Picture the following scene. You’re a wide receiver. You’ve just been drafted into the NFL. After a highly productive college career, you impress in the preseason and catch even more passes. (It’s sounding pretty sweet, right?) Yet, disappointingly, despite all of this initial promise, you go on to receive extremely limited regular season opportunities.
That was exactly the situation John Ursua, a preseason star, found himself in after being picked by the Seahawks in the seventh round of the 2019 NFL Draft - and John Schneider traded up to get him. He then managed to haul in a huge 3rd and long grab in Week 17 at home against the 49ers. But, overall, the 2019 figures were sparse. The receiver only appeared in three games as a rookie and the clutch play against San Francisco was his only catch of the season.
Why did this happen? Well, there is more to NFL receiving than the basic job description of catching the football. NFL offenses are complex, Brian Schottenheimer’s attack included. "Schotty" has multiple adjustments, pre and post-snap, built into his scheme. It requires receivers to know a lot, recognize a lot, understand a lot. His response to a question on Ursua's progress said as much.
“JU’s done a really good job picking up the system,” Seattle’s offensive coordinator answered, suggesting the second-year wide out was finally getting it. "Last year was hard for him coming from Hawaii, more of that spread system where all they did was run option routes, things like that."
Hawaii, then under current Washington State coach Nick Rolovich, was running a variant of the Run N' Shoot offense. Ursua starred, leading the nation with 16 receiving touchdowns as a junior for the Warriors.
“He has tremendous ability at the line of scrimmage,” Schottenheimer continued, referencing skills that were well-developed being in a Run N' Shoot attack. “So as we work kinda our choice, option games, he’s always been very natural at that.”
Then Schottenheimer arrived at the difficulties Ursua experienced last year.
“It’s some of the other things, the details and stuff, that he’s been off on,” Schottenheimer revealed. “This year, that’s been completely different. He’s been on top of the details. He’s been mentally making quick decisions with some of the hot adjustments and things we have to do. So, he’s been extremely impressive.”
“Hot adjustments and things we have to do,” is what we’re going to focus on in this piece. Let's kick off with a question on the subject, which I was asked on Twitter by user @Lolzfps: “Does this mean adjustments (to the route?!) during the play...or pre-snap?”
“Yes” is the short answer.
The image of making it to the pros and focusing on beating the man in front of you, catching passes, is complicated by the above. Looking at three offensive playbooks - the St. Louis Rams from 2001 (Mike Martz), San Diego Chargers from 2005 (Cam Cameron), and Chicago Bears from 2010 (Mike Martz) - illustrates this point, explaining the adjustment process.
You can tell these ‘books are history: two of the three teams have since relocated! They’re still relevant in detail, though. Mike Martz is a self-confessed disciple of Don Coryell’s “Air Coryell” system. Schotteheimer has managed to be less revealing in his coaching career and, while we can talk West Coast or Air Coryell, it doesn’t really matter in this case. That said, if we want to stick a label on Schotty’s system it would match Martz’s.
Though Martz and Schotty never directly crossed paths, asides from basing out of a similar system, Martz provides increased value as a pass-heavy coach with a ton of detail in these two playbooks. Meanwhile, Cam Cameron - so good they named him twice - was who Schotty really started coaching under. From 2002 to 2005, Schotty was the quarterback positional coach in San Diego when Cameron was offensive coordinator. It was Schottenheimer’s first long stint with an NFL franchise.
Cameron’s 2005 playbook defines a hot route as a “term used to alert a TE, RB, or WR to break off a called route if the defender blitzes or dogs. Routes may have built in hots.”
The “backfield” section of the 2005 playbook, written for fullbacks and running backs, explains hot routes too. “Designated back or receiver key a defender to break off a called route if the defender blitzes or dogs.”
Essentially, if a defense brings more bodies than the offense is keeping in to block, one of the men releasing downfield needs to adjust his route to become “hot” to get the quarterback out of trouble. The offense can then beat the blitz. The hot routes found in the 2001 and 2005 playbooks are therefore married to the pass protection schemes.
