Bobby Petrino’s shallow cross concept – concepts, routes, and protection

The shallow cross is, quite possibly, the best pass play in football: Almost any quarterback can complete it; almost any receiver can run it (though there is more nuance than maybe one might initially realize to a good shallow route); it is a way to get “speed in space” without requiring a big arm; it works against most all coverages; and throwing a few of these tends to open up big plays downfield as defenders creep up.

Score... heh heh heh...score...

I’ve discussed lots of variants of the shallow, but one of my favorites remains Bobby Petrino’s. I see Petrino’s version as essentially the meshing of a pro style approach with a college sensibility; the reads are simple but there are nuances built in so that it works against almost any coverage. Petrino moves his guys around a bit, but, the key feature is that unlike the Airraid guys, he has his runningback and his shallow going to the same side: the back runs a wheel route to pull the underneath coverage to the sideline and up the sideline, while the other two receivers run a post and a square-in, and on the backside the receiver runs a comeback. The base play looks like this:



The post and the wheel are “alert” routes, in that they aren’t part of the basic reads but the quarterback can look at them first if the defense gives it. The most famous example of hitting the wheel was the second play of the game last season against Alabama. Alabama came out in a quarters or split safety look, but there was some coverage bust (it’s hard to say exactly but it was probably the cornerback chasing the post route all the way inside, as shown in the video below).

More typically, the goal is to hit the shallow, as the read is shallow to square-in to comeback on the backside. (Note that some people have said all routes should be read high to low, including the shallow. Although I think that’s a good rule of thumb, that’s all it is: the shallow needs to be the read before the square-in.) Below is a diagram and clip of the same concept, except Petrino now has the square-in/dig and the shallow coming from the same side.


Here, Arkansas runs the shallow and the wheel to the short and tight side (short side of the field and where there is only a tight-end). The corner and safety drop deep, and the advantage of running the shallow to this side is the tight alignment brings the linebackers in, and the shallow ends up able to outflank those guys.

The read is the same though: Alert (post/wheel), shallow to square-in to comeback. I’ve covered all of this previously, but it’s worth mentioning again because don’t take my word for it: Ryan Mallett explained it all to Jon Gruden recently. Jump to the 2:05 mark. (My favorite part of this is when Mallett begins discussing the hot reads and Gruden’s eyes light up.)

How do you protect this? As I said, I’ve discussed this before (going all the way back to 2007), but I haven’t much discussed protection as it relates to the shallow. One reason that Gruden and Mallett focus so much on hot reads is (aside from the fact that it is a big difference between quarterbacking in college and the pros) is that Petrino runs this from no-back or five-man pass protection (what he calls “scat”). This means there are no runningbacks or tight-ends in the designed protection; the ball must simply get out before any blitzes get to the quarterback. Below is the base protection with a “Big on Big” or “BOB” concept: the five linemen take the four defensive lineman and the inside linebackers (the uncovered lineman, here the center, reads from the Mike linebacker to the Sam linebacker.)

The “hot” ideas Mallett described are involved when other guys blitz. I’ll begin with the wheel route, which comes into play if the outside defender — here “N” for nickel defensive back — blitz. The technique Mallett described is an old Lavell Edwards technique described here, which is that the runner, if he sees a defender blitz by him (or another guy blitz by him and the safety rotate to take him in man) simply flattens out and runs a flat route:

That is if they blitz to the wheel side, and it is done by sight adjustment. But what if they blitz from the other side? There, the shallow receiver’s job is to simply stop in the vacated hole. If the strong safety blitzes and there is a hole created there, he runs almost a hitch route:

Now, although the center is there to pick up a linebacker, if both inside linebackers blitz we obviously have a problem. The only adjustment that needs to be made there is that the shallow receiver needs to look more quickly — instead of looking once he has crossed the opposite tackle, he needs to look right away and could catch it right over the middle, as shown in the ESPN video with Mallett.

Most of the above is designed for regular or man blitzes, where the hot receivers are either running away from man to man or sitting in a vacated zone. That principle can still work against zone blitzes — which are blitzes that use a relatively conservative coverage behind a shifting, multiple pass rushing front of five or six defenders — but it’s not as simple. The bottom line is that no-back or five man protections are not what you want against zone blitzes (more on that shortly), but one very advanced technique Petrino has used in the past is to allow his quarterbacks to identify the zone blitz front and the dropping defensive lineman, and to let him check the protection into a full slide, as shown below.

If done correctly (as drawn up, though easier said than done), there are no hots necessary as the five linemen will slide and block the five rushers. This only works, however, because we’re ignoring the dropping defensive line to the wheel side, which better actually be the case given that the quarterback has checked to this.

The above “hots” are important because they are not full-blown “sight adjustments” where the receiver, reading blitz, runs an entirely new route. In each case — the wheel to flat, or the shallow to settling in the open area or looking sooner — the receiver simply runs his normal path and then looks for the ball earlier than they would have. This way, if the receiver has made the wrong read or the ball isn’t thrown quickly to him hot, he simply continues on his earlier route. This is the only kind of “hot” route that I think consistently works. If the man over you or in your path blitzes, look back for the ball; if you don’t get the ball, keep running your route.

