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Summer School - When execution and scheme come together

When good play design meets good route running

NFL: New York Giants at Houston Texans Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Giants came in to their week three meeting with the Houston Texans in a must-win situation. After finishing with a 3-13 record the year before, the team was under pressure to get their season on track after starting the 2018 season 0-2. They were facing a talented Texans’ defense primed for a break-out game, as well as a quarterback who had played at a very high level as a rookie (before tearing his ACL) in DeShaun Watson.

The Giants responded with one of their best, and most efficient, offensive performances of the year. Part of the Giants’ success was good execution from the offense, but another part was good scheming and game planning by the Giants’ coaching staff.

Both aspects were on display on a seemingly routine third down conversion on the Giants’ first drive.

The play

The Giants are faced with a third-and-4 on the Texans’ 23-yard line with 4:47 to go in the first quarter. This is only the Giants’ first possession of the game, having executed a long drive after holding the Texans to a field goal to open the game.

Before we dive into the details of the play — and there is a lot to get into — we’ll just watch it at game speed.

The Giants come out in their standard 11-personnel shotgun set with Evan Engram detatched from the line as the lone tight end and Saquon Barkley beside Manning in the backfield. Meanwhile, Cody Latimer and Odell Beckham Jr. are lined up out wide and Sterling Shepard is in the slot.

The Texans come out in a nickel defense, playing a Cover 1 shell with zone coverage in the shallow middle.

After holding Houston to a field goal on their opening drive, the Giants would obviously prefer to end their own opening drive with a touchdown. So faced with a third and four they had to convert, the Giants chose to take to the air.

The play they chose is a flexible, balanced play able to beat man and zone coverages. It also has several wrinkles that we really should explore.

Without being in the Giants’ quarterback room and having this play taught to us — and pick the coaches’ brains — it is difficult to made definitive statements on this play’s provenance. However, it appears to be a (heavily) modified version of one of Chip Kelly’s takes on the “mesh concept.”

For now we’ll put a pin in the Giants’ play and go back to the beginning and look at the basic concept first, but I promise we’ll get back to the Giants’ play.

The mesh concept

The mesh concept is a popular play at both the college and NFL level and commonly found in Air Raid offenses. It’s probably most commonly seen at Washington State, where it is an absolute staple of Mike Leach’s offense. Some variation of the Mesh is called so often that while I was studying Luke Falk for the 2018 draft I briefly toyed with the idea of making a “mesh concept” drinking game. I (very) quickly realized that I would probably be black-out drunk by the fourth quarter of the first game. But there is a very good reason why Washington State runs SO many mesh concepts: They work.

This is the mesh as it appeared in Leach’s playbook at Oklahoma in 1999 under Bob Stoops:

The heart of the mesh concept is the two shallow crossing routes from either side of the offensive formation. While it looks simple on paper, this is a very difficult pattern for a defense to deal with as it has advantages against both man and zone coverage.

Against man coverage, the crossing pattern creates a natural “rub” which forces one of the defenders to run around the oncoming receiver. That rub (specifically NOT an illegal pick play) creates separation for the receiver, which the quarterback then reads. Hopefully he delivers the ball to the open receiver in-stride, creating the opportunity for a run after the catch.

Against zone coverage, the receivers are taught to find the soft spots in the zone coverage between the defenders and sit in them. If the defense is playing a disciplined zone then one of the receivers will be open as the defenders try to pass off the receiver into an occupied zone. Then the quarterback simply finds the open receiver and delivers him the ball.

From there the offense can add wrinkles to exploit specific defensive schemes and calls. For instance, the original play has the coaching point “If middle is open, give Z a post.” That is an instruction to the quarterback to audible for the Flanker to run a post route (as opposed to a corner route) to attack the seam between deep safeties in a Cover 2 or 4 (middle of field open) coverage shell.

Chip Kelly’s take

Kelly made two major alterations to a basic mesh concept. The first is to use a running back wheel route as an “alert” for opportunities to create mismatches and big plays.

The second change is the addition of the curl for the tight end. Washington State frequently ran the mesh without a tight end on the field, but the addition of a tight end does two things for an offense at the NFL level. First, having an in-line tight end on the field forces defenses to more seriously consider the idea of the running game — even if only to make play-action more convincing.

The exact route called also creates another opportunity for the offense.

Traditionally, we tend to think of stresses on defenses to be either horizontal or vertical. Offensive genius Bill Walsh realized that if you combined the horizontal stress with the vertical stress, it would create what he called a “Triangle Stretch.” It’s pretty well understood that there is no perfect defense, and if an offense can diagnose the defense before the play, a smart quarterback with enough freedom can put his offense in position to stress the defense in whatever way it is least able to cope.

