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What is a Wheel Route in Football?

You’ve seen a wide-open running back catch a pass near the sideline while an out-of-breath linebacker chases him from behind, haven’t you? There is a good chance that the linebacker fell for a wheel route.

While a slot receiver can run a wheel route, it is primarily run by the running back, and I will focus on the running back version of the wheel route in this article.

In this article, I define the wheel route, how to execute it properly, and the personnel mismatches it exploits.

Key Takeaways

  • The wheel route involves the running back moving into the flat and then turning upfield at full speed.
  • The wheel route takes advantage of the mismatch between running back and linebacker.
  • For the wheel route to succeed, the running back must “sell” that he is running into the flat to catch a pass.

What is a Wheel Route?

The wheel route is typically run by the running back and combines a flat route and a go route.

In executing the wheel route, the running back moves towards the sideline (flat route) before cutting upfield (go route). The running back should look back to the quarterback while running toward the sideline as if to receive a pass, which helps to deceive the defender. When the running back begins sprinting upfield rapidly, he catches the defender on his heels, and the running back can get into an open area for a pass. [1]

The wheel route is illustrated below. The “B” with a circle is the running back, and the wheel route is in yellow. [2]

The Theory Behind the Wheel Route

The wheel route is straightforward and capitalizes on personnel mismatches and defensive confusion.

This route exploits aggressive coverage and isolates a fast offensive player against a slower defender. It poses a matchup problem more so than a scheme problem. [3]

In this case, the speedier, quicker running back manipulates his defender: the larger, slower linebacker.

The linebacker can defend the running back for short distances, provided there are no abrupt movements.

Unfortunately for the linebacker, the wheel route may cover forty yards, and there are sharp movements.

Execution of the Wheel Route

The wheel route is easy to run, but some deception is involved. I will break down the proper execution of the wheel route below.

Step One

The running back tricks the linebacker into believing that he is running only a flat route.

To initiate the wheel route, the running back will run a flat route and move parallel to the line of scrimmage toward the sideline. When the running back approaches the sideline, the back looks towards the quarterback as if to receive a pass. 


Looking back is crucial because it tricks the linebacker into thinking the quarterback will throw a pass to the running back. This is a rational thought by the linebacker because making a pass behind the scrimmage line is a safer option. 

This will help “sell” the flat route.

A flat route is when the running back runs forward for a few yards and then quickly pivots and runs toward the sideline (See illustration below).

In the illustration, the blue line is the line of scrimmage, and the yellow arrow is the flat route: [4]

Step Two

The linebacker will likely believe that the running back is about to receive a pass and will sprint toward the running back, anticipating that the running back needs to be tackled.

However, there is no tackle to be made. Once the bigger linebacker has his momentum directed towards the running back, the running back turns upfield and runs a go route.

A go route is run straight up the field with a slight fade to the sideline, as illustrated below, although on the opposite side of the field. [5]

Step Three

Once the linebacker breaks toward the running back in the flat, the linebacker is effectively out of the play.

The quicker running back immediately turns upfield for an extended pass play. As the running back streaks thirty yards upfield, the bigger linebacker cannot react in time to shadow the running back. 


Step Four

Once the running back is alone downfield, he turns to the quarterback, catches the football, and produces an enormous yardage gain, if not a touchdown.

Essential Contributors to a Successful Wheel Route:

The focus above was solely on the running back.

However, football is the ultimate team game, and multiple offensive players must complete other tasks for the execution of a successful wheel route.

The offensive line must give the quarterback time, as the wheel route is slow-developing.

The wide receivers on the same side of the route must draw their defenders, the cornerback, and the safety, away from the play.

Clearing out the safety occurs by sending one receiver on a go route.

If they are successful, the running back only needs to beat the mismatched linebacker.

Below I demonstrate, frame-by-frame, how the New York Jets execute a wheel route against the Minnesota Vikings:

The Wheel Route on the Football Field

Above is the pre-snap alignment. The running back will run the route outlined in turquoise. The linebacker assigned to defend the running back is circled in red. [6]

Remember, I said that the offensive line needs to provide time for the quarterback, as the wheel route is a slow-developing play. The Jets are in max protection as the two circled tight ends stay in and block. [7]


The slot receiver will run a deep route(turquoise) taking the safety circled in red away from the play. If the safety were unoccupied, he could move along the red path and make a play on the running back. [8]

After the snap, the running back (blue arrow) runs toward the flat while looking back to the quarterback as if he is to receive a pass. The quarterback (black arrow) pump-fakes a pass to the running back to sell that the running back is a target. The linebacker (red arrow) races toward the running back. [9]

The linebacker (red arrow) runs at full speed toward the running back (blue arrow), as the running back turns upfield. [10]

The running back (blue arrow) has beaten the linebacker (red arrow), and a good throw results in a significant yardage gain. [11]

The running back (blue arrow) catches the pass four yards ahead of the linebacker (red arrow). Also, note that there is no defender within fifteen yards of the running back. The receivers are the unsung heroes, as they clear out the space for the running back. [12]

You can see that the wheel route exploits the mismatch between running back and linebacker. It really is that simple!


  2. How to get the football to your running back on a wheel route
  4. Football Breakdown: The Route Tree
  5. Football Breakdown: The Route Tree
  6. Sam Darnold Throws a Perfect Wheel Route – How does he do it?
  7. Sam Darnold Throws a Perfect Wheel Route – How does he do it?
  8. Sam Darnold Throws a Perfect Wheel Route – How does he do it?
  9. Sam Darnold Throws a Perfect Wheel Route – How does he do it?
  10. Sam Darnold Throws a Perfect Wheel Route – How does he do it?
  11. Sam Darnold Throws a Perfect Wheel Route – How does he do it?
  12. Sam Darnold Throws a Perfect Wheel Route – How does he do it?
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