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Film Room: Markus Wheaton And Creating “Access” As A Route Runner

Access. It’s the thing we all need. A driver’s license lets you drive your car way too fast. A key lets you into your house so you can watch the 42 reruns of Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives. 

And access is how you win as a wide receiver. The key to the position is separation but telling a receiver, just separate, is like telling someone to dance by just dance, dude. It’s non-specific and utterly unhelpful.

X and O Labs is one of my go-to football learnin’ websites and I just read over a great article that explains how receivers create access. Oklahoma Pandhandle St’s Buddy Blevins explains the idea well.

To sum up, access means the receiver has the space to run the route he needs to. “No access” means he doesn’t and needs to adjust his route or figure out a way to create access.

Here’s a basic example. If a receiver wants to run an out breaking route and the DB has inside leverage, the receiver has access and is free to run his route.

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But if the DB has outside leverage, the receiver does not have access and can’t run it without getting the corner out of position.

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This is what Markus Wheaton does well. He isn’t on Antonio Brown’s level, you probably already figured that out by now, but still plenty strong. And it was a large part of his breakout second half last season. Let’s look at some examples.

We’re going to pay special attention to his 200 yard performance versus the Seattle Seahawks. On this first play, Wheaton is looking to run a hitch route in the middle of the field. But off the snap, the slot corner has jumps inside, gaining leverage and discourages the route.

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So Wheaton steams his route outside to get hip-to-hip with him. Still, the corner trails underneath and takes away Wheaton’s ability to settle in the middle of the field.

He makes the smart play. On top of the corner, Wheaton stops and sits down to the corner’s outside shoulder, finding the weak spot in the coverage. He shows Ben Roethlisberger his numbers.

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Ben fires the ball between defenders and Wheaton makes the falling catch to the ground, avoiding contact all around.

Here’s the whole play.

You can see Wheaton had to adjust his landing spot. Compare where he settles down to the slot receiver here in 2014 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The goal is to get pretty even spacing but you can’t always dictate what a defense will do. Roll with the punches and create.

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Here’s a very simple example. Remember how we talked about having access for out breaking routes? That’s exactly what he see here, again, against Seattle.

Pittsburgh motions to a bunch concept with Wheaton as the “point man.” He’s running an out against the corner who has inside leverage.

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Wheaton doesn’t have to do much to gain separation, merely converting his out into a speed out to roll through and maintain speed since his space is limited by the sideline.

Let’s compare that with my favorite play illustrating his ability to gain access. Different game, Week 14 against the Cincinnati Bengals. We have the same idea here, just from a different position (now to the boundary instead of the field) and personnel grouping.

Wheaton is going to run the out once again but this time, the cornerback is playing off and has outside leverage. This tells the receiver he currently has no access. So he needs to create it.

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To do so, he sells the route vertical. Like he’s running a streak route down the sideline. You sell it with your feet, your hips, your eyes. He slightly stems his route inside and gets the corner to open up the gate. Wheaton does it tremendously, putting on a great acting performance to convince the corner he’s a vertical threat.

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At 15 yards, he finally breaks on the out, staying flat down the line to so the corner can’t jump underneath. The throw is on the money and the pass complete.

This last look is a little less about creating access but it’s still a terrific route by Wheaton. Back to Seattle, where he runs a post down the middle of the field. X and O Lab’s also had a great breakdown of what it means to “restack” as a receiver, getting on top of cornerbacks instead of a hip-to-hip relationship.

Think of restacking this way. If you’re fighting someone for the last 4K TV on Black Friday, you want to be in front of him, not side-to-side.

Wheaton is in the slot working on the nickel corner. He stems inside, pivoting his body on a 45 degree angle, and gets up on the corner’s toes. It gets the corner to cheat inside, looking to ride him inside.

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Wheaton stems back outside and does a nice arm-over move to separate. Now it’s time to accelerate. We’re hip-to-hip but we need to get on top, to restack. His burst and speed is vastly underrated and it’s plays like this that should make you remember he led the team – and finished 9th in the league – with 17 yards per catch. He leaves the corner trailing and splits this two high look, the field side safety not supporting the route.

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Roethlisberger’s throw is again on the money and Wheaton does the test en route to a 69 yard touchdown.

Despite the first half of 2015 being a bust, Wheaton continued to show real strides from where he was a year before. He’s vastly improved as a route runner and underneath YAC threat while, again, showing he is an underrated vertical threat.

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