AFM RSS Feed Follow Us on Twitter       

   User Name    Password 
      Password Help

Article Categories

AFM Magazine

AFM Magazine

Fundamentals of Wide Receiver Play and Reading Coverages

© More from this issue

Click for Printer Friendly Version          

By PJ Fleck, Wide Receivers Coach
Rutgers University
   I was always told that I was the “King of the TOO’s” (too small, too slow, too short).  I heard all the time, “GET OUT OF THE BREAK, DROP YOUR WEIGHT, CATCH THE BALL, GET OFF THE PRESS.”  “Catch the ball” might be the most over-used ineffective term used by coaches across the country.  Do we actually think that young man tried to drop that ball?  Be careful with what you say to them.  Use an expression like; “Try not to stop the ball with your hands, attack it!  Or, “have your elbows tucked in more, BIG HANDS, STRONG HANDS.”  Again, teach them HOW.  I used to slip out of cuts because I never kept a true center of gravity.  However, I was always told to “DROP MY WEIGHT.”  What does it truly feel like to drop my weight?  How can I practice it specifically?   If you cannot truly teach it, if you don’t have good reasons why you teach it, if you can’t show it on film properly or even demonstrate it, then you shouldn’t be teaching that to your players.  Remember, every player you have learns differently.  For example, some learn by visualizing information, some by memorization, some by actually doing the skill, some by competition on the board, some by just hearing it once, some by repetition, some ask many questions, and some by walking through things slowly. Make sure your players are ready for every situation anytime!  That is YOUR job!
  I believe that “ball drills” and catching without the QBs should be done before practice.   When I have individual time with my players, they need to be seeing and practicing coverage adjustments - how to recognize different coverages, blocking techniques, coverage/leverage releases, route technique and timing, how to create separation at top of routes, and body positioning. These techniques are what get us open and create big plays for our team.  Technique is what separates the PLAYMAKERS and PLAYFAKERS!  Lack of technique will expose the flaws in one’s game and not maximize the WRs play ability.  Our job as WR coaches is to maximize their play skill.  Catching is the end result to good technique and creating separation.  Now, the minute someone sees my guys drop a pass, they want to criticize the philosophy.  However, I know that if I know where to be, how to get there and when to be there, catching is the easy part and becomes routine
  For balls caught directly in front of the WRs, discuss the diamond above the waist, and elbows in a little.  The hands will naturally soften up and give with the catch more with the elbows slightly in.  The hands will naturally come back with fingers still up, with wrists moving naturally back.  Too often you will hear a loud clapping noise from your players’ hands when the ball hits them, resulting in a lot of drops.  Look at his elbows on film, check to see if his elbows are pointed out away from his body.  This mostly hardens the hands and naturally separates the hands toward the body with any give with the ball.


Pre-Practice Catching Routine
   Before practice our, WRs hit the field 20 minutes before anyone else to make sure we get our catches in before practice.  I put them through a series of catching drills that focus on catching balls WITH A PURPOSE, not just catching balls.  Before practice ever starts, they have all caught a ball at every position of their body and the different types of balls they will see in a game or practice. These include:

  • Picture catch - Straight ahead catches high, low (bend at knees not waist).  Eyes go from catch to tuck. Truly feel what a proper catch feels like.
  • Angle catch - Turn around, flip on HUT, then run downhill at 45 degree angle.
  • Sideline - Toe tap, as many times as we can making the catch count.
  • Sideline (Leg Throw / Making the catch count)
  • Partner Bottom of Numbers (Vertical line core hold for QB box/ Catch over outside shoulder)
  • Partner Bottom of Numbers (Deep throw by/ Short throw on inside of defender)
  • Partner Bottom of Numbers (Deep jump up and over, pull ball back avoid CB punch out)
  • Partner Bottom of Numbers (Deep fade to it/ No matter what slow your tempo and fade)
  • Partner Bottom of Numbers (Deep flip to it/ No matter what flip eyes and body and make catch)
  • Partner Bottom of Numbers (Line drive back Shoulder/ Open hips, pivot turn, catch, smooth transition)
  • Partner Bottom of Numbers (Deep one hand outside shoulder w/ partner holding inside arm)
  • Partner Bottom of Numbers (Deep behind the back/ Never know when a circus catch will be)
  • Partner Angle Distraction (45 degree downhill angle with partner in front distracting)
  • Partner Front Distraction (Normal out in front catch with partner in front)
  • Partner Vertical Sideline Distraction (Run down sideline with partner inside, line drive whizzer!)
  • Blaster (Out in front picture catch running through RB blaster)
  • Blaster (Digs or In type catches running through RB blaster)
  • Short Speed out cut (Pull self outside cut, fight sideline, get vertical. Don’t go OB)
  • Drive cut back to me (Hippidty Hop, dropping weight- getting vertical)

