quarterback hits the running back in the flat. He may also
target the running back if the defense is in man coverage, the flanker is well covered, but the
linebacker is slow in getting to the flat. If nothing opens up, he can try to reset his feet and throw the
other way, dump the ball to the running back and hope for a two-yard gain, or throw the ball 20 yards
over the tight end's head.
Variations on a Slant-Flat Theme
The Slant-Flat play explained above dates back to the J oe Montana-to-Dwight Clark days. If you play
video games, you probably executed the split-back Slant-Flat play a few thousand times. If quick
slants only worked out of split-back formations, they wouldn't be very popular today. Luckily, this
versatile play can be run from any formation, and it can be tweaked to fit a variety of situations.
Here is a very similar Slant-Flat play,
this time from a single back set with
an H-back in motion. After the H-
back crosses the formation, there
are three receivers flooding the right
side of the field. This makes the
quarterback's reads easier: he can
tell if the split end to the left is
isolated against his cornerback, and
the shifting of the defense should tell
him if they are in man or zone
coverage underneath.
Once the ball is snapped, this play is nearly identical to the one run from the split-back formation. The
receivers run their slants. The running back hits the weakside flat, possibly after reading for blitzes.
The tight end attacks the strong side gap. Instead of running a seam pattern, the H-back runs a curl in
the middle of the field. That makes him part of the quarterback's progression of reads: if the outside
linebackers dropped into zones around the hashmarks ("hook zones") to stop the slants, there should
be plenty of room underneath for an alert H-back to sit and wait for a short pass.
As shown, the tight end and H-back cross each other, creating a potential "rub" which could help
either player get open. In another variation of the play, the H-back could slip into the flat, while the
tight end runs the curl. Either player could stay in to help boost the pass protection. The choices are
Here is a Slant-Flat variation from a Twin
WR set, with two wide receivers on the left
side of the formation. In this iteration, three
players run slants: the split end, the flanker
in the slot, and the H-back. The tight end
and running back work the flats; the
diagrammed play has the tight end pass
blocking before releasing.
In the NFL, most defenses counter a twins
formation by bringing a safety or nickel
defender to cover the slot receiver, while
the left cornerback plays the "force"
position outside the tight ends on the right side of the offense. That often creates a mismatch, with a
starting receiver facing a safety or backup defender. If the quarterback reads an obvious mismatch or
a blitz from the twins side, he throws the slant to the flanker. If the defense brings an extra safety into
deep coverage on the twins side, that deep safety is usually assigned to help with the inside slant,
leaving the split end in single coverage. If both cornerbacks line up in man coverage on the twins
side, the receivers can clear them out, and the running back should have plenty of room to run after
catching the flat pass.
If defenses adapt to the Twin WR Slant-Flat, the offense can counter attack by making the flanker run
a curl route, having the split end run a drag across the middle, or sending the running back on an
angle route across the middle of the field. And of course, a few running plays to the two-tight end side
will keep defenses from loading up against the twins.
A Play with Staying Power
That's pretty much it: the play that turned Bill Walsh into Socrates, J oe Montana into a bronze bust,
and the power-running NFL into a precision aerial show. How could one play, a short pass no less,
change the way football is played?
Walsh built his version out of necessity when he began coaching the 49ers in the late 1970s. He had
already helped design a technical, short-passing offense for the Bengals, but his offensive line in San
Francisco wasn't good enough to keep quarterback Steve DeBerg upright for more than a second or
two. So Walsh emphasized the three-step drop and developed pass routes that opened up quickly.
It was the right offense for the right time. The five-yard chuck rule had been instituted, and defenders
could no longer batter receivers up and down the field. Defensive coordinators struggled to adapt.
Cornerbacks didn't want to risk a penalty by getting too physical, and they didn't want to risk getting
burnt. So they all but allowed those quick slants, hitches, smashes, flats and curls. Walsh (and later
Montana) built an empire one five-yard pass at a time.
What came to be called the West Coast Offense met every challenge that 1980s defenses offered.
Hot routes and running backs in the flat were perfect antidotes for the heavy blitzes applied by outside
linebackers in 3-4 defenses. When the 46 defense moved a safety close to the line of scrimmage, it
opened up the middle of the field: one cut, and a good receiver could turn a short slant into a 50-yard
Zone coverage can neutralize the Slant-and-Flat family of plays, and the rise of the Cover-2 scheme
can be traced to its efficiency against the West Coast Offense. Linebackers can take away the slant
passing lanes by dropping into hook zones. Cornerbacks can jam receivers, pass them off to the
safeties, and guard the flats. Of course, the West Coast Offense is more than just a series of Slant-
and-Flat plays, just as the Cover-2 defense isn't just a playbook full of two-deep, five-under coverage
schemes. But in many of the chess matches that we watch each Sunday, Slant-and-Flat and Cover-2
are the opening gambits.