But what if you don’t want to rely only on no-back protection? There are alternatives, but you have to play with the route structure a bit. The simplest thing to do is to replace the backside comeback route with a runningback checking into the flat. This obviously gives up some downfield pressure, but the runningback in the flat still stretches the flat defender, serves as an outlet receiver, and you can use him as a blocker as he check releases to the flat. I’ve shown the below with a “half-slide” or “half-gap” protection with the runningback check-releasing (and dual reading) to away from the slide. the slide blockers — the center, guard, and tackle — account for the two defensive linemen and linebacker to their side.

Another adjustment is that the base route can be a flat route — what was the “hot adjustment” in Petrino’s version — and then you can “tag” or call the wheel as appropriate. This way the quarterback always has the hot route to the flat if it is there. For purposes of this discussion, however, I’ll show it with the wheel and assume the flat is the hot read. Below is the same concept but from a trips look.

The next adjustment is a protection adjustment where a tight-end or H-back (“A” in the diagram) is the sixth pass protector and check-releases while the runner still runs the wheel:

And this last protection adjustment shows the concept from a two-back set. Note that while I’ve shown here the concept from a six-man protection scheme, it would be simple enough to use a 7-man scheme here, and be very protected against the blitz and still have the same shallow concept.

Finally, let’s go back to the initial concept from Petrino. The comeback on the outside is essentially a decoy route, though it can also be a late outlet (or another “Alert” route if it is converted against Cover 2 coverages). One way to make this more of a factor — and add a quick pass element to help beat the blitz — is to give him a simple choice route that he can signal in to the quarterback. This is the same concept I’ve described before of packaging three-step and five-step passes together: the quarterback would signal the choice route he wants (a hitch, a slant or a fade), and if it is not there immediately the quarterback resets his feet for depth and reads wheel-shallow-square-in.

The variations are endless, but the upshot is that Petrino’s base package is very sound. As with all passes, once you have the base pass concept most of the other concerns are driven by the pass protection, but it’s really not too difficult when the “hots” are variations of the existing routes (or simply the same ones) and you open it up to being able to be taught with six or seven man pass protection schemes.

And while the next Arkansas quarterback may not have the arm of Ryan Mallett, they still have a lot of playmakers and this is a great way to get them the ball. Speed in space is one way it’s described; in Petrino parlance it’s “Feed the Studs,” and the shallow remains one of the best ways — and easiest ways — to do that.

Additional reading:
Along the Olentangy on Petrino’s offense.
The shallow, drag, and drive in the West Coast Offense.
St. Louis Rams (Mike Martz) shallow cross concepts.
Runningback in the shallow cross.
Pass protection, Tom Brady and the Blindside.
Shallow cross in the Airraid.
BYU/Lavell Edwards playbooks.

  • Very good stuff, as always.
    As I read, I’m toying around with how this might fit within our R&S passing game (6-man pass pro). I can envision running Switch on one side with the inside seam (#1 receiver) breaking the dig route, then putting together a post/shallow combo on the other side (either normal, with the #2 running the shallow, or “special” with #1 running the shallow). It creates a nice hi-lo on both the LBs and the safeties.
    Thanks for the inspiration.

  • Ben Plum

    Another great example of the wheel route shown up above was Illinois against Michigan in 2010. Mikel Leshoure just owned the M defense, and was basically untouched going into the end zone. Later in the game, Michigan hit Vincent Smith with basically the same play for some decent yardage.

    I believe Brian Cook refers to this as the “wheel of death”, and for good reason.

  • Sams

    Awesome stuff. The Airraid guys really ought to use a tag sending the back on a wheel to the same side the shallow is coming from. Not sure why I don’t see it much from them but it’s an easy adjustment we’ve done in the past that has been very successful. Not sure where we picked it up (maybe from Smart Football!) but I love this play.

  • Dan

    In youth football, I have run a similar play except we roll out a bit in the direction of the drag to avoid the backside blitz, if I keep him in the pocket I would have the ‘A’ in your diagram motion or sprint over to block the backside. The drag would continue regardless, if the inside LB’s blitzed than he would have to look quicker.

    Whereas, the college qb and wr are making site adjustments, my 9 – 13 yr olds don’t do that well (not for multiple players at least). Plus, if the QB drills the ball in on the dig (as he will have too because the LB’s will jump outside zone if they aren’t blitzing) a young kid will likely drop it. This allows us to just read and make a decision based on the defender facing the QB – if the OLB blitzes then we throw to the back in the flat, otherwise he continues like shown. The routes are the same.

    A lot of times though they fear our QB running (probably not a concern with Mallet) so they keep the corner in, so that takes away the flat and we have to look to the post or the drag.

