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How the Vikings’ young receivers are conquering route running

EAGAN — During the Mike Zimmer era in Minnesota we have seen Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen develop from players with little fanfare into two of the best receivers in the NFL. Now as the Vikings head to Dallas for a primetime matchup against the Cowboys they are looking to young receiver Bisi Johnson and and tight end Irv Smith to fill in the gaps with Thielen out with a hamstring injury. In the week leading up to the matchup, we asked receivers coach Drew Petzing and the receivers who are still looking to make a name for themselves about the most challenging routes to run. What we ended up learning was much, much more. Here are their takeaways… 

The hardest route

Each person was asked the simple question: “What is the hardest route to learn and master?”

Here are their answers:

Wide receivers coach, Drew Petzing: “Double moves, change of direction at high speeds down the field. There’s just so much physical skill that goes into that type of route that makes it very difficult.”

 “You know you’re coming out of it. I’m going to make a move that I’m not committing to but I need to commit to it enough where you believe it but I know I’m not actually running that route. I think there’s a mental aspect to that, to be able to put your foot in the ground and sell that move with your body, with your demeanor, with your speed but know that I’m coming out of it. A lot of guys struggle with that. And then at the top of it, can I do that at full speed and then get back out of it.”

Tight end, Irv Smith: “I say double moves. Deeper routes because you really have to sell the route. You have to get the guy’s hips turned. I feel like with shorter routes you have a little more space to get open. Double moves, you have to sell the first route to get the guy to bite on that route. You learn those and execute those well because then they respect the first route.”

Receiver, Josh Doctson: “That’s a good question. It would depend on a lot for me. It would depend on how the DBs are playing. If it’s press and you have a double move, it might be harder than if he’s off. Double moves and transitioning down field are a little harder. Shake routes, deep dovers, keeping your speed and making in cuts down the field is harder. You have to keep that speed for so long like you are still going deep.”

Receiver, Bisi Johnson: “I would say comebacks because it’s a matter of understanding your body and where you can break, things like that. Keeping your feet in front of you because sometimes if you lean too far back on your heels your feet will slip out from under you and if you are too far forward you will fall forward and have to take a few extra steps. You want to keep it to a minimum of three steps. One, two, three and get out of your break. I would say a comeback or routes breaking back toward the ball are probably the hardest.”

“You do what to keep your pad level the same. The misconception with that is that you are always going to have to get lower once you make the break. It’s that you don’t want to raise up. Going into the break you keep your speed and keep your pad level the same but then once you go into the break you have to get low but it has to be quick.”

Receiver, Chad Beebe: “I agree with [Bisi]. Comeback is a good answer. I was going to say a deep hook or a stem route, which is basically a comeback but you’re turning in toward the ball. Any deep route where you have to break down and come back is the hardest because you are running full speed into it and you’re trying to get out of it and you gain so much momentum downfield.”

Practice squad receiver, Alexander Hollins: “For me coming in as a rookie it was just about getting out of my breaks better. Coming out of them at a good angle. Drew helped me out a lot with that. I would say probably curls. comebacks. Coming out of them and taking the proper angle so the DB won’t get the opportunity to break the ball up.”

Route depths

This offseason Vikings brought in a group of unproven players to battle for open spots behind Thielen and Diggs. One of the main issues that the receivers who got cut ended up having was getting details correct. One of the toughest elements of that was route depths. Turns out there different ways to get it right.

Here’s how the Vikings approach route depths:

Petzing: “It’s extremely hard. If we did it right now, I would struggle to do it. Repetition is what allows you to create that and the problem is that a lot of it is on air. Especially in the offseason. So it’s off [coverage] and they still can’t do it. And then all of the sudden it’s in a game and it’s press [coverage] and you have the pass rush and you’re impatient and all those things. It creates some difficulties in that process, for sure.”

“We were talking about it the other day at practice and every wideout thinks about it differently in terms of spatially on the field and how they get to where they want to go. There are guys who will literally look and count lines. They count and five and say “I’ve gotta go three lines on this route.” There are other guys that go off of steps. So it’s a seven-step route. Or if I’m an inside-foot-up kind of person that’s a fourth outside or a third inside. You have to find what registers with each player. It’s very different based on how they think about the game and how they figure out where they are on the field.”

Doctson: “It’s tough. I don’t think it will ever be perfect. When the DB is pressed, the timing might be off. Usually when I get to the line I’m usually off of depth because steps, if you get pressed then your steps are going to be off. You look at where you have to get to.”

Johnson: “I’ve been playing this game since I was seven. Running routes forever now. I would say the biggest part is the feel for the route. At any point you can add a new route and you can know the depth of a route and the steps you need to get there but you master it when you’ve repped it enough times that you can really get a feel for it. I could do a curl route the same time every time right now because I’ve repped it so many times. I’ll be at the same depth every time because I know the feel of the route. I do know the steps in my head and sometimes you have to count it out in your head but it’s so natural to me that I just have it.”

