As we hit the weekend we’re approaching the end of our look back at last season’s NFL route tree but Saturday sees an important stop among the ranks of the possession receivers as we take on the hitch and comeback routes.
No routes accounted for fewer yards after the catch last season the hitch and comeback routes. Designed to bring the receiver back to the quarterback rather than upfield, these routes are all about gaining position on the defender and maintaining possession of the football.
The term “possession receiver” has become a dirty word in the NFL, but the ability to complete a high percentage of passes on a hitch is still crucial for an NFL offense. It’s important enough to the New Orleans Saints’ explosive offense that it accounted for more than 900 of Drew Brees’ passing yards (over 16%) and 104 of his pass attempts. It may not be glamorous work, but someone’s got to do it.
As a route, the hitch is one of the most favorable for those receivers who are not necessarily the greatest of athletes. While it is advantageous to be able to scare a defender with your deep speed–forcing him to turn upfield fearing a deep route as you break off on your hitch–it is not a prerequisite of running the route. Smarts in route running, sure hands, body control and strength are more important in terms of running hitch routes against both man and zone coverage.
While deep speed is one way of getting open on hitch routes, a sharp jab to turn back to the quarterback against man coverage and the sense to find a soft spot between zones is a more consistent way of getting it done. There is the belief that great deep threats should be devastating on hitches as well because of the fear they create with their ability to run past defenders, but it’s no coincidence that among the top receivers on hitches are those receivers with the strength and body control to box defenders out.
Patience of a Saint
While Drew Brees is the field general who pulls the strings and Jimmy Graham is the young physical freak that fans and media marvel about in the New Orleans passing game, the man who keeps everything ticking over is Marques Colston. He is as physically beaten up as any receiver in the league and yet he comes through with catch after catch on possession routes; the hitch being his primary route.
Exactly one third of his regular season targets came on hitch routes; catching 30 of them at 11.4 yards per. Colston has an ability to get open deep having tallied 7-of-11 receptions with 187 yards and 3 TDs while on go routes. Yet, it is his strength on hitch routes, from both wide and slot alignments, that make Colston such a pivotal part of the Saints’ passing game.
The versatility shown by Victor Cruz in his breakout season was truly remarkable. Our own Sam Monson highlighted prior to the Super Bowl Cruz’s spectacular route running and he used this to great effect on hitch routes as well. Cruz was a particularly devastating route runner from the slot, using the danger of a two-way go to great effect to get open with some jaw-dropping route fakes. The majority of Cruz’s hitch targets came in the slot where he was 17-of-23 for 293 and a TD. The only black mark on his record were the three drops on hitches. Cruz tied with eight other receivers (including teammate Hakeem Nicks) for the league lead in hitch drops.
Still Got It
Slot hitches such as those from Cruz and Colston often end up drifting infield looking for gaps between linebacker hook zones, looking to exploit the athletic mismatch of a linebacker covering a receiver. This can be a problem for some linebackers; Sean Weatherspoon, for example, proved that even after an improved second season he still has work to do. On 16 targets he allowed 12 completions at close to 11 yards per completion. At the other end is that linebacker who continues to defy Father Time, Ray Lewis.
The Ravens’ defensive captain was targeted eight times on hitch routes last time conceding only four completions for 29 yards, a yards-per-attempt mark of 3.6 that was third-best in the league and just clear of James Laurinaitis and Brian Urlacher among linebackers. Lewis may have “lost a step” but don’t be fooled into thinking he’s an easy target in coverage, he may no longer be elite there, but he can still more than hold his own in his zone.
A hitch route isn’t usually one where a defender has to worry about the receiver creating after the catch yards, but one defender had an unusual problem with taking receivers down following hitch catches. Champ Bailey allowed more yards after the catch per completion (8.9) than any other defender covering hitches last season. Twice, Bailey gave up more than 20 yards after a catch on a hitch route and surrendered a first down conversion on six of the seven completions he allowed. The majority of Bailey’s coverage last season was up to or exceeding his usual standards, but for whatever reason he had a down season covering hitches. To his credit, he recovered from his longest catch allowed on a hitch route, a 34-yard gain by Jacoby Ford in Week 11, to force a fumble (that wasn’t recovered) after initially allowing Ford to turn upfield on the play.
Changing the Angle
A comeback route to the sideline is somewhat of a reaction to the willingness of defensive backs to undercut out routes close to the sideline. By the receiver working back toward the line of scrimmage there is less room for a defender to jump under the route. Because of the arm strength and understanding involved in the route, the relative success around the league varies wildly.
It also tends not to be a scoring throw as only eight touchdowns came from comeback routes in 2011. One quarterback who used the route to good effect last season was Cam Newton who, by virtue of his mobility and arm strength, is well placed to make good use of it. Getting out of the pocket alters the passing lanes for the defense opening up different throws and a strong pass to the outside is crucial to preventing any defender under-cutting the route. Newton completed 65.2% of his passes on 23 targets to comeback routes last season and led the league in terms of yards per attempt.
While Newton, Cutler, and Stafford might suggest that this is the route for quarterbacks with mobility or a strong arm (or both), Tim Tebow proves that even a route which allows him to get out of the pocket and unleash his arm isn’t favorable to him. Tebow attempted more passes to the comeback than any route outside of the go. However, his success in throwing to the route was indicative of his entire season as a passer: completing a league-worst 40.6% with an interception. The target numbers suggest that the Broncos isolated this as a route Tebow could hit consistently, but his wavering accuracy indicates that even his strongest routes are weaknesses in comparison to every other quarterback in the league.
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