TAMPA — It is the straightest branch on the route tree: a fade.
The receiver takes a simple outside release, leaving enough space between the defender and sideline for the quarterback to deliver the ball over the top. Before the defender can get his head around, the receiver leaps to snatch the ball at its highest point.
Late in the first half of the Bucs' 37-16 victory at Minnesota on Oct. 25, quarterback Josh Freeman surveyed the defense's alignment, saw Mike Williams in single coverage and gave the hand signal.
Williams exploded off the line past cornerback Josh Robinson. Freeman released the ball in a high arc before Williams was at top speed. He watched his receiver make the catch near the back of the end zone, unfold his body like a contortionist and stab both feet into the turf just inside the end line for a touchdown.
"The typical fan might just say, 'Throw it up.' And you're right: Throw it up," Bucs receivers coach P.J. Fleck said. "But the amount of time we spend on that route is incredible. The ball has to be in a certain location. The DBs are going to play in a different spot. Sometimes, they play over the top. Sometimes, they play behind you. Sometimes, you've got to back-shoulder it. And sometimes, it has to be over the top. And those decisions have to be made by the wideout and quarterback instantly.
"To see Josh and Mike and Vincent (Jackson) be on the same page, it really is a credit to them and the work ethic and the type of work they're putting on the practice field. Then at that point, it's athleticism. It really turns into a jump ball and body position, and Mike's athleticism takes over."
Every football team, from Pop Warner to the pros, uses the fade route. But for the Bucs this season, it has become a signature play.
In the fourth quarter against Minnesota, Williams beat cornerback A.J. Jefferson down the left sideline on a fade for a 34-yard completion. That set up Doug Martin's game-sealing 1-yard touchdown run.
Raiders coach Dennis Allen, whose team faces the Bucs today, spent last week watching video of Jackson and Williams. He concluded that even when well-defended, they are hard to stop. Jackson is second in the NFL at 21.6 yards per catch, Williams fifth at 17.4.
"When you look at their receivers, they're all big, tall, physical receivers," Allen said. "But … not only do they have great ball skills and the ability to catch the ball, they've got great body control.
"They can move and twist and get their body in position. And I think Mike Williams is as good as I've seen on the boundary being able to adjust to the ball, move his body and still be able to get his feet down. The toughest thing is you can be in great position to cover them and they still go up over top of you and make a play."
Jackson has the speed to blow by any defensive back and the size (6-5, 230 pounds) and strength to go up and get almost any ball thrown his way. Williams (6-2, 212) runs well enough, but he's too physical for most cornerbacks to handle in single coverage.
Stay updated on the Buccaneers
Subscribe to our free Bucs RedZone newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
"He's better at it than anybody I've seen in this league," Bucs safety Ronde Barber said of Williams. And it's not like it happens once a week. It happens two or three times a week. It's natural. It's all him. You can't teach that."
Freeman has demonstrated a talent for executing the fade with the precision of a diamond cutter. It's the byproduct of countless patterns run by Jackson and Williams during the offseason.
"Those guys are where they need to be," Freeman said, "and I try to put the ball in the best position for them to make a play on it."
How many times have the Bucs run fade routes in practice since March?
"Hundreds. It could be thousands, especially with the work they did on their own," Fleck said.
"It's a tribute to them because it's easy to say you want to get better at something. But then to finally see some results from it and still be hungry says something."