Beginner Series: Vertical Stretch Passing

Vertical Stretch Passing

The vertical stretch is a very similar concept to the horizontal stretch discussed previously here. The difference is, instead of stretching the defense side to side, the vertical stretches the defense up and down the field. The receivers in this concept will run routes on the same area of the field, but on different levels, one above the other. This causes the defender to either drop back and cover the deep route, or move up and cover the short, leaving one receiver open. The positional responsibilities in this concept are very similar to the horizontal stretch; one difference, however, is that the quarterback will generally read these plays High to Low, giving them the additional name of Hi/Lo reads. To demonstrate this concept we will break down 2 common vertical stretch plays: Smash, and Levels.


The smash route combination is most effective against a Cover 2 defense, however it can be effective against others. It is used with 2 receivers on one side of the field, usually a wide out and a slot receiver or a wide out and tight end. The outside receiver runs a short 5 yard hitch, while the inside receiver runs a corner route.
This combination specifically attacks the cornerback and forces him to either drop back and cover the corner, which leaves the hitch open; or cover the hitch route which leaves the corner open. In this play, the corner stays deeps, allowing the hitch route to be open.
Generally, in a cover 2, the safety will have responsibility for the deep route, however, the safety will have to work from the inside-out, the same direction the corner route breaks, giving the receiver the advantage. The hitch route is run in the ‘flat zone’ which is can be covered by a linebacker, however, the hitch route is such a short route that the linebacker does not have enough time to break up the pass. This play, while not facing a cover 2 defense, is successful all the same. The cornerback tries to make up lost ground, but is too far away to make a play on the ball and can only run the receiver out of bounds
Here is the slowed down gif of the play.

Notice how the CBs rotates his hips to follow the corner route while the receiver makes his cut.


Levels is also good against the cover 2, and is run with two receivers to the same side. The concept is for the outside receiver to run an ‘in’ route at 5 yards, and the inside receiver runs an in at 12 yards.
The key is for the outside receiver to be underneath the linebacker, while the inside receiver is above the linebacker but beneath the safety. This forces the linebacker to cover either the deep or shallow receiver, as the safety can’t come up and cover the deep receiver soon enough. In this image, you can see the defender playing too deep to cover the shallow route.
When the receiver makes the catch, he is open and several steps ahead of the defender.
Here is the gif at half speed, notice how the defender is forced to move around the second receiver. This makes the defender slow down enough so that the receiver is open.

This next play shows a read to the deep receiver. The linebacker immediately moves to cover the low receiver as soon as he makes his cut, leaving the deep route open.

Notice how the quarterback throws it right after the linebacker commits to the low receiver, and even before the receiver makes his cut. Also notice how the cornerback can’t come from behind the receiver to cover the pass, leaving him open in the middle.

Things to Note

  • Vertical stretch plays are often run short and wide, and horizontal stretch plays are often run deep down the field.
  • Vertical stretch plays are less common because it generally requires the offense to isolate a single defender, whereas a horizontal stretch plays can be run 2 on 1, up to 5 on 4, creating more opportunities for success.
  • Some other common plays using this concept include the Flood and the Curl/Flat combo.

Discussion Questions

  1. Both these plays are designed to be used against a Cover 2 defense, however, none of the defenses shown here were playing cover 2. Why did the offenses call these plays against a different defense? Why were the plays successful against a different defense?
  2. In the 2nd levels play, the low receiver runs a hitch instead of an in route. Should the play still be considered a levels play? Does this affect the rest of the play?
  3. How does a vertical stretch compare to a horizontal stretch with respect to strategy or effectiveness?
  4. How could a defense successfully defend these plays?
  5. Would these plays work against a man defense?
  6. Which receiver should be the priority for the defense, the high or low receiver?
  7. Does every passing play fall into one of the two categories covered?

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Tyler Hill

Tyler was born and raised in the Midwest as a lifelong Kansas City Chiefs fan. After having his football career ended at the Junior Varsity level with a serious case of unathleticism, he took his vast years of experience to the only place it would be accepted and listened to: the Internet. He is a recent college graduate and US Army officer with too much spare time and too many opinions.