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Saturday, January 03, 2009

Peyton's Favorite Pass Play: Levels

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.


Anonymous said...

There seems to be many similarities between levels and what many call the NCAA route. Post/Vertical, dig and an under route. The only difference it seems to me, is where the "action" is taking place. The read here is an outside backer/ nickel as opposed to an inside backer read for the ncaa. The other arguement you could make is many teams read the ncaa from high to low.

Unknown said...

Interesting article as always. One side issue that got be thinking, is that the difference between a rub and a pick can be a little grey at the boundary. That is, some things are obviously a rub, others obviously a pick, but somewhere in between the water can get murky. Like in the levels play above, if the CB probably would have clipped the back of the #2 receiver's legs, but slowed slightly to avoid this, thus giving the #1 receiver a yard or two to get open.

How would you define the difference between a rub and a pick, so that the water was as clear as possible?


Mr.Murder said...

Levels was what I thought to be dual routes that break on the same horizontal plane. Giving you the result of a horizontal stretch to the depth they are run.

The actual levels you describe look like a drive concept, you could flag a halfback to that side and end up getting him free against man or man under. More along the lines of a Walsh system.

Anonymous said...

What pass pro set would you use to block this? Using Air Raid termonology, would this be a 60s set(quick game) or 90's set (drop back/progression)? Thanks, Chris, this was one of your best posts yet.

Anonymous said...

Could Levels be read deep to short or is there a particular reason why it must be taught short to deep? I am asking this to find out what would be the easiest way to teach the read progression to high school players.

Anonymous said...

I know this is an old post, but I read it the other day, and I was wondering whether or not you got the chance to check out Madden 10? They have the exact levels divide play in the colts playbook. I just thought it was neat to read this and see it put in the game exactly as you described it. Love the blog and cant wait for more

Anonymous said...

"Could Levels be read deep to short or is there a particular reason why it must be taught short to deep?"

My guess is that it has a lot to do with the pass rush. The general idea, however, is to lay on the short route until the linebacker starts jumping it, which opens up the deeper square-in.

The short in is more effective for two reasons: it's more likely to get open and it takes less time to get open; against a heavy pass rush that quick in can be almost as effective as a screen.

Brady Walz said...

Could Levels be read deep to short or is there a particular reason why it must be taught short to deep?

I would teach it short to deep.

Reasons why:

1) Conditions the defensive response. Most coverages that "pattern read" are taught to take away deeper routes. A familiar phrase is "don't jump the chump" which in this case is the under route. They will allow the ball to be caught and rally to the football, relying on the fact that the offensive coordinator and QB are not patient enough to keep taking the free yardage and will get greedy for a big play and make a mistake in coverage read or in protection.

The same thing can be said with playaction passing. Establish the run, or that you will call the run, to open up throwing lanes down the field.

When you have completed a few balls to the WR, the seam read and basic cross will naturally come open.

2) You are getting the ball quickly to one of your best athletes in space. If he gets the ball vs. a poor tackler, the chance for a big play will always loom, plus it ultimately opens up your basic cross...the defense will condition itself to take away your best player, or pay the price!

3) Man beater/Blitz beater. Versus these types of coverage and defensive schemes, it is obvious the longer the QB holds the football, the more problems you will breakdown, ball thrown off schedule, etc. By teaching the QB to spit the football out quickly as part of the natural progression, you eliminate some of the cloudiness in recognizing the blitz and coverage structure. If the under route is open...throw it! If it isn't, the basic better be! And, of course, you have a built in 0 beater with the seam read on the backside. Makes life simple and comfortable for the QB.

In closing, I remember hearing Nick Saban talk about how the Levels play is nearly impossible to stop when executed correctly. He said there was no blitz or coverage that he could go to...just had to rely on good tackling or a poor throw. That was enough for me to install it and practice the heck out of it every day!!!