All-22: Close-Up On Kelly’s Use Of the Mesh

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Chip Kelly went into his first year unsure of exactly how opposing defensive coordinators would match up with the Eagles.

What he found out fairly quickly was that the most common strategy was a ton of man coverage. Crowd the box against LeSean McCoy, play with one deep safety and force the Eagles’ passing attack to make plays over the top.




For the most part, Kelly had answers. The offense set franchise records for yards, points and touchdowns. The Eagles also led the league in pass plays of 20+ yards. And one of the most popular concepts the Eagles employed against man coverage was the mesh.

To break down the mesh concept, we called on Villanova wide receivers coach Brian Flinn. Flinn has studied Kelly's offensive concepts for years and was kind enough to go over the intricacies of this particular one with Birds 24/7.

Meanwhile, Kelly did a film series with PhiladelphiaEagles.com and talked about this play at various points throughout the season. His explanations are also mixed in.

***

When the Eagles found a play they liked last year, they went back to it over and over and over again. That's one of the reasons they were able to play fast: Employ the same concepts, but dress them up differently to keep the defense off-balance.

The first play we'll look at has the Eagles in 12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TE) with Brent Celek and Zach Ertz lined up next to each other. It's 1st-and-10 in the first quarter against the Redskins.

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"It’s what most people would consider a running play zone formation," Flinn explained. "You’ve got two tight ends, two receivers. ...We joke around that there are a couple formations that are like a mullet. It’s business on one side, party on another."

Anyone who watched the Eagles play last year knows they loved the wheel route. That's the first read on this play. The goal is to get the running back isolated on a linebacker. Kelly feels that's a matchup his player should win every time. In this particular instance, the Redskins have their inside linebacker blitzing. That means outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan trying to keep up with McCoy.

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Here, you can see that Nick Foles has five options. The "mesh" refers to the two players running shallow crossing routes (Nos. 2 and 3). If the wheel route's not open, Foles goes to the mesh. The red numbers above indicate his progressions. The No. 2 option here would have been DeSean Jackson, who is crossing to the same side of the field as the wheel route. If that's not there, Celek is crossing to the bottom of the screen. From there, it goes to Ertz who is curling up in the middle of the field. And the fifth option is Riley Cooper, who can either run a go-route or a dig, depending on the coverage.

But back to the first option, McCoy. Take a look at where he runs the wheel route.

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"We try to tell our back, his landmark is between the numbers and the sideline and to save the box," explained Kelly. "A lot of times they end up getting so wide that they end up pinning themselves in the sideline and it has to be a perfectly thrown ball to fit in there. ...[Here], Nick can be off a little bit, throw it away from where the defender is and then the running back can drift and go get the ball."

Every team in the league runs some version of the mesh concept. What makes the Eagles' version different than some of the others is the wheel route. If the RB stays in to block, the quarterback has to wait for the crossing routes to develop, Flinn explained. That can take time, and if the defense is able to generate pressure, it can mean bad news for the offense.

Other versions have the back running into the flat as a check-down. That's a high-percentage, safe option. But Kelly wants a shot play with his back, so he has him head downfield on the wheel route in hopes of a big play. McCoy had eight catches of 20+ yards in 2013 - second most among running backs, behind only Cincinnati's Giovani Bernard. And he averaged 10.4 yards per reception, shattering his previous career high of 7.7. Along with screens, the mesh was a major reason for those numbers.

Of course, not every team is going to use a linebacker on the running back. Some will put a safety on him. Here's another example of the same play against the Cowboys - this time out of 11 personnel (one RB, one TE).

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Here, the Eagles use orbit motion pre-snap, with Cooper running behind Foles who is in shotgun. Motion is a way for offenses to identify coverages. If a player runs with Cooper, it's likely man coverage. If no player runs with him, chances are it's zone.

Another look at Foles' options/progressions:

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This time, Chris Polk is running the wheel route at the top of the screen, but the Cowboys match up with him using a defensive back.

"If a safety runs with him [the RB], we’re off of this read, and really what ends up happening is DeSean ends up becoming our checkdown," said Kelly. "But because it’s man coverage, you’re getting a checkdown that’s on the run."

The timing and precision of the two players running the crossers are crucial. Flinn said there are different ways to teach this, but the way he's most familiar with uses a depth-setting receiver and a make-it-happen receiver.

