EAGAN, Minn. — The N.F.L. is a passing league, so quarterbacks’ names — rightfully — receive top billing.
But marquee throwers also need teammates to catch their passes, and in many instances receivers aren’t getting due credit for their role in making big plays successful.
Tua Tagovailoa, Kirk Cousins and Jalen Hurts led their teams to the playoffs after posting some of the best stats of their careers this season in part because of their receivers. The choices those pass-catchers make long before they flex in the end zone often dictate as much of the offense as their quarterbacks’ decisions.
The New York Times spoke with five of the N.F.L.’s elite receivers: Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen of the Minnesota Vikings, Tyreek Hill of the Miami Dolphins, DeVonta Smith of the Philadelphia Eagles and CeeDee Lamb of the Dallas Cowboys. They helped us dissect the art of route running, and we reviewed footage of some of their touchdowns this season. They detailed an intricate mental and physical battle to beat defenders, happening in fractions of a second, which most football viewers tend to miss.
Diagnosing the coverage
Before the play even starts, a receiver needs to identify what coverage the defender is using, as understanding what responsibilities the defender has will influence the pass catcher’s decisions as the route develops.
Seeing where the defender is aligned and using motions across the formation are two main methods to infer the coverage before the ball is snapped, players said.
Jefferson, who led the league in yardage this season (1,809), said he studies at least six hours of film per week. By game day, he said he has a good understanding of the defense’s tendencies and how they might play him on certain downs and distances.
He looks for the defensive back to reveal before the snap how he will be covered: Little tells like the defender leaning one way or another can tip Jefferson off whether the defense is in man coverage or zone.
Jefferson looked for those minor clues against the Bills’ defense in the Vikings’ wild comeback win on Nov. 13. Long before his jaw-dropping fourth-quarter catch, Jefferson scored a 22-yard touchdown in the first quarter by recognizing how cornerback Dane Jackson was playing him. Jackson lined up close to the line of scrimmage, picking up Jefferson immediately after the snap in man coverage. The play called for the Vikings receiver to run a fade route, or a straight-ahead sprint designed to end with the receiver creeping toward the sideline once the pass was thrown.
Seeing Jackson play him tight, Jefferson sped past and broke toward the outside, leaving Jackson in a bad position: Trailing his man and with his back turned to the pass, the defensive back could only hope to use his body as a shield against the ball.
“The whole week, we were saying, ‘If they go man, we’re going to throw it up,’” Jefferson said in an interview. “I wanted to get in a position where he couldn’t see the ball or know where it was coming, to block him off and catch the ball.”
Winning off the line of scrimmage
Perhaps the most vital step for a receiver is his first: The ability to spring forward from the line of scrimmage as soon as the ball is snapped can dictate whether the receiver is able to create any room away from his defender. In that window, a quarterback might have a millisecond to thread a pass.
Hill, regarded as one of the N.F.L.’s fastest players, often sees cornerbacks give him an extra cushion of distance at the line of scrimmage. But that did not happen on one play against the Bills on Dec. 17, when Hill faked an inside release against cornerback Tre’Davious White, who briefly reacted and slanted inside. Hill then switched and ran outside, gaining a half-step on White and scoring a 20-yard touchdown.
“It’s about being able to create space and to have that Allen Iverson crossover,” Hill said in an interview in October.
Lamb said in a phone interview that beating a defender at the line depends as much on strength as it does on pure speed.
“I don’t think people talk a lot about the physicality,” said Lamb, who was selected to the Pro Bowl after posting 1,359 receiving yards this season, the third-most in the N.F.C. “If you’re going to win at the line of scrimmage, you need to knock his hands down and get into your route. The defender’s job is to disrupt you, and the only way he can disrupt you is if he gets his hands on you.”
N.F.L. rules allow hand-fighting — batting a defensive back’s arms away, for example — within the first five yards of coverage, but the best receivers also use their footwork and create shiftiness with other parts of their bodies to get past defenders. Lamb said he alternated his jab- and stutter-steps with shoulder movements during the course of the game to confuse his opponent.
Camouflaging the route
While receivers are trying to surprise defenders with their first few steps, they’d like the next to lull the opponent with familiarity. All the better to get the guy covering them to back up.
“You want to come off the ball with speed to make them feel you,” Smith, the second-year Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver, said. “You want to make them feel that speed and then come up off their spot.”
