Separation in the NFL is an art form for wide receivers and tight ends. It’s also a word that tends to get misrepresented in it’s true meaning. Gaining the separation against a defender takes proper route running and technique. I’ve seen people knock players for their lack of separation in scouting reports but separation as it’s commonly discussed is often misperceived. It’s unlikely a player will create yards of separation on every play. In reality, receivers aren’t gaining more than a foot or a half-step on a defender on most routes.
The different ways guys create separation vary from player to player.
- Smaller receivers tend to use their quickness to help create space. For a lot of the smaller guys, you’ll see them create a bigger gap in separation on shorter routes because of their quickness in and out of breaks. A few names of an NFL WR who excel in this way are Julian Edelman, Jarvis Landry, Stefon Diggs, Odell Beckham Jr. and Doug Baldwin.
- Bigger receivers tend to use their strength, physicality and body positioning to create separation. Players like Brandon Marshall, AJ Green, Julio Jones and Dez Bryant are prime examples.
Receivers use a variety of techniques to gain separation. For someone like Terrance Williams, the Dallas Cowboys wide receiver, you’ll see in the clip below he uses what is called, “The chicken wing or wing” technique. He presses right up against the defender, and uses his forearm to “push off” (Not usually flagged by referees unless the arm is fully extended) to gain that extra step of separation.
As I mentioned above, some of the bigger receivers use their size and physicality to create their separation.
Brandon Marshall is a prime example of a big, physical receiver who uses that to his ability to get open against defensive backs.
In the clip below, Marshall uses his infamous “push-pull” technique. This has been a staple of Marshall’s throughout his career. It allows the receiver into the defensive backs body, then the pull forces him off balance, creating the needed amount of separation.
Route running is the key to gaining separation as a pass catcher. In JR’s (@JReidDraftScout) article about Stefon Diggs and his route running prowess. He shows different examples of ways Diggs gains separation on a defensive back.
You can find JR’s article here.
Creating separation is an important aspect for tight ends, too. Some of the new age tight ends are being used like wide receivers. Travis Kelce and Jimmy Graham are guys who use their athleticism to win.
Don’t think I forgot about the most dangerous hybrid tight end in the game.
Jordan Reed does a great job of creating his own separation against defensive backs and linebackers. On this play, Reed is split out wide against a cornerback.
Reed does a good job of using the rocker step off the line with a good head fake to the outside. This forces the cornerback to pause allowing Reed enough time to get inside leverage and enough separation for the quarterback to fit the ball into the window for the touchdown.
Reed is really good at using his big frame to shield off defenders, like a basketball player boxing out for a rebound.
Guys who take longer to produce tend to have issues with their route running.
Route running is such an important aspect for a receiver (WR, TE and RB) to succeed on any level, but especially the NFL level.
Separation, albeit big or small, varies by the receiver. Some players need to create a lot of separation while others only need a minimal amount.
Whenever you’re watching football, try to keep an eye out for some of these subtle techniques guys use to create separation when running routes.