Summing it Up
Grab some graph paper or a video game with a play designer, and you can experiment on your own.
You can build Slant-and-Flat plays from any alignment, from a power I-formation to a five-wideout
spread to some zany Pop Warner triple stack. The principles remain the same. The combination of
routes stretches the defense horizontally. The receiver breaks quickly and expects the ball
immediately. The quarterback reads, sets and fires before the defense can mount a pass rush.
The variations are endless, and a coach like J on Gruden or Mike Holmgren might have several
hundred of them in his playbook. The variations give the West Coast Offense its complexity, and they
make it difficult to defend. But the basics are deceptively simple. Watch carefully, and you'll see this
route combination executed several times in every game, even if you're not watching a "West Coast
Offense" team.
(Note: The term "West Coast Offense" has several meanings, and football historians know that it is
most properly applied to Sid Gillman's AFL offenses in the 1960s. But the term is more commonly
used to describe Bill Walsh's offense, and that is how it will be used in this series of articles. Deal with
Posted by: Mike Tanier on 14 J ul 2006
29 comments, Last at 25 Jul 2006, 11:22pm by Vern
by jetsgrumbler (not verified) :: Fri, 07/14/2006 - 12:18pm
First In? Sweet. The strategy mini camp series really is great. Little details like explaining which foot a
receiver puts in front at the line and why they might run at a defender instead of away are what sets
these apart. Nice work, as usual.
by the peepshow (not verified) :: Fri, 07/14/2006 - 12:50pm
Great article. Its easy to understand why this type of offense would take three or four years to learn,
and why it requires a smart and accurate passer under center (sorry Vick, keep tryin'). Hasselbeck
seems to be the current master of the West Coast, which makes me respect him all that much more.
Any chance we could get a run down of the teams that run West Coast?
by sam_acw (not verified) :: Fri, 07/14/2006 - 1:11pm
Is there going to be a mini camp on the deep passing offense? I'm thinking of the Packers about 2/3
seasons ago running with 5 or 6 lineman on 1st and 2nd downs and then looking deep on passing
by Wanker79 (not verified) :: Fri, 07/14/2006 - 1:54pm
Re 3:
Here's the last paragraph from the first installment's intro.
Consider this week's Minicamp an introductory course: a primer on the language and concepts of the
passing game. Next week, we'll examine quick slant routes and principles of the West Coast offense.
After that, we'll look at the spread offense. In the last installment, we'll run some bootlegs and a
waggle or two. At the end, you'll have a deeper understanding and appreciation of football strategy,
and you may pick up some pointers for your favorite video game.
by Andrew (not verified) :: Fri, 07/14/2006 - 2:10pm
WCO Teams (as of 2005):
J ets
I'm sure there are more.
by pound4pound (not verified) :: Fri, 07/14/2006 - 2:14pm
Great article Mike. Quick question: can someone explain exactly what a "hot route" is? I hear this
phrase thrown around all the time, but after seeing it referenced in this article, I'm not sure what
exactly they're referring to. Thanks.
by Wanker79 (not verified) :: Fri, 07/14/2006 - 2:18pm
A hot-route is the receiver who becomes the primary target in the event of a blitz. So in the first
example, if a defender blitzes from the right side instead of the FB trying to pick it up he'll instead get
outside the blitz and look for the quick throw.
by SlantNGo (not verified) :: Fri, 07/14/2006 - 3:25pm
Re: 7
Maybe some teams do that in the NFL, but I've never seen a hot route like that. In most protections,
there will be one gap (usually either the outside the LT or outside the RT) that will be left unblocked
because there's not enough people to block that gap. In the event that there is a blitz from that side,
the QB needs to stop his drop at 3 steps and hit the pre-set "hot" receiver. Sometimes the hot receiver
needs to alter his route, and sometimes not.
In the example presented in this article, the FB was running a flat route anyways so he doesn't need
to change his route. Sometimes a wide receiver becomes the hot receiver, and he needs to pay
attention to see if there is a blitz in the unprotected gap. If so, he changes his route to a "hot route",
usually a short hitch pattern.
Quite a few of the really silly interceptons you see every week are due to miscommunications in the
hot routes, or defenses picking up on the hot routes. When a receiver is altering his hot route, he may
have something different in mind than the QB, for example. Or, if in the play described in the article,
suppose that the defense knows that the FB is the hot receiver. All they have to do is blitz on the
unprotected gap then send a corner to jump the flat route, and they've got an easy 6.
by Sergio (not verified) :: Fri, 07/14/2006 - 3:47pm
FYI, Dave Wannstedt & Co. (allegedly) didn't have hot routes installed in the offense in 2004...
