What and where are the “Flats”?

Over the past couple of days, I’ve written a couple of posts about some of the formations that the offense uses to run it’s plays from. I realised that within these posts I referred to the “flats” on more than one occasion so thought it would make sense to explain what and where these areas are.

As you can see from the image above, the flats are an area of the field to both sides of the offense on each and every play. It doesn’t matter what formation the offense is lined up in, the flats are always in the same area. In the image, they are the light blue squares.

So, where are the flats? I’m guessing you’ve already figured it out from the image above, but I might as well explain a bit about them also. Basically, there are no hard-and-fast rules governing this aspect of the game. Instead, it is just a term used to describe an area of the field during a play. This area of the field generally covers from the hash marks, in the middle of the pitch, out to the sidelines. It then also covers, roughly, from 5 yards behind the line of scrimmage and about 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, into the defense’s side of the ball.

Like I say, there aren’t any solid rules on this and you might see slightly differing yardage descriptions now and again, but this is how I always describe “The Flats”.

When are they used?

They are used by teams for two purposes. One is a safety outlet for the Quarterback – if, on a passing play, all of the downfield receivers are well covered by the defense, the QB more often than not won’t want to force a pass into this good coverage and risk getting intercepted. Instead, what he’ll usually do is look out into the flats and, hopefully, find one of his Running Backs free to pass to. Many downfield passing plays (where the Wide Receivers and Tight Ends run routes downfield) will have a safety outlet in the form of one or more Running Backs swinging out into the flats as a kind of, ‘If all else fails, dump it off into the flats”, idea.

The Halfback and Fullback swing out into the flats.

In the image above, we can see that both the Halfback and Fullback have gone out into the flats as safety outlets for the QB in case the WR’s and TE are well covered by the defense. Sometimes only one of the Running Backs will swing out into the flats and the other would stay in to block for the QB. They have to be aware at all times as they run out into the flats as the QB could pass the ball to them at any second depending on how quickly he is put under pressure by the defense.

Targeting the Flats

So far, we have assumed that this area of the field is only ever used as a safety valve for the QB on passing plays. This isn’t the case as sometimes a team will deliberately target this area with plays. These plays are known as “Screen Plays” or “Screen Passes”.

With a Screen, one of the Running Backs will swing out into the flats, as before, but this time he won’t be by himself. On this type of play, he will have company in the form of a couple or more of his linemen. When the play starts, they pull out of their usual positions and head out into the flats to form a wall or screen in front of the Running Back as he also heads out into the same area but behind his linemen. Because the offensive line is a couple or more linemen short, it is usual that the defense can get through quickly to the QB. His job (the QB) is to lob the ball over the heads of these on-rushing defensive players to the Running Back who then takes off up the field behind his screen.

A Screen Pass to the Fullback who swings out to the right (or Strong Side) and catches the ball. Once he's caught it, he and his blockers take off up the field.

A variation of this is a Wide Receiver Screen, which is similar but instead of the Running Back going out into the flat to catch the pass, the QB throws the ball to a WR who is already out there as that’s where he lines up. With the Wide Receiver Screen, the blockers can be either linemen or other Wide Receivers who have lined up on the same side as the WR catching the ball.

Well, that’s probably clear as mud to you now but I hope it’s actually helped you understand another piece of this wonderful game. If my description has left you baffled then all you need know is that the flats are where the blue squares are on the images above – that’s enough to know, really.

If you want anything clarifying, please let me know in the comments below.