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Film Study: Option Routes & the Rookie Struggle

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Film Study: Option Routes & the Rookie Struggle

We're here today to talk about option routes and what that could mean in terms of a rookie receiver struggling to make an immediate impact. This is what keeps me awake at night in March. Not my job. Not my mortgage. Not the struggle of raising children in the digital age. Nope! It's a random play from a 22-0 win that took place 6 months ago. I'm a pretty cool and well-adjusted guy.

We're going to look at a play from the Packers 2018 Week 4 victory over the Buffalo Bills. It's a small play and it's not pretty to look at, but it's important.

Marquez Valdes-Scantling [83] is lined up in the slot to the right, with his defender sitting 6 yards off the line of scrimmage. Aaron Rodgers [12] is looking for a quick-hitter to Valdes-Scantling. Rodgers is expecting him to run immediately to the flat, while Valdes-Scantling pushes up a couple yards before cutting to the outside. It's not much, but that push-up puts Valdes-Scantling further up the field than Rodgers thinks he will be, and the pass falls incomplete.

Pretty much every offense in the league is reliant on option routes to some extent. In order to give your passing offense the best chance to succeed, you want to be able to exploit the defense as much as you can. If you call a curl route but the curl falls directly into a dropping zone defender, that route is now dead.

But if you throw options on that route, suddenly you've got more available space to work with. If the defender is playing your inside shoulder and the original route was an inside curl, suddenly that route becomes an out route. Without getting too simplistic, the concept behind option routes is to "run where they ain't."


Of course, the downside is pretty obvious. The receiver and the quarterback both need to see the same thing in the coverage and react the same way. Some option routes have a timing component to them, making it an even more complicated and messy endeavor. It is quite easy for wires to get crossed.

Which brings us back to this play. With the defender playing off, Rodgers reads it as a straight flat route. Why? That would allow Valdes-Scantling to get moving laterally, catch the ball on the run and give him a chance to get the edge. It's getting speed in space and doing it quickly.

If you watch the original play, you'll see something else that may lead to Rodgers wanting to hit the flat:

The receiver at the end is pulling up to block the outside defender. With a block on the edge, that gives Valdes-Scantling an even better chance to get a decent gain out of this. Rodgers gets rid of this ball quickly, meaning throwing to Valdes-Scantling was a pre-snap read based on coverage. In that case, you absolutely want the slot receiver to head to the flat immediately, giving him room under the outside receiver before the block.

If the slot defender was playing tighter, the push-up route makes sense: you want to get him moving backwards before the cut. It's that movement that creates the space. But if the defender is starting the play 6 yards off, you don't need more space to run this.

As we all know, Valdes-Scantling was a rookie this past year. It's not unreasonable to see a receiver struggle in his rookie year. Valdes-Scantling seems to have a really strong work ethic, but even then there are challenges. You're learning a new system at a higher level than you've ever played before, against guys who have been playing at that higher level for a while, with a quarterback who has seen all of this before and maybe has a different idea of how the coverage will react than you do. It's tricky. It's tricky tricky tricky.

I wanted to look at what the USF passing offense looked like in Valdes-Scantling's last season there. I didn't do a full breakdown or anything, but I did find something interesting.

That's not Valdes-Scantling in the slot, but it is a man in the slot. A man with a sizeable cushion, pushing up the field before heading to the sideline. But wait! There's more!

Both sides are identical. I couldn't see what the outside receiver on the right is doing, but the receiver on the left is running a go route. Not quite a block, but it's a route designed to help clear out the muck underneath.  It is my belief that there is no option here: the receiver in the slot simply runs a shallow out route.

Watch that route and see what the coverage could possibly do. Who is covering that slot receiver? If it's the safety, there's a ton of space between the two of them, so a straight flat route would make a lot of sense. If it's the linebacker [56] dropping from inside, a straight flat route would put more distance between the two of them. 

I want to be clear: I'm not saying that USF doesn't run option routes and I'm not saying that this particular play is the sole reason Valdes-Scantling ran an out instead of a flat route against Buffalo. My main point is that when we see a rookie receiver struggle, there are a multitude of reasons behind it. Rodgers sees one thing, the rookie receiver sees another, and the pass misses by a yard or two. We're talking about some pretty thin margins for error here.