A defender shouldn’t be able to tell whether a route is meant to set up a 10-yard or a 35-yard catch, and coaches teach receivers to disguise their routes so they don’t declare their intentions. The deception helps later when the receiver breaks into another direction.
If Smith runs hard on the early part of the route, like he’s dead set on the end zone, the defender will gear up to defend the end of the run and leave Smith room to break off course and catch a shorter pass.
Against the Titans on Dec. 4, Smith ran vertical for about 10 yards, appearing as though he were streaking toward the end zone. That forced cornerback Roger McCreary to respect that action, and he flipped his hips to defend the goal line. But Smith then cut inward for a post pattern, freeing himself for an open 34-yard touchdown.
Hill said camouflaging the routes was a difficult skill to master because players naturally want to raise their stance too high, too soon before they change direction instead of staying low throughout.
Thielen, a notoriously deceptive route runner, said in an interview that one key to disguising his route was staying low as long as he could before breaking. He said he often looks defenders in the eyes while running to maintain a low center of gravity and keep his shoulders and head aligned.
“It’s to keep everything explosive and vertical and right at the defender,” Thielen said. “It’s to keep everything tight and moving forward.”
Once the receiver reaches the top of the route — the point at which he meets the appropriate yardage depth that the play calls for — the physics and geometry of the matchup become all the more important.
Pass-catchers have an innate advantage over opponents who are largely guessing what the receiver’s path will be. By this point, the quarterback may have already thrown the ball in anticipation of where the receiver was supposed to go. Creating separation from a defender earlier in the route gives the quarterback a window to place the pass and the receiver the space to catch it.
To do so, receivers try to leverage their defender’s momentum against them. Keenan McCardell, the Vikings’ receiver coach who played in the N.F.L. for 17 seasons, said Jefferson is adept at the top of his routes because of his body control.
“The man upstairs blessed him with great wiggle and the body movement to be able to give guys the illusion that he’s going one way when he’s really going the other,” McCardell said in an interview.
Jefferson showed that agility in the fourth quarter of the Vikings’ overtime win against the Colts in December. He’d been held to five catches for 48 yards through three quarters as the Colts got out to a 36-14 lead. On a third-and-2 play from Indianapolis’s 8-yard line, Jefferson dazed cornerback Stephon Gilmore with a series of moves — breaking outside, jab-step inside breaking outside again — to get free for a pass he walked into the end zone.
Not all routes are so drastic. Smith said he likes to incorporate sly, quick head glances and nods as he’s running, which can trick the defender into thinking he’ll move into another direction.
“It’s very subtle, but as you play football, you pick up on things like that,” Smith said. “It’s just something else to give away and give them false information.”
With the Cowboys’ backup quarterback, Cooper Rush, starting against the Commanders in early October, Lamb used deception to make himself an easy target for an inexperienced passer.
On a second-and-5 play from the Washington 30-yard line, Lamb noticed that cornerback William Jackson’s back was turned to the sideline, anticipating that Lamb might run a short route over the middle to pick up a first down. Instead, Lamb ran his post route close to the boundary to squeeze Jackson.
Then he sold a head fake to the outside and cut in, escaping Jackson to make a 30-yard touchdown catch.
“It’s just part of mind control and understanding the speed of the route,” Lamb said. “I understand that you want me to go this way, but now I’m going to go the other.”
Putting everything together
Feints, speed, physicality and mental games can help receivers beat their defenders at various points in a route, but football’s elite pass-catchers can sometimes utilize all those tools on a single play.
With the Vikings clinging to a 17-16 lead over the Giants in the fourth quarter of their December matchup, Jefferson went through every trick of the trade to get Minnesota a touchdown.
He took an outside release at the snap when cornerback Fabian Moreau tried to leverage him inside. Jefferson fought Moreau’s hands at the line and then sped past as if running a go route. After running straight ahead for about 12 yards, Jefferson abruptly went into a dig route, breaking to run across the middle of the field. He caught Kirk Cousins’s pass just before the safety, Jason Pinnock, could reach him.
“Of all the routes you’ve run this year, that was the best route you’ve run all season,” Vikings Coach Kevin O’Connell told Jefferson after the 17-yard touchdown. “Inside leverage, doubling you, that’s unbelievable brother. There’s nobody like you.”
Video production by Ang Li.