Peyton Manning just won Associated Press MVP of the NFL for the third time, and -- love him or hate him -- he's pretty decent at that whole throwing the ball thing. And this year he has done it without a lot of help, as he and offensive coordinator Tom Moore have had to put together their own particular brand of sorcery to generate yards, points, and wins. And they've done it.
In this article I want to discuss one of the Colts' favorite pass plays of the last several years, which they run as much as any other: the two-man levels concept.
Both Peyton and Tom Moore have both stated that their favorite pass route is one known in many coaching circles as "levels." (The Colts have their own unique lingo, but "levels" gives you the gist.) Most other pro teams use it too, including the Patriots, but no one does it as well or as often as the Colts. At the college level, Oklahoma State (Mike Gundy and Gunter Brewer) and Arkansas (Bobby Petrino) both use this concept with some regularity. And June Jones has used a three-man version of levels for some years at Hawai'i and now SMU.
The concept is simple: the outside receiver runs a five-yard in route, and the slot receiver or tight-end runs a ten-to-twelve yard square-in (with a slight outside release). On the backside, the Colts have the outside guy run a take-off (or sometimes a comeback at eighteen yards) and the backside slot or tight-end runs a "divide" or seam-read. As explained previously, the divide route involves a read by the receiver: against single-high defenses like Cover 3 (also known as middle of the field closed), the receiver keeps it up the hashmark in the open void in the seam; against middle of the field open defenses (like Cover 2), he will break on a post route into the open void in the middle.
The quarterback begins by "peeking" or getting an "alert" read of the divide route. If that route comes open or the safeties get out of position, the quarterback throws the ball on rhythm at the end of his drop for a big-play. If it is not open, he goes into his normal 1-2-3 progression.
Unlike most pass concepts which are read deep to short, this play is read short-to-deep. (Though with Peyton Manning -- who likely has an excellent idea of where he's going with the ball on every play -- the difference between "coverage reads" and "progression reads" is blurry.) But the philosophy of the play is to throw the five-yard in route whenever it comes open; they want to treat it like stealing yards and to get the ball into a playmaker. Traditionally this was Marvin Harrison, but more recently you'll see Reggie Wayne run this route play after play.
Broadly, if the defense comes up for the quick in route, the quarterback looks for the square-in behind him. In other words, this is a two-man high-low or vertical stretch concept, which puts the underneath defenders in a bind with a guy in front of and behind them.
More specifically, the play is designed to attack Cover 2. One of the most common routes against Cover 2 is the smash, which is a great route against that coverage. In that play, the outside receiver runs a five yard hitch, and the inside guy runs a corner route at twelve: this puts the cornerback in Cover 2 (who is responsible for the flat) in a high-low bind. Smash has been a go-to play for years, but it has become so common that safeties and inside defenders have learned to overplay the route.
Enter two-man levels. If we lay the smash and levels concepts on top of each other, we see that as the play develops the defense will not be able to tell the difference between them Finally, at the last minute the receivers break unexpectedly:
So the first thing you get with these two plays is the advantage of destroying pattern reading by making your routes look alike. But let's look at who the play is designed to attack in Cover 2: the outside linebacker/nickel back over the slot (coaches just refer to him as "#2"). In smash, the play is designed to attack the corner, so if he is going to get help it is likely to come from this inside defender.
In the diagram below we can see how that player is affected: if he stays home to attack that quick in, the square-in comes open in the void behind him. If he drops back to follow the slot man who releases vertically (which is often what he is taught by guys like Bob Stoops to deal with the smash) then the quick five-yard in should be open.
The last thing is if the middle linebacker (the middle underneath zone defender in a true Cover 2) flows over to take away either the square-in or the quick-in, then the quarterback will drop it off to the runningback underneath.
Now, the other way this play works well is against man. In that case, the outside receiver will try to run his route underneath the slot man such that he will get a rub (not a pick of course, those are illegal and no self-respecting offense would ever use them . . . ) and should come open right in the quarterback's vision.
Below is a diagram of how the Packers have used the play from trips. They use it a bit more as an inside hitting route. Both of the outside guys in trips run five yard in routes, and the inside guy runs his square-in at 10-12.
And below is video of the Packers running their version of levels.
So there you have it: the two-man levels with backside verticals. As with all pass plays, its efficacy is mostly determined by how well the team can pass protect. That said, it is a nice quick-pass, and even against zone-blitzes with three-deep and three underneath defenders the offense can usually find a quick void. It's a great play, but Peyton's continued success will likely hinge on whether his team can keep protecting him.