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.
"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.
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.
"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).
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:
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:
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.
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.
"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."
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.
"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.
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.
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.