I still sob at nights...
by Pat on the Back (not verified) :: Fri, 07/14/2006 - 4:56pm
Basically, adding on to what they said about, a hot route is a "pull in case of emergency" pass. If there
is a blitz, or a lineman screws up a block, or the quarterback has shell-shock and wants the ball out of
his hand that instant, most plays have a quick "dump-off" pass that will hopefully get a few yards
rather than a sack or an incomplete. Usually, though not always, this is to a RB.
by Pat (not verified) :: Fri, 07/14/2006 - 5:06pm
Maybe some teams do that in the NFL, but I’ve never seen a hot route like that.
How is that different than what he said? That looks exactly the same. The gaps unblocked are the D
gaps on the left/right side, since the right TE's running a route. The B-gap's open as well, but the RB's
got that responsibility (as well as the left D gap).
As for why the gap's unblocked, though, I think in the example given, it's not because there aren't
enough blockers there - same problem on the left side, and the RB's covering that - but because the
TE and the WR out on routes should provide enough traffic for the FB to have some room to run in
the case of a blitz. If the TE sees what happens, he could change his route and be a lead blocker for
the FB, as well. The RB on the left would just be nailed by a linebacker.
by Nags (not verified) :: Fri, 07/14/2006 - 6:01pm
Sorry about the double post, but great article. Good depiction of how Walsh's offense stretches the
defense horizontally to open up short as well as deep passes. Check out www.westcoastoffense.com
for a great in-depth overview of several aspects of this offensive system. Great job FO. Strategy
minicamps are some of my favorite articles to read.
by Sean D. (not verified) :: Fri, 07/14/2006 - 8:20pm
Re: 5 That sounds about right given the lineage of Head Coaches and Offensive Coordinators on
those teams. The J ets and Lions probably won't run the WCO anymore in 2006, not sure about the
Raiders. Minnesota probably will go to something more West Coast with Childress coming from Andy
Reid's team and the Texans have Gary Kubiak who came from Denver. I would think that Arizona
would be somewhat WCO since Dennis Green is a Walsh guy and if that's the case then maybe the
Ravens are too since Billick was Green's offensive coordinator in Minnesota. Linehan was also a
coordinator for Green and he was the offensive coordinator for Miami in '05 and now is StL's head
by Trogdor (not verified) :: Fri, 07/14/2006 - 8:51pm
On hot routes - one of my first good looks at football offensive theory was when Mouse Davis was
brought in to coordinate Detroit's offense, and SI did a report on the run-and-shoot. They had a play
diagram showing the routes for each receiver, with something like 13 different variations per receiver
based on how they read the defense. The receiver could run his route longer or shorter, turn inside or
out, at various angles, based on how he thinks the defense will play. And all I could think was, wow, if
the receiver and QB read things even slightly differently, the throw will be off (or the receiver will be in
the wrong place, depending on the announcer), and it could be a disaster. Hot routes can be the
same way - if one reads blitz and the other doesn't, look out.
Anyway, this article mentions that the cover 2 is great against the WCO, and it is. But I think an even
greater menace is the zone rush/blitz. Nothing throws off a timing route quite like a 6'4", 290 pounder
showing up in the slant lane unexpectedly. The more you look at the chess match that is football, the
greater it becomes.
by James, London (not verified) :: Fri, 07/14/2006 - 8:52pm
Fantastic. Minicamp rocks.
Am I right in thinking that to run a deep passing attack with 'slant-and-flats', the QB takes a deeper
drop, and the WRs go further up the field before making there cuts, or is there more to it than that?
And isn't that basically the offense that Mike Martz runs?
by BillWallace (not verified) :: Fri, 07/14/2006 - 9:41pm
One question. You say "But the backs are performing another important task: they are stretching the
defense horizontally. Against man coverage, they are clearing the middle of the field of linebackers
who could jump the slant routes"
It would seem to me that with the LBS starting inside and the WRS outside, that a LB following an RB
into the flat would be running right into the pass pattern, or at least right through the line that the ball
will travel when thrown. So then they're relying on the LB going through and past that line? Which
makes the timing much harder it seems.
by SlyPumpkin (not verified) :: Fri, 07/14/2006 - 9:59pm
RE: 16
The reason that the running backs are stretching the defense horizontally actually does play into the
offense's hands. If the LB is in man coverage then he shouldn't be watching the QB as he would be in
a zone coverage, he'll be racing to cover the RB. This makes the throwing lane much more open than
if he was in zone. Timing is still important, but if the QB makes the correct pre-snap read and even a
quick post-snap read to check the LB then the proximity of the LB to the throwing lane is irrelevant.
by SlantNGo (not verified) :: Fri, 07/14/2006 - 11:41pm
Re: 11
He said that the FB, instead of trying to pick up the blitz, releases into the flat to catch the pass. I've
never seen that a back purposely refuse to pick up the blitz in order to catch a pass on a "hot" read. If
he's the hot read, then he was running a pattern to begin with, as far as I've seen. Maybe in the NFL
some teams actually do instruct their backs to let the blitz get through to catch a quick pass.
by Nathan (not verified) :: Sat, 07/15/2006 - 12:35am
This was one strong. Bravo for picking it up a notch. You may not have added a whole lot of new
information, but you didn't forget to include anything. That is the work of someone who is passionate
and detailed.
