6 Running Back Routes and Passing Plays

  • December 10, 2014
  • / By Tom

Running backs are becoming a more serious threat in the passing game at all levels of football. The number of running back routes are expanding as offensive get creative with how to use their dynamic talents out of the backfield. 

​The running back route tree used to be very limited, almost like glorified fullbacks, but now it is almost expected that they can help with the passing offense as an extra weapon. Rather than being used for purely pass protection, receiving backs are being moved all around the football field to create mismatches on the defense. 

Considering running backs are usually the best players on the team with the ball in their hands, it only makes sense to find ways to get them the football with some open space. ​Coaching staffs are now looking to get them the ball when lined up in the backfield, in the slot, and split out wide. 

Backs who are equally skilled carrying the ball out of the backfield ​or catching it are very difficult for the defense to prepare for. If the defense is focused on defending the run, a linebacker might be matched up with them if it is a passing play. If the defense goes to a nickel or dime, the offense should be able to rush the football right up the middle. 

running back routes

Former New Orleans Saints Running Back Reggie Bush. Photo By: scott


In most traditional offenses, this might be the most important part of the running back route tree. The screen is important for keeping the defense's pass rush honest. If the defensive line is too aggressive, this can spring a big play with serious yards after the catch

The running back plays an important role in selling the screen, as they have to appear to be setting up to pass block and at least pretend to pass protect for the quarterback.

Once, the pass rushers get past the back, they set up behind them, catch the short pass, wait for the offensive line to set up their blocks, and then get downfield quickly. You can see a video of a well run screen below. 


The flat route is one of the most traditional passing plays that tailbacks have been used for. This is usually run from a play-action fake. The back pretends to be getting a handoff and runs near the line of scrimmage, then quickly cuts towards the sideline and looks for the pass.

​This isn't usually a home run play for the offense, but it is a low risk pass that usually gets some positive yardage. There is a video demonstration below. 


A delay route is similar to a flat route, but the running back first pretends to be blocking in pass protection. This is meant to trick the defense into thinking they are not going out for a pass. Then the player makes there cut and begins the route. 


The wheel route is another one of the running back's main pass routes. It is a low percentage pass, but can really lead to a big play down the football field when it is executed well. 

The play begins similar to a flat route, but once then the back cuts down the field, turning it essentially into a go route. This can be a great play if the back is matched up with a slower linebacker. ​

In the video below, the tailback is motioned into the slot and then performs the wheel route, which gets him open for a touchdown pass. 


​A shovel route is when the tailback runs towards the line of scrimmage, with the quarterback having the option to perform a forward pitch, or "shovel" pass to them. 

You can see an old video of a shovel option play below. You can see the quarterback has a chance to throw the shovel pass to #5, who motions into the backfield at the start of the play, but ultimately the quarterback decides to option pitch it to the other back. 


The swing route allows the running back to be an outlet or dumpoff option for the quarterback if no wide receivers are open down the football field. The back runs a banana shaped route from the backfield towards the line of scrimmage.

If there is no defender paying attention, this quick and efficient play can pick up big yardage after the catch. ​

From the Slot

Small and shifty running backs that were once deemed too small are now key players in the offense. Whether they are a lead carrier or a 3rd down back only, these backs can move all over the formation to find a spot to beat the coverage. 

Backs like Theo Riddick of the Detroit Lions are used almost exclusively for their pass catching prowess and can run any route a slot receiver can, whether they directly line up their or are motioned into the position. This causes the defense to choose if they want to defend with a linebacker or defensive back, which can lead to key 3rd down conversions in the middle of the field. ​

Split out Wide

There are some absolutely great athletes playing tailback today who have all the skills of a wide receiver. If this is the case, they can absolutely be lined up split out wide in the offense.

This again forces the defense into a tough situation. They can either run a traditional defense, in which case the back will be able to get open at will against a linebacker, or the defense will go to a sub package, in which case the offensive line should have an easy time creating running lanes. 

Other Running Back Routes

With offenses from high school to the NFL getting more advanced and creative, every inch of the field is now an opportunity for a unique twist on traditional plays. Positions are now less important and running backs can be found pretty much anywhere on the field. 

This can lead to all kinds of unique pass routes, such as combinations or options from anywhere, along with all of the traditional wide receiver routes. ​The running back route tree will continue to grow and expand to combat changing defensive schemes. 

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