Anatomy Of A Steelers Play: “Mesh Concept”

The “Mesh” passing scheme is one of the most common and effective concepts in football. It allows receivers to quickly out leverage defenders in Man coverage, it creates open areas and soft spots in Zone defenses, and it gives the quarterback clear and simple reads that lead to easy completions. Given the frequency and success that the Pittsburgh Steelers run this concept, I wanted to give a more detailed explanation of how the play is intended to work.

Play Design

Traditionally, Mesh is a simple double-crosser scheme that requires the “top” crosser (the “H” in the diagram above) to rub the defender away from the underneath crossing pattern (here the “X”). In Zone defenses (where there is no pursing defender for the top crosser to screen) the underneath crosser simply looks for the vacated area on the opposite side of the field.

The Steelers add their personal touch to this play by having a tight end (the “Y”) run a Curl pattern on the side opposite the underneath crosser. Against Man coverage, the Y’s route is normally converted to a Dig. Additionally, the play-side outside receiver (here the “Z”) usually runs a deep clearing pattern, which can be converted to comeback or corner depending on the coverage. Lastly, the running back (here the “B”) usually helps in protection, with an option to release as a check down, if necessary.

The primary advantage of this scheme is that it is highly versatile: It is schematically sound against virtually every coverage, it works well with a variety of personnel groupings, and it does not require major post-snap route adjustments by the receivers.

Quarterback’s Read Progression

Pre-Snap:

As always, the Quarterback begins the play with a preliminary identification of the defense and a judgment as to whether his pre-snap alert route (the “Z”) is a viable option. In the Steelers’ version of Mesh, the alert route has typically been either a straight vertical or a comeback; however, against Jacksonville, Antonio Brown also once ran a Corner against a Cover 2-Man shell.

It’s difficult to determine the team’s exact rules for the alert route, but my sense is that there is either a pre-snap hand signal for Ben Roethlisberger to his receiver or there is a predetermined route adjustment based on the safety alignment. For example, against a single-high safety look, the alert route might run a Vertical/Comeback adjustment (Vertical if the WR can eat up the DB’s cushion; Comeback if he can’t). Against a two-high safety coverage, there is probably a Vertical/Corner adjustment (Vertical if the WR can close the DB’s cushion; Corner if he can’t).

Understanding Roethlisberger’s progression and pre-snap thought process is important because it helps explain why he sometimes misses seemingly wide open receivers. For example, below is a clip from the Steelers’ Week 2 matchup against the Vikings where he opts to throw an alert Corner route, even though he has JuJu Smith-Schuster wide-open on the underneath crosser. Although it’s easy to criticize Roethlisberger in hindsight for missing JuJu, I don’t think his decision to throw to Antonio Brown was necessarily that objectionable. Ben saw a two-high safety alignment and he had his best receiver going against Man-coverage on a field-side, out-breaking route. Those are all favorable conditions under both the pre- and post-snap defensive looks and normally leads to a positive outcome. While it’s never good for a QB to become completely robotic in his reads, it is also a recipe for disaster to skip on seemingly promising opportunities. Just to be clear, when analyzing Roethlisberger’s performance on a given play, it is important not to be results oriented.  Proper assessment requires looking at the play from his perspective, and I think that in this clip his decision making was completely reasonable:

Post-Snap:

If Roethlisberger doesn’t like the look of his pre-snap alert route, his next step in a Mesh play is to locate the Sam Linebacker. (In the diagram at the top of this section, the Sam Backer read-key is highlighted in the yellow triangle).  It’s important to note that the “Sam” might not actually be a linebacker for the purposes of his read progression. Instead, Roethlisberger must identify the defensive player who has the responsibilities of the Sam backer. This will make more sense in a minute.

Additionally, one important aspect of the play is the crossing receiver’s responsibility to also read the coverage during his route. Specifically, when the defense is in Zone coverage, the crossing receiver must keep his eyes on the cornerback located on the opposite side of the field. If the corner drops deep downfield, the receiver can continue his route normally. However, if the cornerback sits in the flats, the receiver needs to throttle down his route and find the soft spot in the zone. (This rule is represented by the gray, transparent triangle in the diagram above).

