Basically, it just works

The slant looks maddeningly simple but there's plenty going on.

By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer
Published October 5, 2007

TAMPA - Like so many terms in NFL playbooks, the slant is just what it sounds like: a pass route by a wide receiver run toward the middle of the field on a 45-degree angle.

So simple. Yet, so complex.

A staple of the West Coast offense created by legendary coach Bill Walsh, the slant is a bang-bang play that seems modest in its goals, until it results in a 70-yard touchdown. The 49ers won three Super Bowls in the 1980s using slants to make opponents look silly.

The slant is safe. The slant is effective.

The slant makes many more things possible.

And this season, the slant is a key element to the Bucs' offensive success. All it takes is an accurate quarterback and a couple of receivers who appreciate the importance of footwork.

"It's a play that everybody in the league runs, and the teams that run it well are usually the teams that are throwing the ball the best," said coach Jon Gruden, who learned the West Coast offense early in his career as an assistant on Walsh's staff. "You get the ball to a skilled athlete that can make one guy miss and it can be a lot of yards without a lot of protection. You don't have to hold the ball for nine seconds. You don't have to pick up a lot of the blitzes that are coming from all over the country.

"It's a big part of the league. It's the oldest pattern that I know of."

On a slant, quarterback Jeff Garcia takes a three-step drop from under center and gets rid of the ball quickly, hitting the receiver in stride once he breaks to the inside. But plenty happens in the seconds before and after the ball is snapped.

"There's so much to look at and read through in order to get to that final decision," Garcia said. "The timing depends upon, first of all, the receiver and his route and what he's trying to do to the defensive back. Does he have a defender that's playing up close and in his face in a bump-and-run type look, or does he have a soft corner defender?

"The next thing, for my decision, is what can take away that slant? Is there a linebacker that's going to drop in that zone? Is there a safety coming up in that zone? Is it what we would call a first-window slant, which means right when the receiver breaks open? Or is it going to have to wait for a second window, which means the receiver is going to have to cross a defender and wait for the next opening?"

Okay, one thing at a time.

First, the receiver sizes up the cornerback. If the corner is playing a few yards off the line of scrimmage, called soft coverage, the receiver must close the gap by running directly at the cornerback. From there, many receiver coaches advocate stepping across with the outside leg, called rolling, to make the inside move.

Richard Mann isn't one of them.

Mann, in his sixth season with the Bucs, teaches receivers to cut on the outside foot by taking a quick step to the outside, making the corner think it's a deep or outside route.

Then, the receiver changes direction by cutting inside with the inside foot. If executed properly, the cornerback will be out of position after biting on the outside move.

"I call that stepping in the bucket," Mann said.

Joey Galloway's 69-yard touchdown against the Saints, on which he got a key block from Michael Clayton, was a slant against a soft corner. Garcia read the safety rotating into the zone and waited to throw until Galloway entered the second window.

Now, if the corner is close to the line of scrimmage, called bump-and-run coverage, executing the slant is a little trickier. The receiver must sell a route down the field and get the corner to turn and run with him. The receiver then cuts sharply on the outside foot to gain inside position.

Again, the corner bites on the deep threat.

"Sometimes at practice they won't because there's no pressure," Mann said. "But when we get in the stadium with 80,000 in the seats, they do what they're supposed to."

In Week 3 against the Rams, the Bucs executed three slants against bump-and-run coverage, two to Galloway and one to Ike Hilliard. Though only 5-foot-11, Galloway beat a 6-foot-4 corner by remaining patient and selling a deep route.

Though the footwork is universal, route running is an individual skill.

Galloway suckers corners with a hesitation move Bucs defensive backs coach Raheem Morris calls the "dead leg," then uses his speed. Hilliard and Clayton take a little more time, and use a lot of wiggle, to get open.

Either way, the defender is cooked.

"You can't false step," Morris said. "You have one chance to find the angle. It's pretty tough to defend, especially if it's executed right by a team like our team is doing now."

When the slant works, it sets up defenders for the times when the receivers actually are running deep routes. If the corner cheats on the slants, it's time for the slant-and-go.

Again, just like it sounds.

"Coach Gruden has been banging hard the past couple years, saying that the slant game has to get going," Hilliard said. "We've got to continue to work the slants and make it be a big part of what we do."