But complicating that are coverage disguises, zone blitzes, and a whole host of tricks defensive coordinators use to hide their intentions — and therefore hide their weaknesses.

The triangle stretch was Walsh’s answer to create a simple read for his quarterback against a variety of defenses.

Looking at reads “2”, “3”, and “4,” it is easy to visualize the triangle created by the three receivers. And by adding a vertical component to the mesh concept, it adds a whole new dimension of stress to the defense. That pattern is already difficult for defenses to deal with, but by adding the vertical component the offense not only puts another receiver in the area to create a potential responsibility conflict, but also potentially puts more players in an area than the defense has defenders.

The Giants’ play

Okay, now back to the play run by the Giants against the Texans. See, I told you we’d get back to it.

Looking at the Giants’ play, we can see artifacts of what it was (apparently) built upon, not to mention what look to be a series of layered concepts.

Starting on the offensive left, we see the Cody Latimer provide the vertical element to the play, running a deep corner route. This has the potential to create a big play, but mostly serves to pull the cornerback deep and open up the shorter routes.

In the slot left is Sterling Shepard, who ultimately makes the play.

Saquon Barkley is in the back field, and he immediately sneaks out through the left “B” gap and releases into the flat. He and Shepard combine for what could be called a “scissors concept,” but here serves as the “mesh.”

(A scissors concept is a crossing pattern where the routes cross at an angle, as opposed to a true Mesh where they are parallel to the line of scrimmage)

If we assume that this play is a variation on the mesh concept, we don’t know exactly why the Giants made the change, but it does have the effect of speeding up the mesh concept. While it is a short play, the mesh can be slow to develop as receivers run across the formation. With this play, it quickly creates the rub and gets Barkley and Shepard into space.

On the right side of the formation, Evan Engram runs a corner route while Beckham runs a slant route. The two combine to create another scissors concept, which is effective against the man coverage called against them. As well, Beckham and Barkley’s routes resemble a tosser concept (two slant routes run one inside the other in the same direction). But more importantly, Beckham’s slant route serves to create a triangle stretch.

Beckham’s route pulls the middle linebacker back to help double-cover the star receiver. That creates a huge void in the middle of the Texans’ defense for Shepard to exploit.

In the above still, it looks as though Shepard is covered while Barkley is running free. However, taking a look at the WILL linebacker’s hips, Shepard is actually completely uncovered. The linebacker’s hips are turned toward the offensive left as he is moving to pick up Barkley in coverage, and is passing Shepard off to the MIKE linebacker — who isn’t there anymore.

Turning to the end zone view, we see two final aspects of the play we need to talk about: Eli Manning and Sterling Shepard.

First, we’ll watch Eli’s head. He begins the play looking to his right, where Beckham and Engram are. It’s a reasonable assumption by any defense that if the Giants are in the Red Zone or have a third down they need to convert, than Beckham will be a priority. Manning plays on that assumption and starts the play looking to that side to help move the middle linebacker out of the middle of the field. Once Shepard clears the WILL linebacker — and Manning slides to his left to buy time in a collapsing pocket — he brings his eyes back to the middle of the field and finds his receiver.

For his part, we see Shepard execute a coaching point from Leach’s mesh concept. He recognizes the zone coverage over the middle and settles down in the void created between the linebackers, making himself easy for manning to find. It should be noted that when Shepard settles in the soft spot in the Texans’ zone coverage, he does so beyond the first down marker.

From there, Shepard shows good quickness and play strength to slip the tackle from the middle linebacker before turning up field and pick up every yard he can.

Concepts in use

  • Mesh
  • Scissors
  • Man beater
  • Zone beater
  • Cover 1 defense
  • Quarterback eye discipline manipulating the defense
  • Triangle stretch

Why I like this play

There are a bunch of reasons why I like this play.

First and foremost, it is effective and should be effective against a variety of coverages. It is a well-designed play that forces the defense to defend the entire field, with route concepts that present options on the left, middle, and right areas of the field, as well as short, intermediate, and deep ranges.

It also has concepts that are counters to both man and zone coverages, and combine to present an easy read for the quarterback.

Furthermore, it appears as though the Giants recognized that they needed to speed up their process, not only to account for the Texans’ pass rush, but also for the fact that they were just outside the Red Zone and the game just gets faster there.

I like how Manning is able to use his eye discipline to manipulate the defense while also moving in the backfield to buy enough time for the play to be made without having to rush. And finally I have to like Shepard’s savvy route running. He finds the soft spot in the Texans’ defense, settling beyond the first down marker to ensure the drive continues, adjusting to a slightly off-target pass, and then forces the missed tackle to create as many yards after the catch as he can before the Texans rally to the ball.

All in all, this is an excellent play and I can only hope that it is still in the Giants’ playbook in 2019.