NFL mesh concepts: A timeless, unstoppable offensive strategy — if you do it right (Part I)

Covering an NFL wide receiver isn’t the most enviable job. Defensive backs are tasked with tracking some of America’s fastest athletes, and every head fake, every stutter step, every foot plant is designed to throw them off the receivers’ scents and create space for a big gain.

Now imagine doing all that with a 6-foot-3, 230-pound ball of muscle and anger running straight at you.

That’s exactly the challenge New England Patriots defensive back Jalen Mills faced in a Week 7 showdown with the Buffalo Bills. He was designated to trail tight end Dawson Knox, who split wide toward the sideline. Knox took three steps, shook his hips and turned inside with his eyes on the goal line. Mills moved up to challenge him, hoping to take away his inside leverage in a crucial red zone snap.

Then, just as he lurched forward to make his move: Bam!

Running back Latavius Murray, running his own corner route, sliced through Mills’ peripheral vision with a jarring hit. Knox ran free, catching an easy completion in the most compressed part of the field and gliding into the end zone for what would have been six points, if not for a reasonable offensive pass interference penalty flag — one that doesn’t always get called.

gotta make the rub route a little less obvious, but solid effort nonetheless

— Christian D’Andrea (@TrainIsland) October 22, 2023

That’s the beauty of the mesh concept; it’s timeless in offenses, ranging from the run-heavy early NFL to pass-heavy, air-it-out era in which we’re currently thriving. Simple in its execution and perpetually difficult to stop. It creates space for vital gains while breeding confusion near the line of scrimmage.

The forward pass became a staple of gridiron football in 1906. Mesh wasn’t far behind; the lure of mashing two defenders into each other proved too tempting for even the simplest coaches to pass up.

The mesh concept is easy enough to help inexperienced quarterbacks thrive playing freshman football. It’s difficult enough to stop that you’ll see All-Pros execute it in prime time until the death of the universe.

And while the mesh concept has been around almost as long as the game itself, it’s drawn extra scrutiny in recent years. A rising tide of analysis — ranging from reporters with greater access to game film to announcer booths stocked with former players eager to call it out — has helped make a mainstay route more visible than ever before.

But what is mesh? Why do teams continue to rely on a call basic enough to come from Baby’s First Playbook?

The concept is simple, really.

Mesh isn’t one defined thing. But at its core, it’s a point on the field where two targets cross, sewing chaos forcing the man in coverage to make a choice. The mesh point is created simply when two guys on offense run across the field, hoping to mash the respective defensive backs covering them into each other like some Keystone Kops cosplay. It’s a pick with a twist.

A mesh passing play begins with two receivers, often on either side of the formation but sometimes lined up near the same hashmark. When the ball is snapped, they run shallow crossing routes, usually one to five yards beyond the line, seemingly destined to converge at the midway point. There, they pass each other with only a sliver of daylight between them, one going over the top (taking the route further downfield) and the other going underneath (taking the route closer to the line of scrimmage).

In poorly drawn Microsoft Paint form:

Please excuse the wildly basic play call.

Two eligible receivers cross each other downfield. The purpose of that intersection — the mesh point — is to force defenders either into each other or a wide receiver. Any hesitation to avoid this contact can increase separation, leaving a quarterback with a quick read and short throw to pick up easy yardage. It’s designed to beat man-to-man coverage near the line of scrimmage, but it’s effective against zone coverage as well.

It also doesn’t have to happen in the middle of the field. Those two wideouts above lined up to the left of the formation can shake a defender or switch up sideline and slot corners with a well-timed cross on their side of the field. Same goes with the tight end and receiver to the right.

From the basic concept, offensive coordinators branch out. These mesh routes can be run by multiple players, stacking layers of picks and rubs to free targets and create simple but effective gains. Vertical routes generally are attached, as well, in case safety help trundles toward the line of scrimmage, leaving single coverage opportunities for larger strikes downfield.