-- Stress--  “Eyes to tuck, Late hands, Big Eyes Big Hands, Attacking the ball, Body positioning-“

****  2,000 Catches weekly on Jugs.  Rapid Fire, different  positions
Keys to Reading Coverages
  Reading coverages is a huge part of the WR position, both pre-snap and post snap.  When trying to convert a route or knowing who to block on an MDM (most dangerous man between the safety and corner), there are keys to help WRs react suddenly.  We key SAFETIES.  The reason why I tell our WRs to key safeties is because a corner can play 15 different coverages from 50 alignments and continue to show different looks all the time.  All in all, the CB can bait us a lot more.  The safety is the last  line of defense for the most part and has to stay true to his responsibilities.  Our progression is front-side safety, backside safety, corner - Triangle Check.  To be able to get a good coverage key we stress to our young men sprinting out of the huddle to get set, identifying what coverage the defense is in, trying to check alignment with the official, watching the ball and exploding into the play all in about a 10 second time period.  Keeping it simple with who to key makes our time management more efficient.  This is why we have to understand our keys and react accordingly.
Cover. 2:  Look for safeties to be at 10-12ards off or outside  the hash.  Now, our safeties do a great job of disguising Cover. 2.  However, my WRs are taught, “The more pre-snap “fishy” movement from a safety pre-snap, the more likely he is going to do the opposite.  So, don’t believe the first move.  We will scan the field and confirm front side safety depth, to backside safety depth, to corner.  Quick scans will eventually happen the more times they get reps at seeing coverages live.   Then, post-snap confirms when safety bails to cover his deep half.
Cover 4:  Our Cover. 4 is quarters coverage.  We can identify Cover 4 by again using the triangle check.  If the front-side safety is down at 8-10 yards and is attached, or inside the hash, I will be expecting him to be run support.  I scan to the backside safety to check him and then to corners alignment to verify.   Rarely do we convert routes vs. Cover. 4.  Again, “Don’t believe first fishy move” - look for safeties to be in a slow back pedal pre-snap with open shoulders to bait you into thinking it is cover 2. 
Roll Cover. 3:   Probably one of the easiest to recognize pre-snap and post snap.  The safeties are going to want to get to their spots, whether it is middle 3rd or support in a hurry.  So, delayed snap count and tempo of your offense can really help see any type of roll coverage coming.  Reading the triangle, my front side safety will either be the roll down or the middle 3rd player.  If he is the middle 3rd roll back player, he will most likely be on the hash moving a lot trying to show more of a cover 2 high look.  Look for him to start walking down slowly pre-snap at about 8-10ards, but the key is truly post-snap when he sprints to the middle of the field.  This is a coverage that “fishy” movement from our defense happens very soon in the cadence.   
If the Safety is a roll down player, he will again be anywhere from 6-10 yards on the hash with eyes keyed on the backfield.  Look for him to bait you with shoulders away with a slow walk to the middle of the field pre-snap, then post snap pivot around and come down hill for support. 
Cover. 3/ Cover. 1:  With a true pre-snap read of a one-high look, how can I distinguish between true man and true cover 3.  Again, safety alignments will help with recognition.  If each WR is somewhat COVERED UP by a defender, eyes are keying them with inside alignments, think Cov. 1.   Also, tighter press with man eyes and inside leverage will give away cover 1 for your WRs.   Finally, have your WR think who is on me?  If I am a speedy WR in the slot and there is a LB inside leverage on me, it’s probably not cover 1.  If a Nickel or Safety over me with inside leverage, now I can start thinking cover 1.
When I was a player, the hardest coverage to “get off the line” against for me was Cover 2 press and soft.  Being 5’9 185 pounds, not very fast and not very quick, I struggled with this coverage.  Again, all my playing career I was told, “GET OFF THE LINE!”.  Ok, I get that part, but HOW??  We here at NIU work on cover 2 releases every day!  The purpose of Cover 2 is be able to play run support off the edge with corners and defend the deep ball with 2 high deep safeties.  The defense wants to funnel all your WRs to the 2 safeties in the middle of the field.   SUDDEN VERTICAL PUSH KILLS COVER 2 in the vertical passing game.  Safeties now have to come off the hash to respect the outside vertical stretch which now opens the middle of the field, (Unless Tampa 2, is played, then we must throw away from Mikes Coverage).

