Football 101: Learn about Stem Routes and why running them well helps the quarterback

If you’ve read some of my other articles this off season, then you know I’ve been lamenting our wide receiver/TE corps. Questioning our depth, speed, health and route running. Over the last two seasons, we’ve seen a lack of quarterbacking, but neither Demaryius Thomas or Emmanuel Sanders were consistently performing at their top level. Plus, the depth behind them was poor. A very good QB can overcome, but weak play from receivers only compounds poor quarterbacking.

Why bring this up with Stem Routes? Because the Stem of a route begins the moment the wide receiver (or TE) pushes off. The Navy line below is the stem. As mentioned in the option route piece, WRs need to sell every route as looking the same. Running a Stem sounds simple: run until you turn (make break). It’s not.

air Cornell route tree


*to note: this is Football 101, simple is used. Many sentences can use the words, usually or typically. The chart above is very basic and shows the X, TE and Z receivers for frame of reference. I’m using Coryell because Don was the first to use a numbered tree. Also *to note, above doesn’t show double moves on the Stem because it would be too crowded.

While I write WR, TE’s are included, but based on their size, their agility to perform as well as a WR is limited.

At the LOS, most plays will have a CB lined up against them, either in soft press, hard press or off man (seven or so yards back from the LOS). That CB wants to mirror his guy, read his hips and respond. A good WR is able to keep his hips pointing one direction, sink them, plant his outside (or inside foot), and turn on a dime before the CB can react. This creates separation.

It’s important to know that while the Stem starts at the line of scrimmage, mentally it begins much sooner: in the film room. Receivers need to know the CB’s who will be covering them. If he is an aggressive guy who likes to play hard press, then that first push at the LOS could be a step back. Why?

As covered in hard press, the CB wants to jam his guy, disrupt his timing so the route is shot. When the ball is snapped, the good WR takes a step back and lets his CB come at him, then pushes him aside and bam, he gone.

Remember in press, the hips don’t lie? The stem is all about the hips. If a receiver can get his hips inside, he’s open. That’s the size of an NFL window—the width of a pair of hips.

The dance between the WR and CB is all about who can get their hips to lie, read their opponents (and QB) and get the other to bite.

Rookie receivers tend to struggle with that part. They can run a route, catch the ball, but the ability to do what Diggs does in the below play, is tough to come by. Selling the stem and making the cut against the #1 CB.

Have a QB who can’t throw a rocket or on a dime, but still manages to make good plays? He has receivers who help him by creating space they can maneuver in. If the ball is a tad slow or off by a foot because there is separation, it lessens the chance of an interception. It also allows the receiver to adjust to the ball since there’s no defender draped over him.

Seasoned CB’s know which QBs struggle and they will try to jump a route, this makes selling the stem that more important. Get the CB to bite on a dig, but run a post, etc.

I’m using the below gif because this was against Aqib Talib in 2015, Stephon Diggs was a rookie in his first game against the top corner that season. Diggs keeps his head straight, his hips straight, plants his leg wide as if he’s going to go inside and instead runs an out route. Gets Talib to turn his hips out. Perfection.

Good Stem Routes should create separation.

My guess is Talib got over confident. Didn’t expect this from some 21 year old kid, so he got burned. That step sold it, look at all that space. The crappiest of crappy QBs can look like heroes if their WRs can give that barn door-sized window.

Since then, Diggs has gotten even better. I used him also because this is who Case Keenum had last season. If Stephon was 30 or dealing with a hip, ankle or foot injury, making that cut all season would’ve been difficult.

Denver needs Thomas, Sanders and rookie Courtland Sutton to play at Diggs’ level. Keenum left Stefon, Adam Theilen (another great young route runner) and Kyle Rudolph back in Minnesota. At this moment, we don’t have that level of play. DT and E were once tops at the Stem, but age and injury (as we saw) can take a step out and in the NFL, a step is all it takes.


Another trick WR’s can do on their Stems is a double (or triple) move. They can be used at any depth; it’s all about where the WR thinks he can shed his coverage. When he can get leverage off the hips, get the CB’s pointing away from where the route should end, and he’s won. Even though he’s making more than one cut, it’s still the same stem because the route is about where the ball should be caught.

In summation, the stem is to trick the corner into going one way, while he goes another and to do that, he needs agility, speed, knowledge and a connection with his quarterback. Here’s to hoping our receiving corp can deliver.

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