If you watched Notre Dame struggle with Arizona State last Saturday, you saw the Sun Devils consistently make plays against ND's offense using the blitz. Throughout the first half, Arizona State brought pressure of the edge, and ND QB Everett Golson was frequently sacked and forced into turnovers.
If you were paying closer attention, you would have heard Todd McShay mention that unlike most teams, the Irish don't use traditional "hot routes." In his weekly press conference, Coach Kelly refuted this claim saying that in certain situations, the Irish will throw hot. These are both interesting pieces of information, but they are pretty useless without an understanding of hot routes and how they work. One week after the ASU debacle, we'll examine "hot routes" and how they help teams beat the blitz.
What is Hot Route?
While it's not as easy as going to stand somewhere else, a hot route is simply an adjustment to one or more routes by a WR, TE, or RB in response to a blitz. They can be called pre-snap by the QB, but are more frequently adjusted to on-the-fly after the snap when a receiver recognizes a blitz by the defense. They are used to help the QB get the ball out of his hands quickly to avoid a sack, and hopefully give his receiver a chance to make a big play against man-coverage.
Because the ball has to be released quickly, the adjustment is generally a receiver changing a longer route (post, fly, seam, deep in/out) to a quick slant or hitch. When they work properly, a slot receiver will adjust his route on the fly from a post to a slant. The QB will deliver him the ball in the space vacated by a blitzing linebacker a split second before taking a hit. Once the WR has the ball, he'll usually have just one player to beat for a huge gain. In the video below, the Browns WR (Greg Little) sees his defender blitz the QB. Instead of running the called route, he runs a quick slant and nearly picks up a first down on 3rd & 11.
Limitations of Hot Routes
The biggest downside of using hot routes is in the difficulty in communication. Since the adjustment is usually made postsnap, it requires both the WR and QB to make the same read almost immediately after the the play begins. If either the QB or WR doesn't make the proper adjustment, the QB will probably take a big hit from a free rusher for a sack (and potentially a fumble) or throw a pass past a receiver that never turns his head.
The read itself is also difficult since the WR and QB see drastically different pictures of the defense. A blitz coming from the right or up the middle probably won't be seen by the left slot receiver. Additionally, if the defense can confuse the read with a zone blitz or by showing blitz and backing out, the offense will change a route designed to beat a specific coverage to a shorter one that probably won't be open. Furthermore, in a zone blitz (a blitz with zone defense downfield), a DL or other defender might be dropping into space the blitzing player was vacating. This gives the defense a great chance at an interception since the QB will be looking to throw to that very spot.
Sight adjusted hot routes were invented before zone blitzes, and while they are very effective against man-blitzes (a blitz with man-to-man defense on the receivers), they are much less effective against zone-blitzes. Lastly, a "hot" throw should be the last resort for beating a blitz. A free rusher will generally lay a big hit on the QB, so teams would prefer not to rely on them too much.
A QB recognizing the blitz before the snap and properly adjusting his protection is a much better situation. If the blitz is picked up, the quarterback won't be taking a hit, and the he will have a time to throw a longer pass against man coverage downfield for a big gain. The .gifs below shows how defenses can take advantage of offenses using hot routes (scroll over the .gif to see the animation).
The Texans QB recognizes pressure is coming and looks to hit the "hot" TE. He doesn't see that the 49ers are dropping a defender to take away this very throw, and the pass is intercepted. The next .gif is basically the same situation. The QB reads blitz, throws toward the hot receiver, and the pass is easily picked off by the DL waiting in the passing lane.
Alternatives to Hot Routes
Given the difficulty involved in successfully executing a hot route, it's not surprising teams are moving away from using them. The excellent Chris Brown writes here about Jim Harbaugh not using them in San Francisco with Alex Smith in 2011. Instead, teams are building hot routes into their existing pass plays.
To accomplish this, almost every passing play will have a designated short route in addition to the primary deeper routes. If the defense blitzes, the QB will disregard his initial progression and jump to the built in hot route. While this adjustment may be less likely to result in a big play, it's far less risky than relying on a sight adjustment from both the QB and WR. While the defense could theoretically blanket the short route, they won't know which receiver will be running it.
Furthermore, if the blitz is picked up, the secondary will be vulnerable to the rest of the downfield routes in the pattern. There is a downside to these packaged concepts, however. By designating one route to beat the blitz, the offense is sacrificing a potential downfield threat should the defense only rush three or four players. This means that some passing combinations, four verticals for example, can't really be used with packaged hot routes. While a perfectly executed hot route is preferable to a called one, it's much more difficult to execute it properly. It's not surprising that many college and NFL coaches are moving away from using them.
First ND Interception
As Kelly noted in his press conference, ND will use a hot read if an overload blitz is coming. The first interception from the Arizona State game shows this exact situation. Before the snap ASU looks to be bringing 6 rushers, and ND only has five blockers to pick it up.
Prosise sees the defender lined up across from him rush the passer, and runs a quick slant in response to the blitz. Golson also recognizes that a free rusher is coming from his blind side and gets the ball out quickly, but instead of hitting Prosise, he throws to Robinson who is running a quick 5 yard in route. While the hot throw to Prosise was the "more correct" choice as it's usually best to throw to the spot vacated by the blitz, this isn't a terrible decision by any means.
As Larz noted in his Wednesday OFD Film Room, the problem comes from the ASU DE not really rushing. He is able to deflect the pass setting up the interception. Since this play occurs on ND's second drive of the game, there's a good chance Golson hadn't yet been talked to by the coaching staff about throwing back toward the blitz.
Second ND Interception
The second interception demonstrates some of the problems with relying on hot routes to beat the blitz. The Irish have seven potential blockers, and ASU is once again bringing six rushers. WR Corey Robinson is the only receiver on the "blitz" side of the field, but since ND has the right number of blockers and the defender guarding Robinson doesn't rush the passer, the Irish WR doesn't change his route.
With Cam faking an inside run then releasing into a pass route, not staying into protect the QB, there's no one to block the safety (red star) coming free. Additionally, while the right side of the line deals with the stunt well, the proper protection wasn't in place as center Matt Hegarty ends up blocking no one on the play. Golson has to get the ball out quickly, and the only viable targets are away from the blitz where ASU's DE can deflect the pass.
On this play, the Sun Devils had the perfect blitz to beat Notre Dame's playcall. This wasn't the only time during the game that Arizona State has success against this look from ND. Later in the first half, Arizona State sacked Golson on what looked to be the same blitz against a similar formation.
While ND obviously struggled with the blitz, using "hot routes" was not the solution for the Irish offense. The announcers were completely wrong in their statement that Notre Dame doesn't use hot routes, and as we saw Saturday, simply having them is not a guarantee than an offense will beat a blitz.
After seeing film of this game, opponents are sure to bring lots of heat against Golson until he proves he can consistently make them pay for blitzing. Hot routes are part of this, but getting in the right protection, picking up the blitz, and quickly finding the right receiver are more important for the Irish offense against the blitz.