    It’s funny that I drew this up before thinking I was so original. Everything in football has been done before. I would much rather copy stuff than reinvent the wheel. This is a great site for learning.

  • Will73mc

    The Bust on this wheel route actually was Jack LB Courtney Upshaw. All of the commentators said it was Dee Milliner the corner but we (Alabama) were in that match pattern and Upshaw had RB responsiblity, or at least this is what one of my friends on the team told me after the Arkansas game last yeart.

  • lew

    Last year, at that time, no back had emerged as the leader of that group yet so it made it that much easier for Alabama to defend. I want to say that Wingo was the back responsible for most of the receiving duties at that time and Knile Davis was beginning to emerge as that ‘go to’ guy. Bama didn’t bust it as much as Mallett fell in love with his arm and tried to put some balls where they simply would not fit. Also, Mallett was not satisfied with taking the underneath receiver, he wanted to hit the home run every time and would wait for his deep receiver to come open, which usually ended up with him taking the sack when he could have gotten 10-15 yards. So I guess you could say the short cross is only as effective as the QB that is running it.

  • Anonymous

    Interesting. That might be true. In any event, I know Saban was livid about that play and at some point (halftime maybe?) specifically referenced the blown coverage. And while it’s a blown coverage, good play design helps encourage such busts.

  • Anonymous

    This is interesting. What about running switch on the backside and then shallow by the slot and a post-curl by the outside receiver. Back checks to a swing route. QB can read switch to shallow to post-curl (to back as an outlet if you want).

    Here’s a wacky thought too: What about switch on the backside, and then to the other side: #1 runs the shallow, #2 runs a seam read (seam versus 1-high, if 2-high he breaks on either an out route (settling versus zone) or an outside breaking curl at 10-12) and the RB checks to an angle route, trailing the shallow. Read: 2-high: 1-read switch (F/S in bind against wheel/post), 2-shallow, 3-back angle, 4-slot on the out/curl. Versus 1-high the read is: read F/S (bind between the two seam routes), 2-shallow, 3-angle.

  • I’ve always been partial to the “Special” routes, so I like the adjustment of #1 running the shallow, but I think we run a different seam read than you describe – we teach the inside seam in the Go route (seam vs. 1 high, post or dig vs 2 high depending on the safety play) to minimize what they need to learn (we use it in Streak and Switch, as well). That would make a nice compliment to the shallow and the switch routes, and then the back simply checks to flat.
    Now that I look at it, it’s essentially a flood concept to the middle of the field. I didn’t notice that the first time around.

  • Anonymous

    I think that works. My thought was to combine three concepts into one: the backside R&S switch, the shallow coming underneath and inside those guys, and then the “Texas” concept” on the frontside. The “seam read” I described isn’t the R&S seam read, but instead was a variant on what the old WCO guys do on “Texas.” Here is a link for some food for thought. Scroll down to the bottom for some ideas:

    I really like the idea of switch on the backside with #1 on a shallow, #2 on a corner route (or seam vs 1-high and corner vs. 2-high) and the RB on an angle. Food for thought.

  • Anonymous

    See the attached image for my thought. (Click to enlarge.)

  • Anonymous

    Actually, try this one.

  • go hogs!

    And guess who the Illinois offensive coodinator is…Paul Petrino! Imagine that…

  • ARUGG_44

    If I remember correctly Saban said post game that Milliner was in man and everyone else was in zone because he missed the call.

  • Mr.Murder

    My comments on the link that tags back here was about the R&S Qb manual and how around page 51` there’s a discussion on trail/bump technique by the LB and how it relates to the positioning of a possible robber look underneath in one cover.

    Thought the back would have to be the sight read. You show a back sight here, the back goes hot on trail action(angle) on trail action and goes site on zone blitz to the front side?

    Was getting a halfback to see how well he can convert the flat to wheel if he sees someone charging down the flats or reading flat footed without depth. How do you convert those(terminology).

    Love the backside choice. Do you recommend running slant from choice to replace wide blitzers and hitch on all others unless he reads the corner squatting? If the corner comes down late it should always be slant, fade only if he’s down at the snap? Want routes closer to the ball that have better completion chances, don’t like giving choice of always running the fade vs. more than one look(they’ll always go deep).

  • Mr.Murder

    If the shallow starts to the same side as the dig, read shallow first(natural hot). If it comes from the other side of  your formation look to the dig side and read dig to shallow because it will take a bit longer to clear open and you will see the blitz coming to convert the shallow across the midline.

    The Darrin Slack video you noted reaffirm what was always considered in a scheme from the aspect of player splits and route concepts. A shallow from the furthest player out will open late as backers climb with routes inside on man or zone, provided those routes stem vertically.

    Same side, early shallow to dig. Opposite sides, dig to shallow, later. Outside, come back to the shallow last of all after reading upfield.

    Seems like it would go rhytmn throw depending on the depth of your drop. 

    Same shallow as rhytmn, opposite sides as a read(hitch step), last of all on the double hitch or moving feet to the catch area like you check down backs on their passes.

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