Most passing offenses, including the West Coast offense, have a version of four vertical routes in their passing game playbook to stretch the defense vertically and create some explosive, chunk plays downfield.
They are simple routes to run, easy for the quarterback to read and can be ran out of several different formations, using receiver, tight end or running back motion. The four verticals allow offensive coordinators to expand the playbook without creating a lot of complex, confusing combination of routes and just allowing players to go make plays.
The four verticals also fits nicely into Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck’s throwing wheelhouse, because they are precision timing routes where the ball has to be put in a certain spot at a certain time, and requires the quarterback to get rid of the ball quickly.
One last thing about the four verticals: it allows teams to defeat several different coverages with one play, as long as the receivers and the quarterback see the same things defensively and are all on the same page.
Here's the setup out of a doubles set, with a back going into motion to the right to balance the formation.
Against a cover-3 or cover-1 look, the quarterback usually coaxes the safety in the middle of the field to pick a side and throws to the other seam route inside.
Against Cover-2, the quarterback usually reads the corner on either side, throwing to the “side pocket” of the defense, which is after the outside receiver clears the cornerback and before he reaches the safety that has coverage over the top.
As a receiver you’re taught to gear down after you clear the corner and make yourself available before you reach the safety.
So with four verticals, the quarterback doesn’t have to audible at the line of scrimmage and get into a different play. There’s built-in hot routes should the defense blitz, and the quarterback just has to read the defense and pick the matchup that he likes the best. Again, like the inside zone running play, the four verticals is another bread-and-butter play the Seahawks can use effectively next season.
This article from smartfootball.com does a nice job of breaking down the different variations of the play.
And here’s a better explanation by Chris Brown, who runs smartfootball.com, on how the New Orleans Saints used the four verticals and formations to dictate the coverage they want.
Here are a couple examples of the Seahawks running four verticals successfully last season.
In this one, the Seahawks line up in a 2-by-2 or doubles set, and T.J Houshmandzadeh catches one down the seam of the Arizona Cardinals defense in the second game between the two teams, in what I think was Houshmandzadeh’s most productive game of the 2009 season.
It appears the two outside guys cut their routes short because they had off-man coverage and no chance of getting over the top.
In the next example, the Seahawks are in a 3-by-1 or trips open set. Tight end John Carlson gets open down the seam against what appears to be a Cover 2 look in the secondary, as the St. Louis Rams safety jumps Houshmandzadeh’s influence route over the middle of the defense, and the cornerback unwisely stays with fullback Owen Schmitt instead of hustling over to pick-up a more dangerous Carlson.
This video does a nice job of breaking down the WR route tree in a West Coast offense. When we ran a version of the West Coast offense in college at the University of Puget Sound, using the numbering system referred to here.
But the Seahawks used names for all of their routes last season. I suspect they will go back to a similar system used earlier by Mike Holmgren with Jeremy Bates, a Mike Shanahan disciple, taking over as offensive coordinator.