You’ve seen a running back catch a wide-open pass along the sideline as a gassed linebacker trails behind him, right? Well, chances are, that LB just got burned on a wheel route.
Ever play NCAA Football and wonder how offensive players keep getting so damn open out wide? Yup, probably a wheel route.
And in the real world, the route gets employed to devastating effect as well.
Every time it happens, college football Twitter explodes in shouts of “WHEEL ROUTE!”
Now let’s look under the hood of the beloved play.
Offensive football is often about dressing up the simplistic. The wheel route’s simplicity is striking.
It doesn’t involve double moves or blatant deception. The essence of it is just rude, in that it’s designed to pick on a slower defender. Spencer Hall throws this in the category of “jerk routes,” or simple plays that are so aggravating to cover, they make everyone look like jerks. Slants, angles, and certain screens are also of the genre.
I’m a husky gentleman. I know what it’s like to play pickup basketball and chase a smaller dude. When I’m winded and he’s blown by me, sometimes I just think to myself, “what a jerk.” That’s the wheel route defensive experience.
So how does the wheel route work?
On the play below from Hal Mumme’s 1997 Kentucky playbook, the running back runs toward the sideline, then cuts upfield. Here, he’s the QB’s second option, after the Z receiver to the right.
In Mumme’s playbook, that flat route — the “flat” is the area to either side of the offensive line, around where wide receivers line up — is called a shoot route, and it’s integral in setting up the wheel.
Mumme’s coaching points tell the RB to get to the painted field numbers, then haul ass:
Free release. Run a wheel route. Sell shoot route to the numbers and run a wheel upfield. Stay around the bottom of the numbers. Expect the ball early if your man blitzes.
“Free release” means the RB is not pass blocking. He’s running his route no matter what happens, so Mumme notes that if there’s a blitz by the defender the RB would’ve blocked, the back should expect the ball quickly.
This play helps illustrate why it’s so hard to defend. On Mumme’s version:
- Against zone coverage, the running back runs to the flat and stays put.
- Against man coverage or a blitz, the running back turns that into a wheel route. And if the defense is playing man, it means it’s most likely a linebacker matched up on the running back, and that’s what offensive coordinators love.
The wheel route doesn’t just mimic a flat route. It is a flat route, and then it becomes a deep route.
Here’s Steve Spurrier’s version of the running back’s job on a wheel route, from his 2000 playbook:
Run flat route. Show eyes back to QB, then wheel up sideline no closer than four yards.
A commonly exploited wheel defender is one who’s “sitting” on the flat route. His job on a flat route is to drive down on it and blow it up near the line of scrimmage.
Here’s how a defender typically covers the flat area of the field.
- Washington’s Danny O’Brien (purple arrow) has coverage responsibilities in the area.
- O’Brien ends up between a WR running a curl and the running back leaking into the flat (this area of the field can be called the curl-flat area). He reads the checkdown throw by Cal’s Davis Webb.
- O’Brien reacts correctly.
The wheel route takes any split-second freeze by a defender, or any false read of what he thinks is just a route to the flat, and uses it to burn him.
A running back should have a speed advantage on a linebacker almost every time. Even if a bigger defender sniffs the wheel as it’s developing, few linebackers are able to run stride for stride with running backs for 20, 30, or 40 yards. Many safeties can’t either.
You know what that foot race looks like.
Selling the flat route has a massive bearing on the route’s result. Here’s former LSU WR Jarvis Landry not doing enough to sell the route, thus forcing his QB to make a tough throw.
The route isn’t crisp, and so the defender has no incentive to bite on the flat part. What could have been a wide open touchdown is a low-percentage incompletion.
The wheel route is usually executed by running backs, but tight ends and wide receivers can get in on the fun.
Spurrier had entire plays based on dual wheels by WRs, creating an aptly named passing concept.
The “try to make the defenders collide” point is another way to create separation. If a slot WR is running the wheel, he’s probably doing so against a defensive back who’s equally fast. So creating separation takes more than just a raw speed advantage. If you can’t do it with pure athleticism, you can always get by with a little help from your friends.
Here’s how Clemson did it in this 2010 game.
- Running back Jamie Harper gets motioned out of the backfield and into the slot, ready to wheel up the sideline. But he’s going to get a little help from a WR, who will effectively “block” the flat defender (blue arrow).
- Of course, actually blocking a DB down the field would be against the rules. We wouldn’t want to break rules, would we (hi, Notre Dame)? So the Clemson WR is just kinda gonna get in the way of Auburn’s flat defender.
- And here’s your separation in the footrace.
It’s the same way Saquon Barkley got so wide open in the play at the top of this article. Barkley’s a burner, but a little bump gave him some help.
The wheel can also be a decoy.
Terry Shea’s 1998 Rutgers offense used the wheel as a clear-out measure to keep specific defenders busy. The wheel route occupies a deep defender and frees up space for the players whom the QB will actually throw to.
The S is the WR with wheel responsibilities; note he’s not listed below in the QB’s target progression. The progression is the order in which a QB will cycle through receivers. If one’s covered, he’ll go to the next. Here, the QB will look from F, to X, then run.
This wheel takes a defender 20 or 30 yards away from the line of scrimmage. The running QB will have one fewer defender to deal with. The defense can’t just let the wheel runner sprint up the sideline unabated, but the defender won’t know he’s being taken out of the play until the QB’s already gained yardage.
The wheel can be incorporated into other plays.
Sometimes you need flexibility, because defenses won’t just come out in the same formation for 60 minutes. So offenses have variations of existing plays.
Here’s an explanation of how that works, using what is called a route tag:
It’s a route or a route combo mixed into an existing play.
Again, we’ll look at Mumme’s 1997 playbook:
Not just one wheel dialed up here. Two, but only if the defense dictates it.
The base play — Blue Right 92 (Mesh), whose name isn’t essential to decode here — doesn’t have any wheel routes. One player in the backfield (the left RB here) runs a shoot, and the other (the right RB) a swing. Both are routes into the flat areas and are secondary reads for the QB.
But against a specific defense in a particular game week, Mumme could add route tags that told one or both backs to turn those routes into wheels.
Another common route combination is post-wheel.
Here’s a variation from Bobby Petrino’s 2004 playbook, where the tight end runs a wheel (to the left) in combination with a WR who runs a post route.
Against defenses with one deep safety or defenses playing four-deep coverage, the post route is the primary read for the QB. The wheel route is the second read for the QB in that situation. If the post clears out the secondary, the tight end (the “Y” below) should be able to run free, provided he can get separation from his defender.
But if the defense uses cover 2 ...
... the wheel becomes a combination decoy with the Z, who will no longer run the post route. Instead, he’ll run a fade. You wouldn’t usually have a fade and a wheel to the same side of the field; you can see on the diagram that this sends both players to the same area.
But the ball isn’t going there. This is meant to keep the strong safety (“SS”) busy, creating space for the “C” WR running a deep in route from the other side. He should have a hole between the safeties.
Petrino also did all this with the traditional RB wheel, with the wheel as the third read to that side.