The NFC East is one of the weaker division in the NFL by record. Some may say it is poor football, but from a film study perspective it still offers much to the astute pupil. The Levels Concept is one such example, a very good route combination to attack 2-high safety defenses used by many teams of all levels. At its core Levels is a combination of a Fin Route and a Dig Route. Peyton Manning ran this a lot with the Colts for many years out of 2×2 sets, but we will focus on the slightly more “West Coast” version run out 3×1 sets. The play’s name depends on the play book, (names range from Double China-7 to Steeler Concept). For simplicity in this piece it will be referred to as Levels and then whatever route WR3 is running (can be corner, seam, post, true option route, etc.). Please see below for a visual:
The above two outside routes have been basically merged to mirror each other in Levels, and they are paired with an inside Corner Route from the inside slot receiver. The goal is to stretch underneath defenders horizontally and then vertically with the corner route, and works best against 2-high zone structures like Cover 2. Offenses run many different variations of Levels and often pair it with a single-high safety beating play on the opposite half. Bobby Peters in his 3rd Down Manual logged the Philadelphia Eagles running this play on 3rd down alone 10 times in 2017 with as many as seven different variations.
The Eagles featured one of these variations this year in their Week 7 loss to the Carolina Panthers. This variation had the inside slot receiver running a seam or post route. Like so many routes in the NFL (especially with the Eagles) there are few true “run it” routes, most breaks and other elements are dependent on the defensive coverage. Let’s look at the first example:
The stem from Eagles TE Zach Ertz allows him to navigate without collision towards a void in the Cover 3 zone defense. QB Carson Wentz delivers the ball slightly late, but within enough time for his tight end to secure the catch. The modification of the route stem came from the single high look pre-snap from the safety. The route runner knows then its a very high probability of either Cover 3 or Cover 1 from the defense. Despite this play being a Cover 2 beater, the splits of the Eagles allowed the necessary spacing to hit a soft part of Cover 3. As we will see later, this spacing is very important.
The Eagles used the same play in the red zone shortly thereafter. Levels out of 3×1 sets is a favorite in the red zone against 2 high coverages as the rub routes can create small windows in the coverage and the seam/corner route can be difficult to defend. Please see the below two plays:
These plays were called sequentially, and both keyed off of Pro Bowler Luke Kuechly. On the first play, the zone coverage calls for him to pass off the vertical stem to the 3rd tier safety Mike Adams, who breaks up the pass nicely despite having outside leverage. The very next play was the same scheme and formation (except TE Zach Ertz moved into the slot from the X position), really a rarity in the NFL. Kuechly carries the vertical route this time, and Wentz reads it easily and they complete the pass to Ertz for the first down. This play has conflict elements that within certain structures (2-high safeties) can put defenders in difficult positions, even if they know the play is coming.
The Levels Concept has been one of the better parts of the New York Giants passing game this year. Back in Week 3 versus the Houston Texans, QB Eli Manning executed this play successfully on 2 key occasions. One was a game sealing touchdown to Sterling Shepard (that was actually documented in a previous piece on the Giants’ red zone woes. The video breakdown is below:
Manning reads the 2 deep safeties, and runs the correct half-field read. The version of Tampa 2 the Texans played gave Manning a small window as the sinking linebacker passed off the corner route and Shepard’s route broke. Timing is as crucial as placement on plays like this, as well as the angles of all defenders on that side of the field. Shepard is able to slip in behind the flat defender because he was retreating from a blitz look before the snap. The free safety is in a full cover down on Shepard with outside leverage, ensuring he has the space to operate inside.
Earlier in the game, Manning had completed the same concept versus what was effectively man coverage to that side of the field. As we have mentioned, WR3 (inside slot) and WR2’s (outside slot) breaks create a rub element that is difficult for man coverage.
On this play the defensive back covering the corner route widens to attempt collision and carry, opening up a clear space for WR Sterling Shepard to go to as Manning delivers the ball on schedule. Defender’s depth and leverage are key to understanding this concept.
Betting on man coverage when running Levels can be very dangerous, however, against a single high structure. Quarterbacks try to eliminate coverage possibilities by reading the secondary and their reaction pre-snap elements like motion. On a critical red zone play for the Giants this recent Sunday versus the rival Washington Redskins, they ran Levels with Corner against unconfirmed man coverage. Please see below:
Manning may or may not have picked up on the secondary alignment pointed out in the video. The bottom line is that if he wanted to throw the slot route, he would need to confirm man coverage after the snap. This is doable, but in the red zone with smaller windows there is added pressure for a QB to deliver on schedule. Play-callers like head coach Pat Shurmur use concepts like this so often because the read can be defined before the QB even touches the ball. This was quite simply the wrong read. See the below from the D.J. Swearinger, the interceptor of Manning’s pass:
Swearinger on his first pick off Eli Manning: "Every time they get into the red zone they like the Steeler concept and just showing like I was in man and then came off of him – a film-studying play and took advantage of it."
— Tom Rock (@TomRock_Newsday) October 28, 2018
Swearinger’s film study allowed him to jump the route, knowing what Manning was looking for and how to effectively fool him. But as the example with the Eagle’s Wentz showed, proper reading of even a defender like the Panther’s Kuechly can allow a QB to bypass these pitfalls. In some occasions, the coverage can be both properly masked as well as a perfect match for the play call.
Such was the case when the Panthers faced the Giants back in Week 5. Quarterback Cam Newton lined up in an empty set with trips to the field, and Giants defensive coordinator James Bettcher answered with a type of pattern match coverage.
The pattern match coverage employed made it easy for Giants safety Curtis Riley to break on the throw, knowing he had outside help from an apex defender getting depth. Newton and his receiver tight end Ian Thomas look confused at the safeties leverage, and Thomas effectively stopped breaking inward. Coverages like this make it more difficult and give quarterbacks pause as they interpret the field. But again, sticking to understanding the defender’s leverage, angles and the play structure are the best landmarks in navigating the difficult landscape of NFL defenses.