The football IQ

For whatever reason, wide receiver isn’t put into the same category as quarterback or middle linebacker as a “high IQ” position but as offenses have become more complex the value of having an extensive knowledge of the game has become a requirement not just a bonus.

Here’s what the Vikings said about having the smarts to do the job:

Petzing: “It’s huge. That’s a big component of it. And the patience of it to understand that, I want to get myself open but we also have a bigger concept going on here that requires me to be where I need to be and when I need to be there. You have to commit to that. Within that you have to figure out how to beat the defender to make that happen at the proper time and with the proper space. That is the position and that’s why it’s so difficult to play and that’s why finding guys who can do it at a high level are so hard to find.”

“It’s a fine balance between giving them enough information to succeed but not too much that you slow them down. Letting certain guys consume a ton of it and can go out and perform well, other guys need the basics and go do their thing. A big part of coaching is figuring out that dynamic with each.”

Doctson: “There’s some unique things out there that will surprise you because when you are watching on film you can see what they are doing but when you are out there in the helmet it’s kind of hard to see what’s going on over there. Lurkers, when it’s Tampa-2, and they drop the lurker in the middle. Defenses like that. When they are all on the line and they are about to blitz and then they all drop eight or something like that, it can get a little confusing, for sure.”

Smith: “At practice coach Kubiak and coach Stefanski move us all over the field so you’re not just going to know one spot. Each route you have to know the whole concept. They put us on different routes to help us prepare for that.”

Hollins: “It’s a big difference from college because defenses in the NFL have so many schemes and they do so many different things with corners, safeties, nickels, you have to be on your toes at all times. You can’t be out there thinking. You just have to learn the playbook, learn your assignments so you can go out there and react and play free….just comes from the meeting room, watching film, things like that.”

The short stuff

We generally don’t look at short throws and routes as being that challenging but mastering them can have some of the same roadblocks as deep routes.

Here’s what they said about quick routes:

Petzing: “To me it’s always quick change of direction because there’s just a physical limitation there for some people. If I’m a slower, stiffer athlete, I’m not going to change direction quite as quickly. So you get your quick whip routes where you take them in and back out. Things like that are the hardest to win on. Your slants, your one-steps, your stop routes, those can be a little bit easier.”

Beebe: “Typically when it’s tight space if he’s man-to-man, it’s creating room earlier so then you are open later. That’s really for any route but especially in the slot trying to get open on those immediate routes, you have to create the space right off the bat and not get jammed up at the line of scrimmage. It’s also having a time clock in your head because you know when the quarterback, when he’s back in the pocket and when he’s going to be rushed and having a feel for that. That just comes with playing more.”

“When it’s zone coverage you know what to expect, you know where the holes are going to be after watching film. That’s pretty easy, you just get to the spot. When it’s press-man, that’s when it’s tougher.”

Diggs and Thielen’s best routes 

While Thielen and Diggs can run just about any route, two routes in particular have emerged as unguardable when run by the two star receivers.

Petzing broke them down:

Petzing on Thielen’s “circus” route: “I think it’s the repetition piece. If you asked him, between reps on air and reps in a game that’s probably the one route he’s run more than any other route. When you have that repetition, especially in a game, you start to figure out how to win on it versus different looks. If I’ve only run it twice and all of the sudden I get a look I’ve never seen, I may not react properly, either physically or from a timing standpoint whereas when I’ve seen every look, every coverage, every leverage, now I have answers. So the second I see it’s inside man [coverage] or it’s outside leverage zone or it’s off [coverage] or it’s bump, I have a plan that I can go out and execute.”

Petzing on Diggs’ “comeback” route: “The big thing that I think allows him to be effective in those routes — which are essentially deeper stop routes — is selling the go [route]. Committing to the fact that you need to feel me running by you. Because if I tell you the whole time that I’m stopping, I’m not winning. And then being able to stop at a fast speed without changing any part of my body. A lot of guys when they go to stop they raise up, they give it away, they short-stride into it. If I’m a DB and I feel that, then I’m sitting down too.””One of the things that makes [Diggs] so unique is that his pad level is so consistent up until and into his breaks. If I’m running by you, at no point do you feel me start to gear, start to stop, start to slow down by any body indication. I think it makes it very difficult for a DB to tell when he’s going to stop. On top of that he has unbelievable physical skill, which he has improved and worked on to be able to stop quickly and change direction.”

Hollins: “They just get in and out of their routes so good. You just watch those guys and everything they do, it’s like they have emergency brakes when they stop. They are able to stop on a dime and come out of their routes really good. They work with all of us to make us better and run like pro receivers. It’s helped out a lot.”


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