When “Flat” is Good: Route Running and Baylor WRs Kendall Wright and Terrance Williams

Baylor WR Kendall Wright is a top prospect, but he still has things to learn as a route runner. Photo by GoIowaState

[Editor’s Note: The second route is actually one from Terrance Williams. Thanks for pointing this out, Bryan. However, the concept of making a correct break and not drifting away from the ball is still the same. ] See Also: Kendall Wright And The Money Catch.

For the next two months, I’ll be providing excerpts of film study I’m doing for my 2012 Rookie Scouting Portfolio publication, which will be available here on April 1. The David Wilson Vision Series is one example of what you’ll be seeing: analysis of one particular skill set of a player and his position. Although the Wilson Series was a little more comprehensive, you’re going to find highly critical or praiseworthy analysis on an aspect of a player that might not match my overall take that you’ll find in the 2012 RSP.

Kendall Wright is likely an example. There is a lot like like about the Baylor wide receiver and I won’t be surprised if he’s among my top prospects at his position. He’s explosive, dynamic after the catch, and he demonstrates some strong skills as a perimeter deep threat. In many respects he reminds me of what Mario Manningham brings to the table for the Giants, but has potential to become much more (of course, so does Manningham).

However, today’s post is about route running and like Manningham, when it comes to this aspect of the position Wright has things to learn. So does his talented counterpart, underclassman Terrance Williams. One of these things is executing a flat break on a route. This post has two examples from the 2011 Baylor-Oklahoma State contest where Wright’s lack of refined route running hurt his team’s execution in the red zone.

The example is a 1st and goal pass from the Oklahoma State five with 12:00 left in the half. Baylor is in a 10-ersonnel shotgun set with receivers 2×2 and Wright slot right.

Wright is in the slot with the safety five yards over top at the goal line and the LB two yards outside the DE close to safety depth. The coverage appears to take away the inside and Wright and QB Robert Griffin are prepared to go outside.

Wright takes an inside release a few steps to draw the LB to him and then turn outside just under the safety.

Wright sets up his break with the hopes of getting the safety to bite, but the safety is playing outside all the way.

Although the Oklahoma State safety doesn’t bite on the subtle inside move, the real problem isn’t the set up of the break in this tight space, but the actual break Wright executes in the right flat. When break inside or outside a receiver should keep his path flat or angled back to the quarterback once he’s out of his break because this allows him to accomplish two things:

  1. Attack the ball at the earliest window it arrives: Getting to the ball at its earliest point helps the receiver make the play with as little resistance as possible from his opponent. It also frequently gives him a second chance to secure the ball if he can’t make a clean catch at this window. With the arms extended and the body away from the defender, the receiver can often make a nice recovery of a tip or an initial juggle.
  2. Shield the defender from an angle to the ball: Coming back to the ball out of the break or an angled break towards the pass prevents a defender from undercutting or jumping a route without running through the receiver to get to the ball and incurring a pass interference penalty. It also frequently blocks the defender from getting a hand on the pass or prevents him from making an attempt to knock the ball loose from the receiver’s grip.

When Wright makes his break, look at the difference between the angle his break took and the one he should have executed on this play.

The green arrows diagram angles of a break that would have been acceptable for this route. The red arrow is the angle you’re going to see Wright take. The white arrow is the path that the safety takes to break up this pass attempt.
The green diagram is the route as it should have been run. The red arrow is Wright’s actual break angle. The white arrow is what we’re about to see the safety do.
The brown circle is where the ball arrives as the safety successfully undercuts Wright’s route to knock the ball away.

This is a strong example why this type of timing pass in tight space requires a sharper angle back to the QB from the break that Wright did not make. If Wright takes an acceptable angle he either draws an interference foul and the offense earns the ball inside the two or he makes a catch at the two and gives his offense more options near the goal line on the next play. Of course, there’s also the strong possibility that Wright scores.