The depth-setter knows exactly how far downfield (6 yards, 7 yards, etc.) he needs to cross. The make-it-happen receiver is responsible for making sure he rubs close enough to his teammate to make the pick effective. You might remember from the season that Eagles players frequently would low-five on this play.

"So there’s no defender that can come in between ‘em," explained Ertz.

Here's a look at the Cowboys' coverage:

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It's Cover-1 robber. That means man coverage. The yellow lines show how the Cowboys match up. But they have two help defenders. One is the single high safety or high-hole player. The other is the robber, or low-hole player. Foles has to account for him when deciding where to go with the football.

Foles takes a look at Polk, but sees he's got a defensive back on him. He moves on to his second read, which is Jackson.

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The robber goes with Celek, and Jackson leaves his man in the dust. Foles does an excellent job of avoiding pressure, buying time with his feet and finding his wide receiver.

As you can see, this is not a particularly difficult read. The three players in the middle of the field form a triangle. That's where Foles goes if the wheel's not open.

"We just tell Brent that he has the right of way in that he needs to get over to the other side... and now he forms the bottom part of the triangle," explained Kelly. "DeSean comes to this side. He forms the other side of the triangle. And then [Jason Avant] will hook up right in the middle so at the end of the play, the quarterback is really just truly going one, two, three."

To account for defenses cheating on this play, the Eagles added a wrinkle late in the season. Here's an example against the Bears. The Eagles are in 12 personnel, and three of the routes are exactly the same as the plays shown above. But the two receivers who generally run crossers (Celek and Jackson here) instead run pivot routes.

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"You just self-scout yourself, and we’ve run a ton of shallow crossers, double shallow crossers where guys are running and crossing, and defenders understand that," Kelly said.

Added Flinn: "What’s neat is you’re meshing, but you’re meshing with two guys from the same side. So the pivot route comes... when he puts his foot in the ground, then he starts working back. And then the crossing route trailing behind him turns into a mesh right there.

"For the quarterback it’s the same exact read. The back runs the wheel, No. 1. Then you’re reading the pivot guy coming out. But really you’re reading the mesh - the pivot and the crosser both on the same side. You get an unbelievable pick right there from the outside… really well-designed."

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The linebacker does a good job on Polk, so Foles moves to Celek, who is wide open. You can see there are three defenders around Ertz. One is the guy assigned to cover him; a second is the robber; and the third is the guy he picked who's trying to get back to Celek.

"When you watch when Brent starts to get moving, the defender that’s covering him man to man thinks that he’s running a shallow [crosser] and actually tries to get out in front of him and cut the route off," said Kelly. "So when he puts his foot in the ground and returns back out, he leaves the defender back inside of him. So self-scout and understanding what we do. We’ve got a package that takes advantage of a lot of different things. If we’re continuing to run this and the defender’s always behind, then we’ll continue to run this. If the defenders start to get on top of us, then we have our ability to put our foot in the ground and come back out."

On this play, Ertz was pretty blatant with his pick, but there was no flag.

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"What he does an excellent job of... is he gets his body turned back towards the formation," said Flinn. "He had turned and stopped and was looking at the quarterback when the guy runs into him.

"If he would be facing the defender and just running smack into him, that probably would have got called. But [because] he stopped and squared up and the guy ran into him, it’s really hard to call offensive pass interference there."

***

There's no such thing as a perfect play. And the Eagles ran the mesh on several occasions without success. From what I saw, the issues were two-fold:

1. The defense pressured Foles.
2. The defense did a good job of disguising coverage.

The first point doesn't need a lot of explaining. The Eagles only have a five-man protection on this play. If one guy gets beaten, or if the defense goes with a six-man pressure, Foles can get into trouble.

The second point is key: When the Eagles think they're facing man coverage, but the defense is actually in zone, bad things can happen.

Let's look at one final example - this one also from the Bears game. The Eagles are looking for man coverage, but instead Chicago is in Cover-3, a three-deep zone with four underneath defenders.

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As you can see, Foles' first three options (the wheel and the two crossers) are covered. Against zone coverages, his best option might often be the fourth progression - the receiver who curls up in the middle of the field. But here, that's not open either.

Cooper, the fifth option on this play, looks like he's got some space, but by that time Foles has faced some pressure, and he ends up taking a sack.

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***

Overall, this was a go-to play for the Eagles in 2013. Next season, teams will likely continue to play a lot of man coverage against them, especially now that Jackson is gone.