I have a good idea of what this offense will look like next year under the leadership of Matt LaFleur, but no one knows 100% what it will look like. Regardless what the offense looks like, these young receivers will have a year of playing with Rodgers under their belt. They'll understand better how he operates, as well as how defenses operate. When you hear talk of Rodgers not trusting his receivers, this is part of that. But they'll have another year of trust. It's the receivers getting used to Rodgers and the NFL, but it's also Rodgers getting used to the receivers. And, given the flashes we saw out of Valdes-Scantling and Equanimeous St. Brown last year, I'd say that's a good thing.

I know that this seems like pretty basic stuff. I would say a lot of people who watch football understand the concept of option routes. But it's also easy to forget about this particular aspect and how it can impact the game as a whole as it's going on. Understanding the concept of option routes and seeing the impact of option routes within a game are two entirely different things. For some reason this play has been replaying in my head a lot lately and it got me thinking about all of this. 

And so here you have an article about option routes in the middle of March for no reason other than the fact that I couldn't stop thinking about it. You're welcome.

Albums listened to: Talk Talk - Laughing Stock; Over The Rhine - Love & Revelation


Dusty Evely is a film analyst for Cheesehead TV. He can be heard talking about the Packers on Pack to the Future or Pack-A-Day Podcast. He can be found on Twitter at @DustyEvely or @All22Talk or email at [email protected].

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Fan friendly comments only: off Comments (35) This filter will hide comments which have ratio of 5 to 1 down-vote to up-vote.

Qoojo's picture

From what I have read, it's my hope that MLF's system makes those reads easier and/or fewer in number, so that there is a lesser chance of disagreement.

Would you say a stacking WRs means fewer options routes?

Lare's picture

I agree. Make the play complicated to the defense in formations & motion, but once the play starts have the receivers run one route. That way they and the QB both know where he's going to be. If he beats his man the pass is thrown. If not, the pass goes to someone else.

You draft tall receivers with lots of speed so they have a good chance of winning their one-on-one matchups. Let them do that.

Dusty Evely's picture

I don't know that it necessarily means fewer option routes, but I think the constraints around those options would be more limited. LaFleur loves him some tight formations. You can't have tightly-bunched WRs running wherever they feel like or they'll all just run into each other. Option routes will always be a part of the offense, I think the options on those options will be more limited, if that makes sense. (Sorry. I'm tired.)

Qoojo's picture

Yep, and that's kind of what I was thinking. Maybe they can do a little bit of route options based on defensive alignment when stacked. But I think primarily the multiple routes that come from the same formation are designed to force errors on the defense. Just a combination of routes to force the defense to make decisions and to clear areas.

I hope to see a lot more wide open WRs, like "Whoops, who was covering that guy?"

Old School's picture

I think it's inarguable that having to rely on rookie WRs so much last year had an adverse affect on Rodgers performance. MSV and ESB were our #4 and #5 guys on opening day and by midseason they were #2 and #3.

Rookie WRs make more mistakes than veteran WRs, and the passing game really needs everybody on the same page.

We shouldn't have any rookie WRs this year, but everybody is learning a new playbook. Last year's rookies have been around the track once now, they've had an offseason to hit reset, and they should all be working hard to be ready for the OTAs and minicamps.

I think that just having a healthy Rodgers, with better protection and more experienced receivers, is going to make things better this year in the passing game.

jannes bjornson's picture

Side note; Isabella ran a 4.31 40 on Pro Day and torn the route tree apart like Edelmann. He may be into the second round now. Punt returner anyone?

Old School's picture

We shouldn't return punts, JB. Never. Fair catch every one or let them roll into the endzone. The yardage you gain over the course of the season doesn't offset the yardage you lose from penalties, the injuries, or the turnovers.

I like Isabella as a receiver quite a bit.

BoCallahan's picture

Old School,
I understand the rationale of that advice. I wonder if ST coaches respond by saying, “That’s fine for high school and college, but this is professional football. By this time, we ought to be able to field punts and get some positive yards without incurring a penalty.”
I have said this a few times on this site:
I would simply like to see our Return Man simply CATCH THE BALL as opposed to letting it bounce 5, 10, 15, or 20 yards. Just catch it!

Doug Niemczynski's picture

I tend to disagree. Football is a game of inches. You have to FIGHT for every miniscule inch.

KnockTheSnotOutOfYou's picture

Sound advice when we have had the below average to average return men we have had since 1996. Somewhere in-between we had a decent one or two for short time. Need a dangerous return man and KO returner and if we do your philosophy is wrong. With the right weapons they can be game changers.