Instead, the outcome is an incomplete pass and after a second down run that fails to earn positive yardage, Baylor targets Williams 45 seconds later on 3rd and goal from the five. This time the offense uses an 11-personnel pistol set with receivers 1×2 and the Oklahoma State defense in a 3-3-5 alignment. The play design for Baylor is to execute a play fake from the pistol to draw the linebackers to the line of scrimmage and give Williams a chance to break behind them on a cross or slant.

The linebackers and strong safety are circled in white. They move to the line of scrimmage after a good play fake by the QB Robert Griffin III. Wright is supposed to break across the middle, but note that the red arrow is the break Williams executed and the green arrows are the more optimal patterns. You’ll see what happens soon enough.

After the snap, Williams does a good job of working inside the CB, using his hands and his shoulder to turn away from the corner. This kind of skill against press coverage will serve him well if he can do it consistently in the NFL. However, he once again did not flatten out of his break and as you can see below there is a clear opportunity to do so as the play requires.

Griffin’s play fake is good enough to draw three linebackers and a safety towards the line. Williams’ release gets him inside and you can see if he breaks across the big letters of "State" he has room behind those defenders to catch a pass.

Once again, Williams does not take a sharp enough angle out of his break on the route. As Griffin releases the ball the CB undercuts the poor break and intercepts the pass.

Even if this route is supposed to be a slant rather than a shallow cross, Williams needs to be aware of a chance his opponent attempts to undercut the ball and flatten his angle.

Interception and drive killer that could have cut Oklahoma State’s lead to 14 early in the second quarter.

Neither of these plays encompass Kendall Wright or Terrance Williams’ overall game and prospects as an NFL wide receiver. However, they are great examples of the details that wide receivers have to incorporate into their craft against quality opponents. I’m sure Wright has been successful with this route in the past due to his speed and quickness. However as bad as Oklahoma State’s defense was in 2011 in most stats, it led the FBS in turnovers and Justin Gilbert, Markell Martin (2nd team All-American), and Broderick Brown (3rd team All-American) are pretty good trio of athletic defensive backs.

It’s only going to get tougher for Wright and the rest of the receivers entering the NFL. The more details they master, the more their athleticism becomes a factor. Just remember that there are a lot of athletic pass catchers that never earn the title of starting receiver in the NFL. The difference is frequently attention to the craft of route running.

And earlier version of these post used the phrase “flat break” when I actually meant flattening the angle or coming back to the ball out of the break rather than drifting away from the ball out of the turn. A big thanks to Chris Chris Brown of Smart Football who pointed out the imprecision of my language here.

Brown has this to say about flat breaks on certain routes, which if you watch enough football makes perfect sense:

A lot of NFL and college teams teach “speed cuts” for timing routes, where you intentionally round off your route. The Giants do it a lot, especially on out cuts. You take a 45-degree step and then flatten. You don’t try to break down then cut. I always see scouts mentioning the flat break but not all routes should be flat breaks. Some, yes…say, a curl, but not out routes.

I made a few quick changes to the language in this article to be more precise.

Tomorrow: The Money Catch, featuring Wright and USC alum, former Giant, and current Eagle Steve Smith.

For more analysis like this at every skill position, purchase the Rookie Scouting Portfolio.  Pre-order the 2012 RSP and buy past RSPs (2006-2011) here.


9 responses to “When “Flat” is Good: Route Running and Baylor WRs Kendall Wright and Terrance Williams”

  1. I was at this game and Terrance Williams beat him off the line and was open for 6 and if you look closely the cornerback had grabbed Terrance Williams jersey to under cut him for the pick .

    • It still doesn’t change the fact that Williams doesn’t flatten his path out of his break. It wasn’t that severe of a grab. Still, thanks for the take.

  2. […] Inconsistency plus sustained effort is the formula of an ugly process that leads to a beautiful result: personal growth. Williams’ growth as a player hasn’t been isolated to a few days of a college all-star game practice in late January. The Baylor star has demonstrated improvement with his game since I watched himlast year. […]

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