The plays that quarterbacks call in the huddle are not always the plays that get executed at the snap of the ball. The “smoke” route is a sight adjustment that allows the offensive to steal some free yards from the defense.
The “smoke” route has become a staple in modern NFL, and even college, offenses these days. Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers sometimes runs the “smoke” play at least once during every game he plays.
What is the “smoke” route?
Basically, it’s a quick hitch throw to a receiver that is not called in the huddle. It’s usually performed after a running play has been called.
The quarterback will see that the wide receiver is being matched up with off-man coverage, which has the cornerback at least 5-7 yards off the receiver.
Rather than going through with the running play, especially if the box is stacked, why not try for a few free yards to the outside? The cornerback is practically begging for this throw by aligning in off-man coverage.
It’s not a verbal audible, but rather a silent one. Once the quarterback and receiver both see the off-man coverage, they will make some sort of eye contact and a gesture to indicate the “smoke” is on. The gesture is only known between the receiver and quarterback.
At the snap of the ball, the quarterback takes a one step drop and immediately fires the ball to the receiver on a short hitch route.
This happens very quickly, and the quarterback may not have time to get the laces right, which is why you may see them throwing the ball without the use of the laces.
Only the quarterback and the receiver know the “smoke” is coming. Everyone else runs the play as called, which is why you often see the offensive line run blocking during such a play.
The “smoke” isn’t a viable option for every snap of the ball, and certain conditions should be met before the quarterback calls it.
Conditions for calling the “smoke” route:
1) Defense is in off-man. There has to be a 5-7 yard gap for the quarterback to quickly throw the ball with little risk of interception.