The good news is you won’t have to search far to find mesh in the wild. We saw the Kansas City Chiefs botch it horribly on a key third down to open the 2023 season.

Pull up a recent game at random, and you probably won’t have to wait too long to see it come to life.

For example, here’s Washington Commanders wideout Curtis Samuel coming out of the backfield to run a perfect under route on third-and-six, picking up 12 yards in the first quarter of what would become a 2022 Week 1 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars:

And hey, if you really want to see it work at its finest, here’s a throwback to the 2020 NFL playoffs. Philip Rivers, having done this for nearly two decades, finds Zach Pascal for a completely untouched touchdown (in what would be a 27-24 loss).

Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

For Detroit Lions quarterback Jared Goff, hearing about mesh more often doesn’t mean he thinks it’s being called more often — just that it’s a little trendier in the broadcast booth.

“Nothing’s changed in the NFL game; you can call it what you want to call it,” Goff told For The Win last year. “They called it under routes, shallow routes, shallow cross, but it just depends on the verbiage. Mesh concepts, bunch formations, people meshing and picking — we did that. It’s not anything different. I think they’re just calling it mesh now.”

It’s worth noting that mesh doesn’t always have to be mesh to work. While these calls haven’t been a vital part of Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson’s playbook, he’s been able to use the threat of these crossing routes as a misdirect.

Here, the Bills’ safety comes up to fill the void in the middle of the field created by that vortex, only for Goff to fire off a pass early. This leaves the defender out of the play until after the ball is already caught and gives Amon-Ra St. Brown an extra blocker charging downfield (he whiffs on that block, but still).

Fourteen-year veteran quarterback Carson Palmer thinks there are more mesh calls now as a response to a growing trend on the defensive side of the ball.

“I don’t know if they’re calling it more in the booth, but there’s a reason you see it so often on the field,” the former Bengal, Raider and Cardinal said. “There is a ton of man coverage. As you see these corner and safety contracts continuously go up — they’re making $16, $17, $18 million per year — it’s a lot easier for a defensive coordinator to call man than zone [coverage].

“When somebody gets beat for a long touchdown, the defensive coordinator doesn’t have to go like this,” Palmer continued, pointing to himself. “He can go like that,” pointing accusingly at a theoretical lockdown corner.

That man coverage creates the ideal backdrop for a crossing route. With only one man to beat, an ounce of chaos in the middle of the field can grow to pounds of separation by the time a receiver hits the hashmarks. A short pass can lead to long gains after the catch and, crucially, a fresh set of downs.

That familiarity has bred success behind center. It’s nothing without the guys running those routes and threading the needle between a deft move and a losing bet — or, worse, offensive pass interference.

Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

A shallow pick play has to be executed with nuance. Crash into a defensive back, and you’ve created an easy pass interference penalty for the umpire to flag for a loss of 10 yards. Telegraph your intentions, and you risk losing any leverage on the route and giving your quarterback a pair of covered targets in a vital situation.

But while announcers may just be noticing mesh calls more often, some wideouts believe it’s being instituted roughly as often as before — just in new ways to keep up with an evolving NFL.

“I think that guys are finding new ways to run [mesh],” said Cooper Kupp, 2021’s offensive player of the year. “You’re really gonna get man-to-man [coverage] pretty consistently in this league on third down, especially in any of those third-and-shorts. Teams find new ways to add extra defenders in there; drop safeties down, keep linebackers in there, even drop D-linemen out. … You’re not just running underneath, but you’re running at intermediate depth as well and get guys running across the field.”

Or perhaps the pervasiveness of mesh being mentioned during the game is a product of the times and broadcasters having a stronger understanding of the game. Especially with former players in the booth.

“I feel like it’s more so announcers noticing [mesh plays] more because this isn’t 1988,” Stefon Diggs said. “Newer announcers are more up to date with calls.

