Understanding Urban: The Vertical Game
By Ken Pryor
“(Al Davis') pass offense included an almost unlimited variety of pass patterns as well as a system of calling them, and utilized the backs and tight ends much more extensively than other offenses … To develop an understanding of it took time, but once learned, it was invaluable.” – Bill Walsh ‘Building a Champion’
This is not a description of the Al Davis offense we normally hear or read about.
In recent years, it became easy—and sometimes appropriate—to mock Davis and his beloved Oakland Raiders. Some have even described it as a feeble-minded, backyard, “go long” strategy. While it is no secret that Al Davis loved the deep ball, it should be noted it was all part of his methodical system.
For Davis, the “deep ball” concept became the centerpiece of his offensive scheme. It was not a matter of simply throwing deep bombs—though it was at times—but was instead the science of stretching defenses to their breaking point.
The four verticals concept has its footprint on the football landscape at every level. Over time, the four verticals has redefined offensive football, and we may very well see its machinations in Urban Meyer’s spread attack this fall.
While Meyer has made no secret of his disappointment with Ohio State’s receiving corps— from route running to speed to playmaking ability—he may be playing possum just a little bit.
Back in this spring, we all witnessed freshman Mike Thomas make a real case for himself for extensive playing time earlier in his career with a strong showing in the spring game.
Sophomore Devin Smith—a Stark County boy like myself—has shown enough on film and on the field to cause Meyer himself to wonder why Smith did not garner more playing time last year. Corey “Philly” Brown has shown an ability to get open deep, while Chris Fields and Jake Stoneburner round out what could be a very talented Ohio State receiver corps.
Braxton Miller has proven to have a strong enough arm to get the ball to these guys where they can make plays. When Ohio State goes to the four verticals game, these are the components to watch for:
Outside Vertical Landmarks and Adjustments
In the four vertical concept, the outside receivers must stretch the cornerback and adjust their routes off of them. Coaches take this opportunity to teach a comeback, stop or “speed out” route on the outside. It all depends on where the receiver can get leverage on the corner, thus making it an easier throw for the quarterback.
The comeback is the classic “take what they give you” throw, especially on the boundary side, where there is less room to work with. It is rare to see this throw to the field (wide) side, as few quarterbacks possess the arm strength to make the throw, but the productivity of the comeback cannot be debated.
Some coaches do something quite interesting, however. They ask the quarterback to react to the coverage and not the receiver. This thought process flies in the face of the entire principle of the four vertical passing game, which relies on receivers making post-snap reads on defenders in space.
Quarterbacks are told to throw the ball deep if coverage allows, but if it doesn’t, the quarterback is instructed to throw at the back of the head of the WR. This forces the receiver to adjust and react to the throw.
The receiver will break inside or outside based on the defensive back’s leverage. This eliminates the quarterback misreading the intention of the receiver.
A well-oiled coaching staff will look for the weakest cover defender by identifying their best match-up. One of the ways Urban Meyer and offensive coordinator Tom Herman can do this is by running a “twist” with the Y and Z receivers (as shown below) to create personnel mismatches.
Here, the Z receiver breaks off his route against the strong safety and the Y receiver becomes a mismatch for the Sam (strongside) linebacker.
Some coaches don’t always run the comeback route. Rather, they will adjust the outside receiver’s route based on the cornerback’s reaction. They employ as many as three different reads—all of which start with a vertical directive.
If the receiver is winning the vertical route, he will continue blowing the top off the coverage by beating his man deep. If the receiver is even with the defensive back, again he will continue to work vertical. If the corner is providing cushion (soft)—suggesting zone cover then bails—the receiver will drop the route off at a 16-yard landmark—or a distance determined by the quarterback arm strength.
Inside Vertical Adjustments
Without question, the inside vertical route is the favorite choice by quarterbacks in the four vertical package. These are the receivers that have the opportunity to do the most damage, considering they have the quickest access through the middle of the field, where serious damage can be inflicted upon the defense.
Coaches not named Jim Bollman become visibly giddy about attacking the defense with the inside verticals, because the possibilities and adjustments these players can make to get the ball are boundless. This is called the “read seam” route because his reactions will all depend on what their read indicator does.
It’s the receiver that has to make the adjustment, not the quarterback.
Single High Adjustments
The reads based off of the “single-high” safety coverage will have inside receivers run vertically up the seam—with a width of about three yards outside the hash and a depth of approximately 16 yards. The backside seam player reads that safety for one of three things:
- If the safety overplays the front side seam, wide receiver will keep going on the read seam maintaining his landmarks.
- If the safety is shallow and the post route is open, the receiver will run the post.
- The most likely thing to happen is the safety will stay in the middle of the field like he’s been taught. In this case, the “read seam” receiver is going to break off the route at 16 yards, and he’s going to sit in the first or second window created by the drop or the under coverage. If that window closes, he extends into the next available window. This route naturally morphs into a dig route as he runs away from the most dangerous player.
- Anytime there are two high defenders after the snap (middle of the field open) and the four vertical route is called, one of the two inside receivers must bend his route to attack the middle of the field. This is called a bender route
- Receivers should release to a landmark 1-2 yards outside the near hash and get to 12 yards, at which point he will read the safety. If there is a single high safety occupying the middle of the field and not near the landmark, they will stay on their landmark
The diagram above shows the typical route setup depicting the use of a "bender" receiver—an inside receiver who will "bend" to a post route when the middle of the field is open.
The “bender” receiver is actually given a wider variety of options to get open against the deep coverage. He can even run underneath the safeties if they play too deep.
When you talk about a “vertical” or “go route,” most people think of a deep bomb down the sidelines, but the four-verticals concept really attacks the safeties. The outside routes will be thrown at times based on matchup, but usually the goal is to make the free safety wrong.
The four-verticals is a staple of nearly every modern passing game, be it spread, pro-style, or option-based. What started as a “run straight down the seams for the end zone” concept has morphed into a “take what the coverage gives you” opportunity to make plays in space.
Based on what we have seen in the past, there is no better coaching staff in the nation to get this done than the Urban Meyer staff at Ohio State. This offensive crew is going to usher the OSU offense out from the dark ages and into something much more comprehensive and coherent.
Related Understanding Urban Articles by Ken Pryor:
Smash & Grab, A Sticky Situation
The Bubble Screen
Teaching QBs Where to Throw the Ball