One of the more common passing concepts that teams run at both the college and professional level is the curl/flat design. As the name indicates, it is a two-man route combination with a curl route paired with a route releasing to the flat. The reason for its popularity is somewhat simple: When run well, the curl route is very difficult to defend absent using a second, underneath defender to undercut the route. If the defense tries this, it usually opens up the route in the flat. This combination is used not only by West Coast teams but also teams that run spread or Air Raid offenses. One such design is the Hank Concept, broken down here by Inside the Pylon’s Ryan Dukarm. As you can see, that offensive structure incorporates a third route, a sit route from the tight end. Teams often use this as part of a mirrored passing structure, with a curl/flat combination to each side of the field. That gives the quarterback the ability to read the defense pre-snap, determine his best look, and throw accordingly.
The Northwestern University Wildcats are no different, as they incorporate this design into their offense. In the season ahead the Wildcats return a number of starters on the offensive side of the football, including quarterback Clayton Thorson, who had a great deal of success the past season running this concept. But because of its popularity, and how teams are starting to defend the curl/flat, Northwestern has some answers. Their variations, both on route design as well as what they sometimes do on the backside, are something to look for in the year to come.
Northwestern Hank Concept
This first play is a look at Northwestern running the basic Hank Concept. On this snap, the Wildcats line up using 11 personnel and Thorson (#18) in the shotgun. They use a tight formation, with a reduced slot formation to both sides of the field. The Iowa Hawkeyes have their base 4-3 defense in the game, and they show a Cover 2 look in the secondary before the play:
This play is a perfect example of how this route design can be effective. As you can see from the still at the time Thorson releases the pass to the curl route, the two flat routes work to widen the outside linebackers. The sit route from the tight end, coming from the right slot, occupies the middle linebacker. Against this coverage, the curl route is able to find space between the playside cornerback and safety, setting up a perfect triangle for the offense:
Textbook design and execution from the Wildcats’ offense.
Northwestern Hank with WR Go
Here is one variation from the basic curl/flat design that Northwestern implements in their offense. Again from their contest against Iowa, the Wildcats face a 2nd and 8 on their own 27-yard line. Thorson stands alone in the backfield as the offense empties the formation. Northwestern has a slot formation to the right, and a three-receiver bunch look to the left. Iowa, as they often do, keeps their base 4-3 defense in the game and shows a Cover 4 look in the secondary before the play:
From the bunch, we see the basic hank concept design, with the inside receiver running the sit route as we saw from the previous example. To the slot formation, however, we get a bit of a variation. The slot receiver runs the flat route as you would expect, but the outside receiver runs a go pattern:
This is a good design to try and catch the cornerback over the go route if he plays cute and overplays the flat route. Should the defense be in a 2 Trap situation, or if the CB just tries to read the play, he will break on the flat route. That will give the quarterback a chance to hit the vertical route down the field before the safety can rotate over.
On this play, however, the cornerback plays it well, dropping with the vertical route. Thorson looks there first, but seeing the coverage he is forced to come off that route and work back to the bunch side of the field, where he throws the curl route late, and it is broken up:
While Thorson doesn’t hit the vertical route on this example, he will likely have some chances to throw that pattern in the 2017 season, and if he takes those chances he’ll make some big plays for the Northwestern offense.
Curl/Flat with Backside Levels
Another variation the Wildcats employ with the curl/flat combination is by using a completely different passing concept on the backside of the play. Often, they use a Levels concept, a route structure that was used by teams from the Peyton Manning/Ted Marchibroda Indianapolis Colts to the Hawaii Rainbows under June Jones. In fact, during a 2006 coaching clinic presentation, Jones outlined how he incorporated elements from different coaching trees into his Hawaii offensive structure – including Marchibroda:
I tried to come up with a way to use Mouse [Davis] and Jerry [Glanville]’s plays and continue to stay with the same philosophy. Along with that, I intermingled some patterns I had stolen from Bill Walsh. The one I am going to show you I got from Ted Marchibroda. I watched it repeatedly when he was in Buffalo during the time they went to four Super Bowls. They called the route Levels. We kept the name as part of our package. (June Jones “Coaching the Passing Game By the Experts” Page 130)
Here’s the basic Levels passing concept as designed by Jones.
In the above design, to the single-receiver side of the formation you have a seam route from the running back and a quick out from the WR. As Jones put it, however, “[w]e do not look at the [running back] unless it is in the game plan off a certain look in the secondary. If I were teaching the quarterback today, that is not one of his options.”
On the backside is where the Levels design comes into play. Receivers do not settle in zones, but continue across the field. During the clinic, Jones waxed poetically about the design:
That is an average play with a read progression. The quarterback reads single receiver, inside slot, outside slot, and wide receiver. Last year, we threw this pass about 75 times. We completed it probably 80 percent of the time. After looking at the play with all the combinations off the three-receiver side, I do not know why we ran anything else…When you look at our cutups, the fourth option [the outside WR in cut] is open every time. This does not look hard to defend, but I watched Jim Kelly throw this for five years. He did not have the other variations we put in.
Here’s how the Wildcats incorporate Levels as a compliment to their curl/flat design. By using it the way they do, it is similar to what Jones diagrammed above, with a curl/flat taking the place of the out/seam and giving the quarterback a quick read to one side, with the Levels coming back to his field of view from the opposite side of the field. For this play, the Wildcats line up with Thorson in the shotgun using 11 personnel. They employ a pro alignment to the right with a slot formation to the left, and the running back is shaded to the right of the QB. The Fighting Illini defense show Cover 1 in the secondary:
To the right, we see a similar curl/flat variation as we did on the previous play, with the outside receiver running a go pattern, the running back running the flat, and the tight end coming over the middle on a sit route. To the backside, we see a two-man Levels look, with the slot receiver running a deep in cut, and the outside receiver running the more shallow in pattern:
As the QB hits the final step of his drop, we can see how the routes work in concert:
The go route is taken away by the cornerback, who plays it well, and defense is rotating to both the sit route and the flat pattern. But on the Levels side of the field, while the deeper route looks to be covered, that outside route is breaking open as the receiver has inside leverage. As Jones said, “the fourth option is open every time.” That’s what Thorson throws:
The receiver cannot hang on, but if he had, this play would have moved the chains.
Here’s another example of this concept, this time with a curl/flat combination from the two receiver side and Levels from the three-receiver side:
The curl route breaks open just as the QB hits his depth in the pocket, so Thorson throws that pattern. But as we can see at the moment the ball comes out, two of the three routes on the Levels side of the formation are open as well:
The Hank or curl/flat design remains a strong option for any offense, given how the curl route itself is difficult to defend as we have seen. But by incorporating Levels and other little wrinkles to this core concept, Northwestern gives their quarterback a number of options on both sides and at various depth down the field. This is a concept to watch as the season unfolds, especially, if as June Jones declares, that fourth option is “always open.”