Old School's picture

Let's look at the best returner in the division, Tariq Cohen of Chicago.

The Bears returned 33 punts , 5 less than league-leading Houston. Cohen returned all of them, best of any individual. He totaled 411 yards, for an average of 12.5 yards /return. That means in an average game, he'd return two punts (some are fair caught, some go into the endzone) for 25 yards, total.

That's the top return game in the league.

The Packers were 14th....pretty much the definition of average. We returned 30 punts, for 198 yards....abut 6.6 yards per return.

Now let's start adjusting. Subtract yardage we lose because of block-in-the-back penalties. Factor in injuries that we incur. Factor in fumbles on the return. And let's also factor in the damn fake punts that always seem to work against us.

Is all that really worth the 6.6 yards, or even the 12.5 yards? I mean, 12 yards is one Rodgers-to-Adams pass.

Here's the thing: Your punt return team is the bottom of your roster. Rookies, UDFAs, backups. If a backup gets hurt, then we elevate a guy from the practice squad and when the starter gets hurt a week later, we've got our practice squad guy starting against Khalil Mack.

We pay Rodgers and Adams and Graham, et. al, huge salaries to move the ball and score points. Why not just guard against the fakes, avoid the penalties, and fair catch the ball so our offense can take the field? Why risk backing us up with a penalty? Or turning it over?

Is the juice worth the squeeze? I don't think so. Punt return units rarely are going to win a game, but I absolutely have watched our punt return unit contribute to losses.

That's what I think.

Montana's picture

Hard to argue that logic OS.......

Coldworld's picture

I think there is a lot of sense to your point here, but like everything else it’s the problem of an absolute rule.

A good punter can put one in a very poor position leading to surrendering points if they know you are not going to return. Moreover, at other times one will squander significant yards.

I get that you are arguing overall risk:return weighs in favor of a successful fair catch or leave. I’d be happy with leaving when it’s clearly bound for the end zone, but it’s not always clear with a football. We saw that bite us several times last year.

Overall, it seems to me that we need a punt returner with field awareness and good discretion. We have not had that in a long time. Then you create non return as a default except for in prescribed circumstances. Thus you still need a credible returner.

Finally, I was struck last season by how many different players seemed to get tied up in knots about what to do as a returner. Even Williams, a vet with experience returning. seemed uncertain. I have to think that instructions/coaching was part of the issue. That hopefully changes with the new ST coaching staff.

Skip greenBayless's picture

SMH. It's futile Old School. You are dealing with zombies here. It makes total sense to me what you just said. I wish they would do it. It would also give them more time to coach up their true positions rather than focusing on cutting down on penalties on the punt and kick return units. As you said is 6 extra yards worth all the blocks in the back due to them not willing or wanting to fully learn special teams? Hell no.


Jersey Al's picture

" You are dealing with zombies here. " Dash, as I have expressed to you, I've really had enough of this type of rhetoric. Practically every comment you leave has something in it denigrating other readers here as if you are somehow superior. You're not and I'm asking you very nicely to stop.


Bure9620's picture

Agree with you Old School the analytics back this up, the one exception being those punts landing inside the 5 with backspin or the in between ones inside the 10. I would like to have a SAVY returner who can provide breathing room here. There is a huge difference in starting from the 10,11,12 yard line as oppose to inside the 5.

No Dash, the rest are not zombies.

Lare's picture

Returners can only be game changers if the other 10 teammates don't commit a penalty.

To eliminate stupid mistakes, the Packers either need smarter players on ST's or they need better coaching. Hopefully they've taken care of the second part of that equation, we'll see if they still need help with the first.

Barnacle's picture


Do you believe the Packers had stupid ST players all these years and foolishly blamed Slocum and Zook?

Lare's picture

I have no idea of the intelligence levels of the Packers ST players, but too many of them didn't play "smart".

Special team units usually have different players on them every single week as players are moved around due to injuries. Good special teams coaches make sure their players know exactly what to do and what not to do on every single play. Slocum and Zook weren't able to do that.

Tundraboy's picture

Exactly. Had to be at least 6 instances last year where a game shifting play was brought back because of a block-in-the-back.

TheBigCheeze's picture

....I wouldn't be that definitive......they don't need to fair catch every time, but should try to never let the ball hit the turf.....