So, depending on what protection and route pattern is called, plus whether the required defender blitzes, your route could become “hot.” This varies from protection scheme to protection scheme. A ton of pre and post-snap thinking is involved because in the 2001 and 2005 playbooks, the men involved in the protection schemes are tight ends and backfield only. Aside from the obvious offensive line and quarterback, these are the only pass catchers with hot assignments.
Look at the full list of Cameron’s tight end hot route responsibilities depending on the called protection. This also features some built in hot routes on plays
Here are some of Martz’s 2001 protection schemes:
Ace is a regularly used system. Cameron’s 2005 Ace Hot is below:
Hot adjustments are great and all, but you’re probably asking what it has to do with Ursua. That's a fair question given that the playbooks don’t feature wide receivers as “hot.” As the NFL has become more spread out in its passing games and personnel, slot receivers have become a more relevant detail - hence why Ursua has a job. When Schottenheimer himself mentioned “hot routes” in relation to Ursua, it makes sense that the slot has replaced the fullback in responsibility for this. Or that the term has extended and shifted to the 11-personnel heavy modern day.
See where Martz in 2010 has the “F” deployed in two-minute drills:
Schottenheimer, after talking hot routes, also touched on “things we have to do,” as an area Ursua had difficulty with. This is broad, but we can link it to more relevant detail found within the 2001 and 2005 resources. “Sight adjustments” are similar to hot routes, but they are assigned to the outside wide receivers.
Cameron in 2005 explained them as “adjustment to blitz corresponding to protection package and coverage.” In the wide receiver manual within Cameron's 2005 playbook, sight adjustments are described as “adjustment to blitz corresponding to protection package.”
Certain routes in the 2005 playbook automatically happen for the outside receivers. If the wideout is uncovered pre-snap and a cornerback blitzes - “cobra” - they run a “minus” route. If the wideout has a 1 route, is covered pre-snap, but that cornerback blitzes, they run a “quick 1.” If a defender inside of them blitzes and the wideout is on a 2 route, they adjust it into a “2 site," which is a quick slant.
Martz’s 2001 offense contains a full list of the wide receiver sight adjustment responsibilities in relation to the base pass protection but also when adapting to certain coverage looks or running specific passing plays.
The full depth of detail interlaced into these attacks cannot be understated. These coaches want to get out of bad play. More importantly, they want to keep their quarterback upright and protected. This is one day of training camp protection from Martz in 2010 with Chicago. Notice the two separate columns for sight adjustments and hot routes. (Bonzai equals cornerback blitz)
We don’t know exactly how Schottenheimer does all of this. It would make sense that, in 2020, inside guys get sight adjustment-style stuff underneath the “hot” umbrella. Whatever the case, with the various pre-snap alignment work and movement that Seattle features in their offense, it’s noticeable how much the receivers signal and pay attention to the defensive structure. Post-snap there are adjustments to routes. This can be based on pre-snap information or post-snap reaction.
All of this, understandably, took Ursua a while to adapt to.
“Really, just, playing well, playing faster. He’s playing more rather than thinking a lot,” Schottenheimer said of Ursua's improvements this camp. “Last year I think he was having to think 'Okay what’s this route mean, what’s my split?' and this year he looks much more relaxed, much more comfortable."
Showcasing how hard it is to adjust to playing receiver in the league, it also sounds like Freddie Swain, picked in the sixth round of the 2020 draft, is experiencing similar difficulties in his rookie year.
“He, again, is a little bit where John was last year,” disclosed Schottenheimer. “Again, having to think a little bit and we’re moving him in multiple spots so he’s playing both inside and outside.”
Though Ursua’s time playing for the Warriors in college prepared him for the obvious receiving elements - like running routes, catching the ball, getting open - it left some gaps in his knowledge, hot routes included. Now 26 years old, it sounds like he is ready for the fun parts of NFL receiving: yards and touchdowns.