Precise Route-Running Vital To Vertical Game

To complete deep passes, as the Packers have begun to do with stunning frequency the past couple of games, obviously requires near-pinpoint accuracy from Brett Favre. But it also requires well-executed pass routes, and what the receivers must do to make a deep route succeed is far more involved than just taking off and running as far and as fast as they can. - More Packers-Vikings Game Center

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To complete deep passes, as the Packers have begun to do with stunning frequency the past couple of games, obviously requires near-pinpoint accuracy from Brett Favre. But that's not all.

It also requires well-executed pass routes, and what the receivers need to do to make a deep route succeed is far more involved than just taking off and running as far and as fast as they can.

Sure, it doesn't appear overly complicated. When you see the replay of Greg Jennings outrunning Denver cornerback Dre Bly down the sideline for a game-winning 82-yard TD in overtime, or him blowing past Kansas City linebacker Donnie Edwards while splitting two safeties for a 60-yard TD last Sunday, it looks simple enough. And on that given play, it is.

But the reason coaches and players talk so much about route-running, and why it's practiced and evaluated on film every day, derives from this key principle - the deep route has to look like every other downfield route (a hitch, an out, a comeback) for the first 10 to 15 yards, or it won't work. And that requires precise steps and routes by each receiver on every play.

"Our whole passing game is based off of that vertical stem, and we'd love to make the defense think every single time we go out we're going downtown," offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said. "I think our starting point on offense is on the perimeter to make the defense feel like we're going to run by them."

The more the receivers can make their downfield routes all look the same off the line of scrimmage, the better the coaches - both those on the sidelines and those in the booth like Philbin - can pick up the defense's tendencies and reactions, and then get an idea of what's going to work.

"You have to figure out, are they respecting your ability to run by them?" Philbin said. "If they do, then your thoughts go to let's throw the ball underneath them, and if they don't, let's test them deep and see if we can go make a play downfield."

The Packers had a ton of success earlier in the season with the short-to-intermediate passing game and gaining a lot of yards after the catch. Against San Diego for instance, the two longest pass plays that day were a hitch route that Donald Driver turned into a 46-yard catch-and-run, and a slant pattern to Jennings that became a 57-yard touchdown.

As defenses have adjusted to try to take away the shorter throws, the receivers have been getting open deep. It started against Washington, but Favre underthrew some deep balls and the receivers weren't able to outjump the converging defenders.

But since then, with Favre's throws on target, Jennings has hauled in his two long touchdowns, while James Jones had a 79-yard TD at Denver and Driver had a 44-yard catch at Kansas City that set up a field goal.

That success deep has been due in part to the route-running, because the cornerbacks are seeing the same first five-to-seven steps off the line that they've seen on film and/or in that game. But instead of pulling up for a hitch or a comeback, the receiver doesn't break stride and can take advantage of even the slightest hesitation by the defender.

"It's a lot of technique, and really it's a foundation of our pass game," Philbin said. "We want to stretch the field, we want to be a vertical threat team. We want to make them feel like we're going to run by them every single route we run. Obviously we're not going to run a 'go' route every single time, but our mentality is such that we want them to feel that."

The cornerbacks' help on those deep routes, if they have any, should come from the safeties. And it was a safety in Sean Taylor who picked off two of Favre's deep throws against Washington. But that's where another piece of the offense factors in - the play-action.

{sportsad300}The Packers' struggles in the run game this year have been well-documented, but with 27 rushing attempts in each of the past two games along with Ryan Grant's 104-yard performance at Denver, safeties have been forced to respect the run more, and run fakes have helped open things up deep as well.

Favre noted Driver's 44-yard catch in Kansas City as a great example of that, because two defenders were no more than a half-step away from breaking up the play.

"He was not open, but he was open just enough because of play-action," Favre said. "It got them to freeze just ever so slight, and it comes down to making a very good throw and a good catch.

"We're able to kind of back teams off. If not back them off, get them to bite just enough to throw the ball down the field."

So, it all works together. The route-running, the ground game, the play-action, the accurate throws. And then there's the timing.

It's worth noting Favre threw 22 other passes in between his two long TDs in Denver, and he attempted 28 passes before the two deep ones to Driver and Jennings in a span of six throws in the fourth quarter in Kansas City.

"Throwing the ball deep, we refer to them as shot plays," Head Coach Mike McCarthy said. "You're looking for a certain time in the game. You need to set them up and we've been able to do that of late."

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