“You see Tony Romo out there calling plays because he ran these plays. He played a lot of those teams; he might know a lot of [current] defensive coordinators, so he’s very smart. So I feel like more so it’s the football knowledge. Back in the day you kind of saw one thing, and it was more repetitive. But now, you actually know what was being called and know what they’re trying to do. Every team does a similar thing. It’s a copycat league.”

Elsa/Getty Images

The benefit of a play everyone calls is each piece of the offense knows how to operate within its confines. For the targets set to slice across the field, the first step at the line of scrimmage is a peek into the secondary. Alignments can reveal what comes next, tipping the defense’s hand as to whether it will be in zone or man coverage and if blitzers may be on the way.

“You look at the coverage,” Keyshawn Johnson said about lining up to execute a mesh route over the middle. “The coverage will dictate [whether or not you’ll have an easy catch]. Pre-snap read, I know what they’re going to do before they know what they’re going to do. So you know automatically: ‘He’s getting ready to take the cheese. It’s over.’”

For New York Giants tight end Darren Waller, it’s a speedrun through a checklist he’s spent more than a decade studying.

“Having a plan pre-snap, understanding your route, understanding all the adjustments you’ve gotta make on your route and knowing you’ve got to read the coverage as it unfolds,” Waller explained. “You’ve got to make those decisions quick; it’s all things that are developed through repetition. That’s why you have training camp in the offseason — so you can train those reactions.

“It’s a man [coverage] beat up. You get up there, and you see zone, it’s like, ‘Oh, I’ve got to play to beat zone. Oh, they’re in man? Well, check to [mesh].’ That’s when you have your best chance to succeed with it.”

Austin Ekeler — the Los Angeles Chargers running back who helped you win your fantasy football league thanks to 323 receptions during the last four seasons — sees it similarly when split into the slot on passing downs.

“It’s not necessarily who [is covering you], it’s how,” Ekeler said. “If you get a linebacker that comes and presses down on the line of scrimmage, it’s really hard to get going. If you get rerouted at the line of scrimmage, that’s not a lot of time to get moving. You need to be five steps, five yards, and I’m out. You can’t be jammed up.

“If [the linebacker or defensive back] plays off? You’re dead. You’re gonna get burned. But if you come down and press, yeah, you’ve got a chance.

“Don’t tell linebackers I said that.”

AP Photo/Matt Durisko

With the defense identified, the next step is disguising the route.

“I start off with alignment. Alignment and assignment … what I’ve got to do with the route,” Diggs said. “Then my biggest thing is consistently being inconsistent. And by that I mean, I’m not going to show you the same thing twice, and it won’t look the same twice. If I show you something else, I want to consistently show you something that makes you believe something enough. That’s my biggest thing.

“I know when I got you when you think you guessed right. When a corner is most confident is when they think they saw something already or they watch something on tape. I’m like a teacher, you know. You have had those trick questions in this ABCD, and a D is all of the all of the above. I’m showing you all of the above.”

For tight ends, shaking coverage gets a little trickier.

“It’s all about keeping a low pad level for a big guy like me,” the 6-foot-6 Waller revealed. “If my pads are high, they have a better chance of reading and breaking on my route. Guys in the slot are usually quick enough to stay with you, so at the top of your route if you get some head and shoulder [shakes and jukes] in there there’s a lot of guys that will panic, a little bit, at the top.”

But while mesh may be most effective against man-to-man coverage, it can create space against just about anything a defense throws at it.

“When you think of mesh concepts, you think of these direct crosser routes,” Ekeler said. “Trying to pick guys, trying to get defenders out of position. Now they have a trail, now they’re running into their own people. It’s effective versus man and zone [coverage].

“If it’s in man, you’re just trying to run away from [your defender] with a pick coming. If it’s in zone, you have the option to sit down in the zone, and you don’t have to keep running across and get your head taken off. It’s super effective against any type of defense. One of the safer calls you could go with.”

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