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.
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.
- 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.