Kelly has hand-picked his new personnel, re-signing Jeremy Maclin and Cooper, trading for Darren Sproles and dumping Jackson. The guess here is Sproles, specifically, will be used a ton on the wheel routes.

Kelly, meanwhile, will go back to the drawing board to see what he can do from a scheme standpoint to help his players against man coverage. There will be new wrinkles along the way, but the mesh concept is here to stay and will likely get dialed up often once again in 2014.

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  • Glenn

    Awesome stuff! Makes us all see why Kelly is a master play designer. That is why this site is the best!

  • Engwrite

    Great stuff

  • borntosuffer

    “The guess here is Sproles, specifically, will be used a ton on the wheel routes.” I just keep imagining Jerry Jones saying after the first half of the Eagles, Cowboys game, “Where does he get all those wonderful toys?”

    • Corey Dawson

      I want to see 2 back sets with McCoy and Sproles running wheels to either side. Run the mesh with two guys in the middle. The 5th route could maybe be a seam route/deep in option to keep the deep middle safety from assisting on the two backs and/or keep the possible low hole guy from jumping the mesh routes.

  • Alastair Lucas

    Awesome write up Sheil. I appreciate having these plays broken down like this so I can look for them in live games. Please keep up the good work.

  • Dominik

    “Meanwhile, Kelly did a film series with PhiladelphiaEagles.com and talked about this play at various points throughout the season. His explanations are also mixed in.”

    Where can I find that? Looked under “videos” and didn’t find anything.

    I love articles like this one and hearing Chip talking about X and O’s should be fun.

    • IG:blkboyflyy

      Under videos look around for webcast that’s how I normally find Chips breakdowns. EaglesTV/Nightly

  • Philly0312

    Outstanding. Love the break downs.

  • southy

    Loved this. One of the best All-22s you’ve done. This is the kind of stuff that really separates you guys from the rest.

    Xs and Os, done in a way that’s easy to understand. I really don’t get why someone like an NFL network never does this, instead just doing Top 100 reactions to the reactions shows and reruns of guys talking about the Ice Bowl.

    • PhillySean

      Broadest possible audience=TMZesque coverage. That’s a shame, but that’s the way it is. I’m just glad that Sheil, Tim & company are consistently providing the sort of content that we find here.

      • Always Hopeful

        This.

  • PhillyTeams

    This is very cooool – – out of a 12-Personnel formation, running the Mesh with a Wheel Route using Sproles. With a legal disguised pick.

    When does the season start?
    .

    • cliff henny

      not soon enough

    • Maggie

      Unfortunately the season starts when summer is over! Waaah!

  • IG:blkboyflyy

    So many looks from one set only leaves open exploration of others as you implement your system even farther and continue to gather your players. The wrinkles created are endless as a wave pool.

  • Andy

    This post reminds me how much I miss the All-22 breakdowns during the season.
    Opposing defenses have to contend with all this going on while they are totally gassed from the pace, so they don’t necessarily have clear heads. I can see how some of them didn’t know what hit them.
    Imagine the possibilities for this packaged play with McCoy and Sproles lined up either on one or both sides!

  • lhill

    This is an air raid staple play, called 92 mesh. Popularized by Hal Mumme and Tim Couch in Kentucky. Kelly didn’t design it. Like everyone else he borrowed it. Kelly’s real genius is in his use of personnel and play calling. Knowing how to employ personnel, to get your x-player on their slow-footed backer is a real skill. It sets the best play callers apart from everyone else. That’s his real genius. A master craftsman will use a simple toolset far more skillfully than an average handy man and the work that he creates with it will exhibit the skill he as acquired over the years.

    • sdk152

      Good stuff. I didn’t mean to imply that Kelly made this play up. He’s the first to say he steals from everyone else. I was just trying to show how the Eagles use the concept. -SK

    • Kaedwon

      The good ones “borrow.” The great ones steal.

  • cliff henny

    Thanks Sheil! An All-22 on a Monday morning feels about as good as that first sip of beer on a hot Saturday afternoon after a couple hours of yardwork.

  • Formidable

    Seems to me that Riley Cooper was the optimal choice on the Robber play. He has half the field to himself after losing the DB and the safety is occupied with the left side. Will not complain too loudly about outcome here, just realizing the homerun was there and we opted for the single.

    • Corey Dawson

      He’s the 5th read, it’s awhile before Foles even looks at him.