Great J ob.
by Nathan (not verified) :: Sun, 07/16/2006 - 12:57pm
Maybe in the NFL some teams actually do instruct their backs to let the blitz get through to catch a
quick pass.
They do, but with a screenish block.
I.E. not a full block, oh you got through?
flat, catch right over blitzer's head.
TE/RB play generally. Normal flat pattern, but that becomes the play. Not just a dump off because
obviously the QB needs to be aware of the gentleman running at him.
How to tell you're facing a Cover 2?
All 3 linebackers backup in a fan pattern. First read, at least to my video game self.
by Arkaein (not verified) :: Sun, 07/16/2006 - 1:34pm
This was a great installment. I've developed entire offenses on Madden (click my name to check them
out) and I'll bet that 90% of my pass plays have a quick slant or a RB swing/flats pattern built in, and
many plays use both. It really is a great combo, but I agree with the article that it is definitely built for
attacking man coverages more than zones.
by David (not verified) :: Sun, 07/16/2006 - 5:18pm
we all already know this, Right?
by Arkaein (not verified) :: Sun, 07/16/2006 - 10:48pm
David, I think it was covered pretty well in the comments for the first installment, but not everyone
knows all of this. Many people have never played organized football at all (the only organized football
I've played involved flags strapped around the players' waists). Most who have haven't played beyond
high school level, and in high school football most teams "just run and fumble" as a cousin of mine
once so eloquently put it.
That leaves televised broadcasts, pre- and post-game shows, newspaper articles and video games to
fill in the gaps. The problem with media sources is that the knowledge they provide is shallow and
repetitive. You can watch a thousand pre-game shows without getting even the depth of this article.
Some shows are better than others in this respect, but they spend too much time of showing highlight
reel clips and player interviews and cover too many games to provide a lot of depth into specific styles
of offense. Deeper reading materials are few and far between. The book "Football's West Coast
Offense" mentioned above is a pretty common reference and recommendation, but I own a copy and
it really isn't very good. The writing is poor, it spends too much time discussing basic technique which
is not WCO specific, and a lot of what it says doesn't apply well to NFL level WCO teams (e.g., it says
several times that a QB should throw a pass after he sees the WR turn to look for the ball. Maybe it's
just from watching too much Brett Favre, but I've see plenty of routes, especially post routes or deep
outs where the ball is released before the WR has completed his break so that the DB has less
chance to react the WR's break).
Still, most people on a site like this know most of this material. But it's still nice to fill in gaps in
knowledge (for example, I learned something about O-line blocking assignments, an often neglected
part of the passing game), and there will always be up and coming football fans who are still learning
the basics.
by Megamanic (not verified) :: Sun, 07/16/2006 - 11:42pm
#23 Or, like me people who love American Football but grew up outside of America. We pick up what
we can from TV & expensive imported books. And now websites like this one.
Thanks for another great article.
by Wanker79 (not verified) :: Mon, 07/17/2006 - 10:36am
Re 18:
As I said in last week's thread, the depth of my knowledge of the intricacies of football is pretty
shallow. And your explanation seemed much more in-depth than mine, so I wouldn't be surprised if
you were correct. And now that I'm rethinking it, the example that popped into my head may have
been a screen (the FB chips a blitzer then releases for a pass into the flat) instead of a hot route.
by perrin (not verified) :: Mon, 07/17/2006 - 12:43pm
Terrific article, Mike. If you aren't writing these minicamps with the goal of eventually combining them
all into a book that explains NFL football, well, I think you should be. Excellent work.
by sanel (not verified) :: Mon, 07/17/2006 - 6:50pm
how long does the first step have to be because thats a problem i have when im throwing a slant, by
the way nice article
by Aaron Brooks (not verified) :: Tue, 07/18/2006 - 10:18am
I always thought Rhonde Barber was the hot receiver!
by Vern (not verified) :: Tue, 07/25/2006 - 11:22pm
RE: 23
You hit the nail on the head. These "football basics" books target young people who want to know
how to play the game. They do not describe the NFL game, nor do they target a fan watching on TV
or at the game.
I think a book called "How to Watch the NFL" based on articles like this in the beginning, and then
deeper specific things later on would be a best seller. As a season ticket holder watching half the
games in person, I'd love to be able to make a read based on a formation I see on the field, and then
switch to some key defender or route to focus on. And with HDTV, you can still watch a bit more of
the field these days, and I'd much rather being breaking it down that listening the announcer going on
about what a SHOT someone just took three plays back.