After identifying the proper player to read, the play is pretty straightforward for the quarterback: If the Sam drops in coverage and vacates the underneath zone, then Roethlisberger will throw to the underneath crosser. Conversely, if the Sam stays in place or moves towards the line of scrimmage to stop the crosser, then Roethlisberger will throw to the Y-Curl. Below are examples of completions to each route.

First against Chicago, Roethlisberger sees the Sam drop in coverage and correctly responds by hitting AB on the underneath crosser. Simple, easy read:

On this next play against the Vikings, the read is slightly more complicated because the Sam comes on a blitz. This is an example of Roethlisberger needing to identify not who the Sam is pre-snap, but instead the defensive player who has the Sam linebacker’s post-snap coverage responsibilities. After the blitz, Ben quickly locates his new post-snap read key and correctly targets Jesse James on the Y-Curl:

Wrinkles

Todd Haley has done a good job of being creative and adding wrinkles to his Mesh play designs. For example, on this next clip against Jacksonville, Le’Veon Bell runs what is essentially the underneath crossing route, even though he does so by coming out of the backfield. The read for Roethlisberger is exactly the same, but the play looks totally different to the defense:

Lastly, this final clip is the play that sparked Antonio Brown’s infamous Gatorade cooler sideline tantrum. It starts as a standard Mesh look, but AB does a fantastic job of using the top crossing route to screen his over-pursuing defender. It is really bizarre that this play failed, given that it was unquestionably designed to be thrown to AB. The only explanation that I can imagine is that this play was created as an in-game adjustment and Roethlisberger was simply not comfortable with its timing, spacing, and feel. This seems unlikely though, considering the reactions of both AB and Haley in the play’s aftermath:

About the Author

Sean McKaveney

Sean McKaveney is currently a student at the UCLA School of Law and was formerly the starting Quarterback and Team Captain for Claremont McKenna College, a Top 10 Liberal Arts school in Los Angeles. Although he grew up in Southern California, Sean was raised as a diehard Steelers fan by his father, a Pittsburgh native. The Steelers are undefeated in games that Sean has attended.

  • Rob

    MB and AB were open on that last play it seems. But the mesh is definitely something haley has emphasized more from the end of last season

  • falconsaftey43

    Awesome breakdown Sean. Question, on the first play, wouldn’t a better pre-snap read (knowing it’s 2-man) be JuJu on the crosser anyway? AB was in press coverage with safety over the top, that’s going to be a tight throw. JuJu is running a shallow cross vs a CB giving an 8 yard cushion in man coverage. That should be, and was wide open.

    Since you played QB, how well if at all can the QB see the crosser and the corner at the same time? Looks like crosser isn’t in his vision when he throws to AB, but hard to tell.

  • falconsaftey43

    yeah that was a rough one since per Sean seems Bryant and AB should have been the first two reads. Also, not really any pressure there.

  • falconsaftey43

    Haha, just saw how hard the CB covering JuJu got hit by his own guy on that first play. He got destroyed.

  • PaeperCup

    Thanks for all the explanation.

    One thing I notice is just because someone is “wide open” it doesn’t mean it’s the best option. Sean had alluded to that for play 1. Although we might think a pass to the crossing JuJu might get a ton of yardage due to how open he is, he is still not the first and best option.

    We look at the completion to Bell, he is “wide open”, but the defense does a great job coming in on the play and he only ends up with a yard.

  • PaeperCup

    haha, I had a double take on that, and thought it might have been PI, but no it was his own guy.

  • falconsaftey43

    Just FYI, the one to Bell was in a 2 minute drill. He was trying to get out of bounds to stop the clock, or else he’d have been able to pick up significantly more yards.

