Since the forward pass was legalized, the end zone fade route has become one of the pillars of offensive football. The play taps into the primal nature of the sport — the Oklahoma drill for receivers and corners. It’s a battle of wills with the man in front of you, and it takes not just physical prowess, but cunning as well — whether it’s setting up your opponent to believe you’re going inside before drifting toward the back corner of the end zone, waiting until the last second to look up for the ball, or not moving your hands until the ball is almost there. The fade route is everything we love about football, distilled down into the few seconds it takes for the quarterback to grab the snap and lob the ball toward the end zone corner.
That’s all true — if your definition of good football is repeated, consistent failure and embarrassing execution. Fade routes might look cool, but as far as effective play-calling goes, they’re trash. The fade is one of the lowest-probability plays a team can run in the red zone; there are just too many variables that have to click for it to work.
Remember this play from the Packers’ win over the Eagles on Monday Night Football? Early in the fourth quarter, a red-hot Aaron Rodgers got the matchup he wanted on the outside: Davante Adams on Nolan Carroll, who had been struggling all game. Adams ran a fine route and was ready to jump up for the pass … and Rodgers threw it way too high and out of bounds.
We see these plays break down way, way too often: Quarterbacks miss on their throw, receivers mistime their jump, or corners break up the pass. So unless you’ve got a power forward with a ballerina’s feet like Brandon Marshall, Demaryius Thomas, or Dez Bryant on your side, just stop doing this, everyone. There are literally dozens of better options at your disposal. These are a few.
The Pick Play
Against man coverage, there are few more difficult plays to defend than the pick play/rub route. The concept is simple: run two (or more) intersecting routes on one side of the field, utilizing one receiver to set a natural pick on his teammate’s defender. Rules state that the pick-setting receiver can’t initiate contact before the pass is caught, but simply getting in the way of a poor cornerback trying to trail in coverage is often enough. When that defender has to go around or through another offensive player, it creates the necessary separation.
Take this play from last week’s matchup between the Saints and Rams. With Los Angeles lining up three receivers on one side of the field at the 6-yard line, wideout Brian Quick runs toward the sideline looking to cut off New Orleans cornerback Delvin Breaux. Quick doesn’t initiate contact with Breaux — he kind of just gets in his way and creates traffic — and that gives Kenny Britt enough room to catch a quick slant and run in for the touchdown.
In Week 10’s matchup between the 49ers and Cardinals, Arizona quarterback Carson Palmer recognizes man coverage, sends running back David Johnson out into the tight slot, and then throws a quick out to Johnson, who simply runs behind two of his teammates’ routes. The traffic those two routes create make it impossible for San Francisco linebacker Nick Bellore to keep pace with the speedy Johnson.
There’s even an exploitable pick-play loophole in the rule book: Even if a receiver is initiating it, contact that comes within 1 yard of the line of scrimmage is legal. The Saints took advantage of this in Week 7 against the Chiefs. Lined up in the slot, Willie Snead sets a pick on outside linebacker Dee Ford, who — tasked with covering the running back out of the backfield — is way out of position once Drew Brees dumps it off to Mark Ingram. Touchdown.
So, why not just run this type of play every single time in the red zone? Because many teams run zone coverages when they’re backed up that close to their own end zone. Against a zone, where coverage players can anticipate and switch, these rub routes are far less effective and less reliable. Teams all need plays that win when it’s not man-to-man coverage. Speaking of …
The Zone Flood
One option is to flood a particular area of a zone defense. Like the pick, it’s a simple concept: Create a situation where you have more receivers than defenders in a particular area of a zone. Or, if that’s not possible, run enough routes into the same area of the field to confuse defenders about who they have to cover.
Take the Giants’ key fourth-down conversion in Week 10 against the Bengals. Odell Beckham Jr., lined up on the left wing, runs a route that grabs the attention of not just the cornerback to his side, but of the safety as well. Along with running back Rashad Jennings’s route out of the backfield, two players have effectively vacated the first five yards of the end zone to the left side of the field, leaving a huge chunk of field wide open. Sterling Shepard simply runs to the empty spot in the zone underneath and makes the touchdown catch.
The Raiders used a similar concept against the Panthers last week. By running a pair of routes straight up the field toward safety Kurt Coleman, they forced the Carolina defensive back to make a choice: help defend either Michael Crabtree’s route or Clive Walford’s route in the end zone. He chose to help out on Crabtree, and Derek Carr threw it up to Walford, who had beaten backup linebacker A.J. Klein in trailing coverage up the middle.
Get the Quarterback Outside the Pocket
Because the quarterback must throw it up almost immediately after taking the snap, the end zone fade route gives him only one option; if the pass isn’t open, the play is dead. However, there’s also the bootleg and quarterback sprint out, both plays that are designed to get the passer out of the pocket and into the flats. These schemes not only often give signal-callers two, three, or sometimes four receivers to throw to, they force the defense to treat the quarterback like a running threat, which spreads the coverage even thinner.
We saw it with Jameis Winston against the Seahawks last week, early in the first quarter. After faking a handoff, he strafed out to his left, which created havoc for Seattle’s defense. Winston has four solid options on this play: toss it out to his fullback, look for receiver Cecil Shorts in the back of the end zone, throw it to Mike Evans running a shallow crossing route, or run it in himself. When Bobby Wagner came up to take him on as a runner, Winston hit Evans, who had slipped in behind Wagner from the backside.
The Saints did something similar in Week 10 against the Broncos. After faking the handoff, Brees rolled to his right on a bootleg before finding Snead in the end zone. The beauty of the play was that Brees had five clear options to keep the play alive — Snead ran inside before breaking to the outside, Michael Thomas ran a crosser a few yards below him, and his two tight ends ran little underneath routes to give Brees dumpoff options as well. Factor in that Brees could just run the ball himself (clearly not the ideal option for a 37-year-old quarterback, but Brees does draw the attention of Von Miller on the play), and the Broncos are forced to defend a lot of scenarios on this play.
The list of plays preferable to a corner-of-the-end-zone lob stretches way beyond this trio. And given that teams can spread out defenses by putting more receivers and tight ends out wide, sometimes even just running the ball anywhere from inside the 5-yard line is preferable. But the advantage these three plays provide over the fade is as simple as the concepts themselves: They give quarterbacks multiple options, confuse the defense, and can be run from just about every formation and personnel grouping. You don’t even need a transcendent talent like Mike Evans, Jimmy Graham, or Julio Jones to make them work.