    • macadood

      yea but the progression is there for a reason. Don’t think he’ll take that read too often and likely by the time he gets there he’ll be sacked like in that last chicago game example. Though would be splendid if his qb vision became Peyton-esque from madden 06

      • southy

        If you’re REALLY good, just after the snap you recognize the D is playing zone and know that your best bet becomes what used to be your 5th read and you look immediately for that route. It helps if you have a receiver that can do the same and settles in the hole rather than overrunning it.

        • cliff henny

          they’ll get there. also, tough to blame Foles for hanging in on a play that was gashing everyone for what seemed 20-30yds a pop.

          • southy

            I don’t know if they’ll get there. The people that can do that kind of stuff reliably week to week in this league you can count on 1 hand, maybe a couple of fingers. It would be fantastic if Folesy has that kind of upside.

  • Joe from Easton

    I love that by the last screen shot Sheil dumped the numbers and arrows. Our own little version of Chip’s fast paced teaching methods. Shows us twice and after that we just see the pattern.

  • macadood

    Great read, same as everyone else just wanted to thank you for this monday morning piece. And this Brian Flinn guy – I like him! Hah the mullet

  • Kleptolia

    Great job on the breakdown! During slow periods, play breakdowns are the best. It’s the media’s “teaching period.”

  • Addicted2MAmula

    I just got finish watching Eagles vs Skins (last game in 2012) and Maclin was the target a lot so i’m betting he will be his go to guy this year.

  • Tom Kazansky

    Outstanding article. You’ve obviously put in lots of work and haven’t been afraid to reach out to others for additional perspective and analysis. Your content is helping create a legion of really informed fans. Thank you.

  • FluxCapacitor

    Sheil….not sure if I should thank you for such a great article, or cuss you for making me even MORE aware of how long I need to wait for the regular season.

    Seriously though, awesome stuff!

  • cliff henny

    OTA open to reporters, Foles picked off twice today…REGRESSION! reporters mostly joking about it, saying Foles has been tearing it up up otherwise. first i’ve heard anything about NF.

    • PhillySean

      Jeez, wait till the yahoos on blogging the ‘boys get ahold of that tidbit.

      • cliff henny

        hey, someone’s catching them. maybe case of defense stepping up too.

        • PhillySean

          Not worried. Just thinking that some Dallas fans are so sure that NF is a flash in the pan, that a tidbit like this would make their week. Based on my statistically insignificant 5 minutes on Blogging the ‘Boys anyway.

          • cliff henny

            no need to worry. about 8 different reporters tweeted about ints, and all said it was anomoly, FOles has been tearing it up. really first thing i’ve read about Nickie dynamite this off season, good or bad, and it ended up being both combined. reporters tweeted more about stupid sanchez than Foles. if i was there, be about 1 guy, FOles, rest of this, think Kelly’s got covered.
            .
            plus ‘Allas shouldnt be worrying about Eags qb, 1st stringer has broken back, 2nd cant even get into camp and 3rd sucks more than Snatchez

          • NickS1

            Love the “‘Allas”

          • cliff henny

            wanna laugh, check out their ‘efense ‘epthchart. either crappy journeymen, rookies or young vets that really havent shown much. it’s going to be a rough one
            .
            http://www.bloggingtheboys.com/2014/6/9/5792842/dallas-cowboys-defensive-depth-chart-after-two-otas

  • Mr. Wu

    Sheil….you rock man!!

  • NickS1

    Love this.

  • Mr.Budz

    Am interested to see if Kelly uses this package with McCoy and Sproles on the field at the same time.

  • reb

    I have just got to say, I sort of don’t even care what the article says (haven’t even read it yet) because I am so stoked that All-22 is back! Yeah!!

  • WEUer

    “Next season, teams will likely continue to play a lot of man coverage against them, especially now that Jackson is gone.”

    I guess that’s one of the football reasons we’ve been looking for.

  • kpm

    Remember when all the national NFL pundits described Chip as a Failure..Starting with Peter King who was lead acolyte for Andy Reid …CK keeps on truckin’

    While MeSean complains about takin’ a BRIBE!

    Life is GOOD!

  • paul from nc

    Sheil, great as usual.
    Is Kelly the only one that designs these adaptations to basic routes, or is he just ahead of the curve? It seems he can counter what the defense does to adapt and it seems so simple when you show it this way.