We teach Cover 2 releases by attacking the outside hand of the defender. Now, the outside hand is an imaginary hand that would look like someone swearing in to office with their outside up.  We do not attack the outside shoulder because, in my opinion, does not put enough stress on the DB to move or commit to us.  So, while attacking the outside hand and gaining ground, I react of the defenders play.  If he widens at all, slip him vertically through the inside by physically shoulder ripping through with low pad level and speed.  Stick the instep in the ground, and get vertical NOW!  If he does happen to get his hands on me and does push me a little inside, that’s ok because my stem release helped put me back on my original alignment path. 
 If the defender stays put when attacked, then I take a slide step move (Slight loss of speed, slight change of direction) inside and take the outside vertically by again ripping through with low pad level and shoulder force.  This should cause stress on the safety and make him feel threatened.    Stick the instep in the ground and get vertical NOW!  My pet-peeve is when a WR gets widened so much that he gets run out of bounds by running a balloon release to get vertical….. YOU HAVE NO STRETCH VERTICALLY. 
Make sure that the WR attacks the DBs space and doesn’t make his vertical move too far away from the defender giving him time to recover.  Make our vertical move about 1 yard from the DB, giving the DB less time and space to react to the sudden move vertically.  When the move happens too far away from the DB, now he has time and space to shove us either into his LBs or flatten us outside.  Now we start running those balloons routes! Remember, vertical push from all WRs puts stress on cover 2.
Now, there are times in our offense where we must always go outside no matter what, but they are concept specific plays and should be treated differently. 
The Cover 2 press release is the same only now the attack happens more suddenly.  Instead of running to attack the outside hand, we are going to take short 6 inch power steps on our insteps, under control, low pad lever, low under control center of gravity and ready to suddenly react.   Power step toward outside hand, step, look for DB to throw something, DB commits, make sudden move, get vertical.  There are certain keys to look at that will tell tip the DBs hand to us.  His body language and weight distribution will tell us to what type of jam is coming.  If the weight is on the front of his shoes and toes are in the ground, think quick, physical type jam. My contact on him better be sudden, physical and stiff on his wrist.   If his weight is on his heels, then think bail, or some type of weak jam.   Here I know just getting a piece of the wrist will do the job.
Again, I am a believer in good technique can overcome all.  Teach the young men what and how you truly want things done and don’t ever assume.  COACH YOUR HEART OUT!!!!  I am a very young coach with a lot to learn and experience, but I do know how being truly COACHED in the game of football changed my life!  True Passion for this great game will take you far!  Continue to Respect the game and good luck to all of you. 
 “Does your alarm clock frustrate you or does it motivate you?  GET UP, BE AMBITIOUS and LIVE!


About the Author:

PJ Fleck joined the Rutgers coaching staff as wide receivers coach this past January. Fleck previously was the wide receivers coach for three seasons at Northern Illinois, his alma mater. He began his coaching career as a graduate assistant at Ohio State in 2006. Fleck earned first team All Mid-American Conference honors as a wide receiver for the Huskies in 2003 and graduated with a degree in elementary education in 2004.




AFM Videos Streaming Memberships Now Available Digital Download - 304 Pages of Football Forms for the Winning Coach


Copyright 2023,
All Rights Reserved