Setting It (Up) Straight: A Route Misnomer, Starring Delaware’s Mike Johnson

Photos of Mike Johnson by Blue Hen Alum.
Photos of Mike Johnson by Blue Hen Alum.

A straight, well-paced stem is a terrific weapon that some analysts can mistake for a route lacking nuance. Delaware’s underrated Mike Johnson illustrates.  

If draft analysis in the football writing world was a barn on a farm, it would require a thorough cleaning of the build-up of manure. The majority of this excrement comes from the misuse of vague, catch-all terminology:

  • Footwork and Release Mechanics (Quarterbacks)
  • Vision (Any ballcarrier)
  • Releases and Routes (Wide Receivers)

Depending on the knowledge of the person using these terms, the meanings of these terms have great variation when applied to analysis. I’m tempted to pull out the hose and shovel and get started right here and now, but I don’t have the time and the manure will continue to build up at rate faster than I can clean it.

All I can do is keep my stall tidy, which is why the Rookie Scouting Portfolio publication has a glossary of defined terminology and I do my best to cite detail when I invoke these catch-all terms. As is the case with footwork, release mechanics, and vision, routes have its fair share of misnomers that leads to unfair criticism of the player.

One of them is the oft-heard critique goes along the lines of “Receiver X doesn’t have enough movement in his routes.” I’ve seen Jaelen Strong earn that criticism this week. Depending on where that analysis is applied, it may or may not be fair.

What I will share is that there are routes where minimal movement beyond a straight line is encouraged. In fact, most routes begin with one fundamental theme: Get the opposing defender to react to the thought that he could get beaten in the vertical game.

While speed is an ally towards a receiver achieving this objective, so is patience. Today’s post examines two plays from Delaware wide receiver Mike Johnson, a six-foot-plus, 210-215-pound wideout who deserves a lot more attention in the public eye than what Emory Hunt over at Football Gameplan can provide alone.

Johnson has enough speed to get deep, but what he does well as a route runner is set a pace with his stem (the component of the route between the initial release off the line of scrimmage and the break) that tests the patience of defenders. When Johnson exhibits movement, it’s meaningful and difficult for his opponents to resist.

No.1: Route Stem Says “Deep Cross,” Route Break Says “Streak”

Johnson is slot right a step outside the hash as part of a weak side twin alignment in this 21 personnel shotgun set at the Delaware 45. The corner plays seven yards off with a step of outside shade on Johnson. We’re going to see that the corner is playing zone and Johnson’s route will attack the deep safety.

Johnson works under the safety with a diagonal stem with a trajectory across the face of the defensive back. Note the stride length and pace of this stem and how disciplined of a line Johnson takes. The receiver wants to bait the safety into sliding outside to attack the potential catch-point of a deep cross and his disciplined line of his stem achieves this.

As soon as Johnson sees the safety commit, the receiver breaks straight up the hash.

Of course, the designed sprint of the quarterback also adds to that story that baits this safety into biting on the deep cross. It’s good context, but it doesn’t take away from the caliber of the route. The result of Johnson’s efforts is a catch at the 11, a broken tackle, and a 55-yard touchdown.

No.2: Stem Says “Deep Streak,” Break Says “Deep Cross”

Here’s another 12 personnel twin receiver set with Johnson in the slot where he’ll challenge the deep safety at the hash 12 yards off. Johnson takes an inside release up the middle and straightens his path into the stem at the 27 that threatens the middle of the field.

The safety works towards the right in anticipation of a break in that direction by the receiver. His first though is correct, but Johnson’ stem is good enough in this short space to make the safety think twice, and that’s where he’s beaten.

Johnson maintains his pace and length on his stem until he’s a few yards from the defender, who now must play the receiver straight-up. At this point, the defender will have to react one way or another to a move from Johnson because the receiver has turned the stem into a game of chicken where the cars are too close not to react without having a death wish.

Johnson jabs hard outside and then breaks back to the inside, turning the safety around and getting loose on the deep cross to the right hash. The receiver now has two steps on the defensive back as he reaches the 15. Johnson is so wide-open that even with a late and short throw the receiver makes the catch after turning back to the ball and waiting on the target.

This play is a perfect illustration why its easy to notice the movement, but undervalue the importance of the moments where the receiver maintains a straight line. It’s common for us to undervalue what appears simple or basic when it’s actually a lot more subtle.

Johnson is a prospect I have a feeling you’ll be reading a lot more about in the 2015 Rookie Scouting Portfolio. Stay tuned.

For analysis of skill players in this year’s draft class, pre-order the 2015 Rookie Scouting Portfolio–available for download April 1. Better yet, if you’re a fantasy owner the 56-page Post-Draft Add-on comes with the 2012 – 2015 RSPs at no additional charge. Best, yet, 10 percent of every sale is donated to Darkness to Light to combat sexual abuse. You can purchase past editions of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio (2006-2014) for just $9.95 apiece. 


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