The shallow cross dig concept has been killing defenses ever since Bill Walsh picked up a piece of chalk. LEVELS is probably the most versatile play in the entire offense. I love it because the first two reads are short, easy throws and because it gives guys the chance to run after the catch. Let’s get into it!
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I usually start with the receivers but, for this route, I want to start with the QB progression. What I love about my version of the Air Raid is that the QB progression often stays the same no matter the formation, the tag, or the variation of the route. In this case, there are 4 variations of LEVELS that all have the same progression. So, we can call X LEVELS, H LEVELS, Y LEVELS, Or Z LEVELS and the progression remains Shallow, Dig, Post, Back. It doesn’t matter who is running the shallow cross or who is running the dig or who is running the post. The progression is the same. I love to mix it up and let all our guys run the shallow and get the ball in space. It’s fun to spread the ball around. Memorizing progressions teaches the QB to look at routes instead of people. That is the key to spreading the ball around and making sure that everyone gets touches. If the QB is always staring at Jimmy, then Jimmy will catch 75 balls and the next guy will catch 13. Not only is that bad for morale, but it makes you incredibly predictable. This entire offense is built on making the defense cover everyone on every play. Proper execution and variation of the LEVELS concept will help you spread the ball around.
(One note here before I begin. You may have looked at this route and said, “That’s SHALLOW, why is he changing the name? A couple answers to that point. First, the route is the same as SHALLOW in the traditional Air Raid, but our progression is different. The traditional system reads, shallow, dig, back. We put the post in the progression so the QB is reading all 3 levels…hence the name. Second, names are really irrelevant you could call this route MONSTER or HAWAII or LONDON. It doesn’t matter as long as your guys can remember it and execute it).
Here are some coaching points for your QB.
1) Start with your eyes on the flat defender opposite the shallow runner. So, we call ACE Y LEVELS, the QB’s eyes should start at the flat defender on the left. If we call ACE X LEVELS, his eyes should start on the flat defender on the right. Because the shallow cross is the first read most kids will follow him with their eyes all the way across the field. This takes too long and your QB will end up waiting for the shallow runner to clear and miss his second read. This is a 5 step drop and the QB’s eyes must go to the opposite flat WHILE HE IS IN HIS DROP. He cannot wait until he hits his fifth step to look at the opposite flat. When he hits his fifth step, the ball should be gone, or he should reset and go to his second read. So, as he is dropping, his eyes go to the flat. If the flat defender turns and vacates, the shallow cross will be open. I tell my QB’s, “If you see the defender’s back, throw the shallow. If you see his face, go to your second read.” It’s that simple. You have to trust that the shallow cross will beat man coverage and that inside backer will not adjust quickly enough to get out to the flat.
If we throw the shallow cross, it should be at 75% velocity on the upfield shoulder. It’s only a 7-10 yard throw so it requires some finesse. Here is a reminder for us coaches and a reminder to all the armchair coaches that sit up in the stands on Friday night. If you call this play on 3rd and 10 and your QB throws a 2 yard shallow cross because he went through his progression correctly, you cannot yell at him and tell him to throw it past the sticks. Your guy might get tackled after 8 yards and you might have to punt. But, you can’t change the order of the progression. If the shallow is open, it probably means the flat defender is running with the dig and the safety is staying deep for the post. You have to take what the defense gives you.
2) If the shallow cross is covered, the QB resets and looks at the dig route. There are two windows where the dig might be open. The first window is between the inside linebackers. The second window is after he clears the second inside linebacker. It really depends on the way the defense plays, but there aren’t many high school inside linebackers that can stay with your slot receivers for more than a second. The dig will break open unless a safety jumps the route.
3) That brings us to our third read. If a safety jumps the dig route, we go for the home-run and throw the post over the top. The coaching point here is to keep the post skinny because you don’t want to run into the backside safety.
4) If nothing is open, the back will be sitting in the flat. Some of our biggest plays ever on this route have been to the back in the flat. The CB runs with the Post and the Safety stays deep. The outside backer locks on the Dig and the back is sitting in the flat wide open. A coaching point for your back is, after checking his protection responsibility, to run 4 yards toward the numbers and then just sit down and wait. He is the outlet.
This route is run at 2 yards right along the heels of the defensive line. The H and Y should be able to run this from their normal alignment, but if you call X or Z LEVELS, they will have to cheat closer to the ball in their pre-snap alignment. Play around with this in practice. Each guy’s alignment will vary based on his speed. The measuring stick is that he has to be across the formation by the time the QB hits his 5th step. If the QB has to wait on him, that means he lined up too wide. Make sure your shallow runners have their head up and that they don’t look for the ball until they clear the opposite tackle. Looking early is a recipe for being blindsided by a linebacker or a dropping D End. Once he clears the tackle, he can start to subtly gain ground in the opposite flat.
Initial alignment should be at least 10 yards from the ball. This may require your Y and H to cheat out a little, especially if they are into the boundary. This route is pretty nuanced and takes a while to perfect. The first coaching point is that the dig runner must release outside any defender that is head up or inside shade. If he releases inside, he risks being re-routed and missing the first window where the QB can deliver the ball. He has to release outside. The one exception to that would be if he tries to go outside and the defender adjusts by buzzing outside of him. In that case it is OK to go underneath. But, he should err on the side of an outside release.
For this route, I like to teach a speed cut at 8 yards, rolling to 10. I find that most kids have a tough time making a square cut and a 10 yard route usually turns into a 13 yard route. So, I tell them to stick it at 8 and roll it to 10. But, once they get to 10 they have to stay flat. There is a tendency to gain ground, but this will give backers the chance to undercut the route. Stick it at 8, roll it to 10 and stay flat.
Finally, keep running. You can’t stop if you think you are open. Remember, the QB is looking at two windows. Keep running and let him find you. Plus, if you never get to the second window, the safety will not jump you and the post won’t be open. You have to keep running on the Dig.
I tell my guys to beat your man and keep it skinny. On a post route, I prefer an inside release, but an outside release can work as long as he gets over top and does not let the defender wall him off. The post runner should take his best release depending on defensive alignment. He is not going to get the ball unless the near safety jumps the dig route. Make sure that the backside safety can’t cover him. Keep it Skinny.
WHEN TO CALL LEVELS
I call this play against every coverage. Versus a man team, I will pick my fastest guy and let him run the shallow. There is no way a corner can cover my X on a shallow cross. Versus cover 2, we will wear out the playside safety as he has to choose between the post and the dig. Versus Cover 3 and cover 4, I love to tag this play with a zone fake. It hold the outside backer, opens up the shallow and also gives you the Dig windows. LEVELS really is the quintessential Air Raid Play. It stretches the defense vertically and horizontally, it allows you to spread the ball around, and it can be altered and varied depending on the defense and your match ups. Put it in! You will love it!
Thanks for reading this Coach! Please comment or ask any questions you might have. Keep Chucking it!