  • nutty32

    Haley explained that last play by saying Weddle did his thing by pretending like he was pretending to blitz and pretending he was dropping to his deep half off the pretend blitz, getting Ben to abort the AB read as 2 deep covered. The gif does seem to bear that out. Ben could have also bombed to #10 who also broke open, but again Ben read 2 deep and went to his other reads.
    Seems like the Ravens tried to ambush Ben into reading 2 deep then jumping the middle & underneath to punk him.
    Ben just not making plays, albeit “in this clip his decision making was completely reasonable” as you say about his other instances of not being able to produce as an elite QB should.
    Bottom line: Ben has to step it up come Dec/Jan.

  • nutty32

    Agree. It’s hard to see what down that was off the sideline marker but forcing that ball to AB instead of Ju Ju only makes sense if it was 3rd down to get past the sticks, as I sit in my armchair. AB seems clearly well covered at the time Ben’s back foot hits putting aside AB doing AB things.

  • Sean McKaveney

    Yes, I agree with your point about JuJu possibly being the better option, but I also think that AB’s corner route vs 2-Man was also a pretty good matchup, at least pre-snap. My main point on that first play was just that if Roethlisberger likes his pre-snap alert route, then he should take it. It’s the first option in the progression, so if it looks good, then throw it.

    It’s really hard in this case for Roethlisberger is see both the corner and the crosser at the same time. But he can probably see the Curl and Crosser simultaneously, even if he’s supposed to be reading the Sam Backer. In my experience, when you run these crosser plays a lot, eventually you start just “feeling” the movement of the defense and kind of know intuitively who is open. Rather than reading a player, you sort of can just feel the passing windows and react accordingly. I sort of suspect that’s what’s causing some of Ben’s issues right now and I think he needs to get back to the fundamentals of being disciplined with his reads.

    Hopefully that all makes sense.

  • falconsaftey43

    Thanks!

  • Ehrren Lee Phyzeque

    Lol, “reasonableness”…. Bottom line, Roethlisberger can’t read defenses fast enough. Never could & still struggles with that since his rookie year. I see minimal improvement on that fatal flaw of his, if any. Reasonableness is finding the open man. Period. Even & especially if, the open man (JuJu) get’s open sooner and would have gained the same amount of yardage as a covered AB got. Roethlisberger can’t see underneath routes & dumpoffs because he’s too fixated on AB primarily and or 1st option too often. Roethlisberger lacks anticipation & has lost what little deep ball accuracy he did have, apparently.

  • Ehrren Lee Phyzeque

    The problem with the Steeler offense will never improve until Roethlisberger improves. They have the same problems and issues they’ve had since Roethlisberger has been here, i.e. the same problems under Bruce Ariana. E.g. it’s the same old lack of red zone scoring problems. That’s primarily because the quarterback can’t read the coverage in the tight RZ windows fast enough, can’t get through red zone progressions fast enough nor anticipate recievers, nor time passes. QB is not throwing guys open because lacks anticipation & accuracy. Roethlisberger appears now to be risk-averse. Too worried about interceptions. No way he misses Bryant and especially Brown on that rub. MB was WIDE open. AB was wide the F*** open. That ball should have been flying down field in the direction of your two best beast wide receivers. And how he absolutely completely misses on a well-designed perfectly designed well-run route/ play designated SPECIFICALLY for Brown is inexcusable.

  • Petherson Silveira

    Very good Article!! Thank you!
    Our Mesh has some traces of “Shallow Cross” and “Drive” Concept.

  • Sean McKaveney

    100% agree. I almost wrote the article by breaking down “Cross” and “Drive” plays independently, but I couldn’t find a single play where the Steelers actually looked or threw the Drive read. Ben only targets the crosser coming from the side opposite the curl.

  • Lambert58

    Good work, Sean! Thanks for explaining this at a deeper level.

  • Petherson Silveira

    Yeah. I liked a lot this Mesh concept. It just miss the Triangle to the playside where we stress the defense vertical and horizontally (maybe if you count that curl route with the fade/Comeback/Corner and the playside Shallow we find that). The triangle in Mesh normally is formed by a corner, playside shallow and a swing/flat by RB.