Montana's picture

Hey Big Cheese, are you perhaps the BC from the old Packer blog?

Doug Niemczynski's picture

Punt returner / Slot WR

crayzpackfan's picture

Jannes—— I agree. Isabella would be a great pick. He can play special teams for a year or two until he can fit into the slot position. I still think he’s an early to mid third rounder

Thegreatreynoldo's picture

Old School doesn't sound very old school in this matter. I am not sure if he is right or not.

What I do know is that I am taking a firm "Hands-Off" position on whether the juice is worth the squeeze.

KnockTheSnotOutOfYou's picture

Agree! Exciting to think of the possibilities on both sides of the ball.

Minniman's picture

Dusty, thanks for the analysis, some great thoughts there.

Peculiarly when I watch the video, the first thing that I saw was the tight ends route run into the center of the field with no defender within 8 yards of him - and that was the lone deep safety. Even without any YAC that was an 8 yard pickup.

Noted about the need for MVS to sharpen up his reads and routes, but wouldn't a few of those seam plays have helped give the rookies some space?

Dusty Evely's picture

It's true! There is! For me, I just look at why that wasn't the read. He's lined tight off the line and there's a defender 9 yards off the line, looking like he's leaning a bit. So take those two things as part of the pre-snap read. Let's say Rodgers is thinking about going there. You have to look to see if a LB is dropping off the line underneath and also seeing if that defender is crashing. That's two things that don't happen immediately.
Now swing back to MVS. In the slot with an off defender, running to the boundary under a block. A quick completion there could net something big, but the ball has to come out. If he waits to see what happens with the TE, he has missed his window to the slot.
In this case - as in most cases - it's just a match-up thing. Rodgers liked the match-up on the right. Since he liked that, the ball had to come out immediately.
Seeing the TE open in the middle is one of those "Man, why didn't he go there," questions, but that's all hindsight. When I'm looking at these things, I always try to keep in mind the thought process. The thought process here was good; it was the execution that failed.

As to your larger question, yeah, some seam plays would help that, provided they build something off of that. LaFleur's offense is so good at setting tendencies and running something that looks similar but isn't, then kill you with that. If you can threaten the seam out of that look, you catch that slot defender leaning then you hit the flat under the block. Or you get the defender crashing on the flat and run a wheel. It's all connected, man, but you have to be consistently successful in what you run, otherwise the defense isn't threatened and has no reason to change.
(Not sure how much that actually answered your question.)

BoCallahan's picture

I would have to disagree with you regarding option routes. I would say there are few fans that understand the concept of option routes. Most fans have never played football and fail to recognize when a receiver ran an incorrect route or when the QB simply made a bad throw. I want to thank you for shedding light on such a basic concept.

jeremyjjbrown's picture

I'm going to say it's about 5 9s of probability MVS ran the route wrong in this case.

Rick F's picture

Slot receiver has to be the breaker of the coverage. What that means every alignment has a soft spot and great slots read the coverage presnap first. Then it is on the move sight adjustments. This is a great piece to show the detailed work. Isabella is a great route runner and will be picked in the first 50 picks. St. Brown and Moore can play the slot and be effective. LaFluer is said to be a creative play designer.

Packer Fan's picture

Excellent article. With Cobb and Allison probably taking the bulk of reps in practice, then getting hurt, did that leave MVS at a disadvantage? How much is coaching impacting the preparation of the young receivers?

Dusty Evely's picture

It probably didn't help, but they were still inconsistent even after getting more reps as the season wore on. It's just a tough transition for a rookie receiver.

And yeah, some of that is likely on the coaching. I know Rodgers had some issues with the WR coach last season, and you don't exactly have to squint to see how these things may be connected. I think it's a combination: you had mid-to-late round WRs, an injured QB and a WR coach who may have been in over his head a bit. (It's also worth noting that trying to bring along 2-3 rookie WRs into a system like McCarthy's is probably not the easiest task in the world.)

Thegreatreynoldo's picture

That WRs coach got hired almost immediately, and by one of the offensive boy-geniuses. Somebody thinks Raih is a good coach, just not AR.

ILPackerBacker's picture

This was a top notch article. thank you. We need more of these and less of some of the other.

The explanation will be lost on many who want the simple answer of "Rodgers had a guy open and threw it away" when that simply never happened.

The initial read ... the ball goes. That's it.
No 2nd guessing especially when the process is not understood.

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