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The tactics defenses use to counter disguised mesh routes by wide receivers (Part II)

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The simplest method to stop a mesh play is to generate pressure using the extra leverage created by that man coverage. While that means leaving gaps in the middle of the field, it can also force bad throws and eliminate secondary reads deep.

It’s also a dangerous one; these routes take roughly a second to unfold, which leaves enough time to make a strike downfield even in the face of a potent blitz. Then, suddenly, there are fewer contingency plans for a stop after the catch — a chunk of your would-be tacklers are now behind the play in the backfield.

The more conservative method is to disguise coverage, leaving offenses to think they’re facing straight up man coverage while freeing a third defensive back or linebacker to identify the mesh point from the second level and jump onto that under route. With a solid four-man rush, you can do both.

Here’s how the Los Angeles Chargers did so against Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs in 2022. Pressure in the pocket and a solid read from linebacker Drue Tranquill blew up what looked like an easy first down at the line of scrimmage.

There’s danger inherent there as well. By locking onto these shallow routes, defenses leave room for single coverage on the vertical routes that develop behind them. For a safety like Hall of Famer Brian Dawkins, the primary assignment would always be taking care of the deep ball before jetting back toward the line of scrimmage to erase a shallow cross.

“We call it pick plays, they call it rub plays,” said Dawkins, who played for the Philadelphia Eagles and Denver Broncos in a legendary career. “It works against man to man.”

“[What you do] depends on the coverage I’m in. It depends on my responsibilities in those sections. You always take care of the vertical first. Then you come down late, because if I’m a thirds player, my responsibility is deep third, period. My secondary, then, is coming up to help make a tackle.

“If I read it correctly, I can be there to potentially make a pick. Once I take care of my deep responsibility, my understanding of the game and the concepts they run should put me in position to get closer to the action to go make a play.”

For someone closer to the line of scrimmage, there’s only one way to stop these mesh plays. According to former New England Patriot linebacker Tedy Bruschi, the key is keeping up in man coverage.

“Man to man coverage, “ he noted. “That’s the one defense against it. When you run those crossers, at the linebacker level especially, you’ve got some receivers that are capable enough mentally as they run those crossing routes. If you’re in a zone, they’ll hook up and stop, and that’s where relationships and quarterbacks like Patrick Mahomes and [tight end] Travis Kelce really come into play. He sees a zone defender to one side, and he knows exactly where to put it [where the defender can’t make a play], and Travis knows exactly where it’s gonna be.

“That makes it more complex on defenders. But when there’s more man-to-man, you’ve got guys running into each other motioning across. Then they put them in stacked concepts [where one wideout will line up behind another off the line of scrimmage pre-snap], and it’s just so hard to communicate on the run for a lot of defenses. There’s a lot going on when you’re talking about those concepts.”

When pressed on whether or not defenses can cheat and expect certain play calls in certain situations, Bruschi demurred.

“You never can guess what the route’s gonna be. These offenses are so good now, they can do anything out of their formations. Defenses counter that with rat concepts or lurk concepts — where you can give looks from two high [safeties] all the way down to one rat down the middle of the field, where there’s a linebacker, two linebackers, man-to-man on a back. And one guy takes the back based on where the back goes, and the other one rats the middle. That way, you can be there for those windows. That’s one way defenses counteract that.”

There’s also the art of selling. Crashing into a wideout downfield after you’re beat can draw laundry from a sympathetic back judge. Here’s how the Packers erased a big gain late against the Steelers in Week 10.

Could Green Bay cornerback Carrington Valentine have avoided Calvin Austin without fundamentally changing his path? It’s likely. But George Pickens had a step on him and, well, he saw an out and took advantage of it.

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