Record-breaking performances in the passing game have become the norm, with teams passing the ball a significant amount of time as indicated by the 44 300-yard passing games we’ve already seen this season. One of the ways that teams have aired the ball out is through more vertical passing concepts. Passing concepts can be defined as a combination of routes by multiple players that specifically attack an area of the defense. There are many popular passing concepts throughout football, such as the commonly seen Smash (hitch route by #1, corner route by #2) and Snag (pivot route with a flat route), but one route that is not used enough in the NFL is the four verticals concept.
The four verticals concept is one of the best concepts in all of football, in my opinion, because it attacks the defense deep, which puts added pressure on defensive backs. DBs tend to give cushion to wide receivers to be able to better cover them and see their route through, but a Go route from the four verticals concept eats up that cushion quickly, thus forcing corners and safeties to react quicker. This concept can be classified as a vertical stretch or a horizontal stretch of the defense — it all depends on the defense, and how they defend the concept.
It is a vertical stretch concept because as said, it puts pressure on defenders vertically. It attacks all the deep levels of the field by sending four vertical routes down it. It can also be viewed as a horizontal stretch because it stretches out the safety by sending two vertical threats in his direction. An example of this would be four verticals against a 1-high safety coverage (Cover 1, Cover 3). The single high safety would be seeing two vertical threats to each side of him whilst he is backpedaling down the middle of the field. In that case, the quarterback would throw where the safety doesn’t go, based off of leverage. All of this makes it a very fascinating concept.
What makes it further fascinating is that there is the option of tagging (or adding) a route to the vertical route if the wide receiver has an advantage in leverage. The coach may tag on a Curl route (10-12 yards) or a Comeback (12 yards or more depending on coaching) if the cornerback has backpedaled aggressively, for example. As you can see, there are many options and advantages to calling the four verticals concept, and the Bengals saw this too, as they used it against the Bills for a 58-yard pass to rookie wide receiver A.J. Green.
On this play, the Bengals came out in 11 (1 running back, 1 tight end) personnel in Trips set while the Bills rotated down to a 1 high safety look out of nickel package. The Bills rotated down to have a seven-man box to defend all of the gaps presented to them by the offense, which was seven (count outside the left tackle, in between each OL/TE and outside the TE).
However, the issue that the Bills ran into here is that there are still four possible vertical threats, with the two outside receivers, the slot and the tight end. Unfortunately for them, those four possible vertical threats came to fruition, and they had man-coverage across the board with a single high safety in zone in the middle of the field.
On the play, the two outside receivers ran Go routes with mandatory outside releases to draw out the cornerback, while the slot receiver also ran a Go route but with an inside release. The #3 receiver, the tight end from the Trips set, ran underneath the linebacker with an inside release and then got behind the middle linebacker and in front of the safety. This is a popular crossing route that is often ran by tight ends (or inside receivers in Empty sets) in four verticals. Last, the running back serves as a checkdown when he is done with checking if there are any extra blitzers or rushers coming. This makes it a 6 man protection scheme, which is also mostly used with the four verticals concept because the quarterback must be protected to have enough time to throw the vertical pass and mainly because of the vertical threats needed in space to complete the concept.
The Bills covered this 4 vertical concept with three underneath defenders (two linebackers and one safety) and four vertical defenders. Three of the four vertical defenders were in man coverage, which are the boundary corner (bottom of screen), field corner (top of screen), and nickel corner (in slot). The lone zone defender deep is the single-high safety, who is reading the quarterback and looking to make a play on the ball. However, that crossing route by the tight end draws the safety’s attention, which leaves single coverage on the outside and slot receivers at the top of the screen. On this play, Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton looked to rookie phenom receiver A.J. Green because he beat the man coverage of Bills cornerback Leodis McKelvin. Dalton didn’t have enough arm strength on the ball so it was short, but Green made a great catch anyway. Dalton has to be able to put the ball over Green’s outside shoulder, because it would lead to six points for his team.