Breaking Down the Pass

MatchQuarters guide to breaking down your opponents passing data.

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Once the down and distance data (D&D) and formation data are placed into a breakdown, the task turns to breaking down the plays an offense runs. Breaking down the run can be easy as long as the coaches inputting data speak the same language. At the root level, power is a power, a counter is a counter, and a zone is a zone. The biggest task in breaking down the run is if the team is a read/option team and deciding who the conflicted player is (who are they reading). In many cases, especially at the high school level, the plays are basic and can be easily labeled. Pass plays, on the other hand, are a whole different animal.

Unlike run plays that have a base set of rules and can easily be determined, pass concepts can get muddy fast. With so many moving parts and different tags to concepts, it is hard for defensive coaches to look at pass data and not have a convoluted mess. With so many variations within offenses and different tags for certain players, it can make a defensive coordinator feel like he is lost in a sea of data. Add the factor of formations (2×2 versus 3×1 pass can be much different) and it multiplies the problem. 

Creating Data Columns

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The first order of business is to create data columns for the opponent’s pass plays. To keep it simple for defensive coaches (and to align with the run column) using two columns is best when breaking down the actual concepts being run by the offense. The first column is the “Play” or in the case of breaking down the pass, the “Concept” being run. The next data entry column is the “B/S Route” column (backside route). The final two columns used in the pass breakdown don’t have anything to do with the play concept at all. DS stands for “Deep Shot” and the “Target” column keeps track of what WR is getting the ball in each formation and concept. Let’s dig deeper:


The Tree column is a simple way for the defensive coaches to break down pass plays by type. This makes creating cut-ups easy because a coach can view all the screens in an instant by just selecting the abbreviation given to screens (ex.- SCRN or just S). Much like the run, the pass can be broken into several different trees from Drop Back to Quick Game, Sprint Out to Boots. It all depends on how detailed a coach wants to get. Here are a few examples (Note – there can’t be any overlap with how a defense labels their run trees):

  • Drop Back (DB)
  • Quick Game (QK)
  • Sprint Out (SO)
  • Play-Action (PA)
  • Boot/Waggles (B)
  • Nows/Mix plays — Bubbles/Hitch-Screens (N)
  • Screens/Jailbreaks (S)


When it comes to breaking down the pass there is a tendency to label every single route. The problem with this way of labeling is the convoluted mess that is created by the vast amount of differences in routes. Say an offense runs a smash concept out of Trips. Versus a team that plays mainly zone, the stop route sits at 5 yards or works slightly into the window. If the defense plays man on the #1 WR, the stop route now turns into a slant. When labeled by the route instead of the concept the defense gets two different plays even though the concept is the same.

One way of attacking the Play column is to sit down with the offensive staff and discuss the different types of pass concepts there are. For instance, an Air Raid offense tends to have five foundational concepts (Y-Cross, Y-Corner, Shakes, Shallow, and Mesh). Having that knowledge a defensive staff can better determine the foundational concept. Each one of the concepts listed has variations and tags. Add different formations and the possibilities are endless. The best way to label the Play column is to keep it simple and broad. Knowing the concept is the most important thing in terms of getting a game plan ready for the opponent.

Language has to be consistent as well. For instance, Y-Cross can be labeled as Double Curl/Flat or Double Post depending on the how the offense tags the #1 WR. In the case of two-back formations, the front side routes will usually give the defense the combination. Using the example above (Y-Cross), the defense can easily label the tags with parentheses. For instance, if the offense runs Y-Cross with a post the defense would label the Play column as “Y-Cross (Post).” If the offense runs a curl with the #1 WR the defense can label the play as “Y-Cross (Curl).” This doubles the concept, but the defense now has an idea of what tags the offense is using. One way to streamline the process, even more, is to have a “Tag” column after the “Play” column. This can allow the defensive staff to eliminate the tags located in the parentheses altogether.  Though adding another column adds more data, but the input is the same.

B/S Route

The B/S Route column comes in handy when teams don’t run mirrored routes or use the single WR to run certain routes (X-Fade). Many times offenses will run a split field concept. To the field, or front side, the offense will run a concept such as Smash and to the boundary will run a high-low concept like Swirl/Dig. Depending on the coverage the offense perceives it will get they can attack either side. Another great example is the Stop/Slant concept. If the offense knows it is getting man coverage to one side and a zone to the other, the offense can run stops to one side and slants to the other. All the QB has to do is read the defense and pick the side he feels will give them the best look. Thus, the B/S Route column allows the defensive coaches to determine what route combos are being run to the field and to the boundary.

Another use for the B/S Route column is keeping track of what the single WR is doing in 2×1 and 3×1 sets. Keeping track of this data can be crucial when keeping track of RBs running wheel routes to the boundary or the “X” WR running fades, comebacks (COB), or slants. In 3×1 sets, the offense usually has specific concepts they like to run. By keeping track of the backside routes the defense can be better prepared to defend the whole field and not just the three WR concept to the front side.

Deep Shot (DS)

The Deep Shot column keeps track of an offense’s shots or deep passes. A simple “Y” tag can allow the defensive coaches to go back and look at how many times the offense chose to attack the defense downfield. Furthermore, a defense can easily decipher where and to whom the offense is throwing on deep shot plays. the DS column is a simple and effective way to add value to a defense’s opponent breakdown. Creating a Deep Shot cut-up can illuminate the route combos and targets and offense is trying to get to.

Here are some examples of concepts and how they are labeled:

3×1 Concepts –

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Play: Smash

Tag: W-Post (or leave blank – WR is running the same route he would in the 2×2 concept)

B/S: X-Hitch (or Mirror)

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Play: HBO

Tag: Spot

B/S: X-Hitch


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Play: Y-Cross

Tag: Curl (if the #1 WR was running a post label “Z-Post” or just “post”)

B/S: X-Post


2×2 Concepts –

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Play: Smash

Tag: Blank

B/S: Mirror (the WR checks to slant vs press)


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Play: Y-Corner

Tag: Pick (if the WR were to run a “shoot” route or a stutter the defense would label that here)

B/S: Hi-Low (could also label swirl/dig)

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Play: HBO

Tag: Blank

B/S: Mirror


Keep concepts consistent. When using the “Tag” column use it for special/bastard routes as well. For instance, if the offense runs a Curl/Flat scheme and has the WR run a wheel the defense can easily pull all the wheel routes ran by the offense by using the “Tag” column to pull them all out. The most important thing is to have a universal language. All coaches must be on the same page.


A defense can gain an edge by creating innovative ways to break down opponents. Streamlining the process is a must. The best way to achieve a great breakdown is for every coach to be on the same page and understand what they are seeing. The offseason and summer are crucial for developing breakdown strategies. If a defense can have a better understanding of what they will see, the scheme will be strengthened. Use simple and concise language to break down the pass. Coaches need to look for the concept and not every specific route. One of the most overlooked duties of a coach is the breakdown. It is tedious and time-consuming, but it is also the most important. Knowledge is power! A defense can run any scheme it likes on a Friday, but if a staff doesn’t have a plan for Saturday and Sunday, all can be lost. Have a plan and execute!

© 2017, | Cody Alexander | All rights reserved.

Looking for more on opponent breakdowns?

  1. Breaking Down an Opponent
  2. Down & Distance Data
  3. Building a Hit Chart

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4 thoughts on “Breaking Down the Pass”

  1. This would actually be a really good way for an *offense* to categorize and label their plays, if they’re not already doing something similarly simple.

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