NFL Film Breakdown: Matt LaFleur is Scheming Things Up for the Packers Offense with the Mesh Concept

The Green Bay Packers are 2-0, have over 1,000 yards of offense, and have scored the most points in the NFL through two weeks. Matt LaFleur has integrated more schemed looks and plays to keep Rodgers on rhythm and he’s looking every part of an MVP candidate. They’ve run 74 pass plays, and 13.5% of them have been the Mesh concept or a move off of the Mesh concept. On these plays the Packers and Aaron Rodgers are 9/10 for 105 yards and two touchdowns.

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At its core, the Mesh concept is a man beater, with two shallow crossers that are rubbing defenders and forcing them to navigate through traffic. It stresses the defense horizontally and provides an easy completion with room to run after the catch. It’s a simple play, but how the Packers get there can differ from snap to snap. It can be used to get a running back into the flats, exploit match-ups on linebackers, and force the defense to communicate on switch calls. Matt LaFleur has done a great job of setting it up and creating formations that prevent it from being predictable and that have attacked defenders in space while getting the ball to his most dangerous players.

So far, the Packers have almost exclusively run Mesh against man defense and called the concept on shorter down and distance with the greatest yardage to go being a 3rd and 6 against the Lions. To make the concept work you have to be able to get your two shallow crossers to intersect and pop out of the other side of the formation in a reasonable time. As a result, you see a lot condensed formations or tight splits from the receivers when you’re running Mesh. Here the Packers are running Mesh for Davante Adams. In every call, there’s a player that is designated to go under and one that goes over. These crossers are what make the Mesh concept. The rest of the routes are add-ons or variations that teams can use to exploit different things in the coverage. So here, you have Davante Adams going under Allen Lazard. Lazard is going over and will be working to rub the defender trailing Davante. Lazard wants to force that defender to go over him and navigate traffic which creates natural separation for Adams underneath.

Layered behind that deeper rub, the Packers will often run a cross sit or spot route that acts as a secondary rub route and that can exploit zone coverage. It’s not a viable route to throw in man, but it creates another hurdle for defenders to navigate over to get to the shallow drag on the other side of the field. You can see all the traffic that the defender has to get through to be able to track that shallow drag down. Without a jump call from the safety or a linebacker to help pick it up, it’s almost impossible. Usually, as far as the reads go, the quarterback should be looking at the initial leverage of the defenders. If a defender has outside leverage, meaning they’re lined up outside of that receiver, that’s usually the guy you want to get the ball to in the Mesh concept. It’s just more distance for that defender to close on and catch up.

While Davante is clearly wide open on this play, since you often call Mesh versus man, you are also guaranteed some one-on-one matchups outside with your Mesh add-ons. Here, Rodgers likes the matchup outside to their tight end Jace Sternberger and chooses to take the shot on the fade with one-on-one coverage. For me, it’s bad read with a larger safety on your tight end and what ends up being a double A gap blitz from the Vikings. With no linebackers in the middle of the field to jam up the drag, it’s even more open than normal. Rodgers needs to recognize this and get off that read and get to the designed concept when Jace doesn’t win off the line.

The Packers obviously saw how open Davante was because a series later, they call the same Mesh concept out of the same formation and get a nice gain out of it. It’s the exact same down and distance – 2nd and 5 and the Vikings give the exact same double A blitz. The rubs on the defense aren’t as clean, but it’s still an explosive play as defenders have to navigate traffic and make a tackle in the open field.

Now in a short yardage situation on the five yard line where the Packers are again seeing man, the Packers run Mesh out of 12 personnel with two tight ends. This time though, Vikings safety Harrison Smith recognizes the Mesh and comes down to pick up Davante Adams. However, the Packers want to work the rub to the running back at the bottom of the screen with an automatic release which they hadn’t done in the previous two plays. The base routes are the same here but Robert Tonyan has to understand the concept and what he needs to accomplish to make it work because he messes this play up. Normally, he’s running that cross sit to impede the flowing defender over Davante Adams but when a running back is releasing to your side, you have now have to rub the defender responsible for the running back because that’s the guy you want to attack here. He needs to get in front of Eric Kendricks and wall him off with his cross sit so that Jones has room to operate in the flats. Instead, he takes the easy inside release and rubs neither Kendricks nor the Safety that is robbing the drag on Davante Adams.

While the film starts in the middle a little late here, you can see how Tyler Ervin does a better job of rubbing the defender responsible for the running back here with his cross sit. He works directly up to the linebacker who is trying to flow and gives Aaron Jones space to work with once he’s caught the ball.

The Packers will also run Mesh out of an Empty formation with the goal to get the ball to Aaron Jones who is matched up with a linebacker. That’s a matchup you like if the Packers even if you don’t have a Mesh or man-beating concept called up. Just like we saw with the Vikings, the linebacker has to flow over the top of one defender and then navigate a second rub from MVS and the result is Aaron Jones all alone in the flats.

The Packers have loved Mesh to the RB in goal-to-go situations these first two weeks. We have that same goal line concept we saw earlier with the Vikings where Tonyan didn’t rub the linebacker. Usually when teams see these tight split bunch formations with the RB on the same side, they’ll box it out. What that means is that the defender lined up close to the line of scrimmage here would take the first player to go out, the corner would take the second player to go out, and then the two inside defenders would progressively take the first in-breaking route and the second in-breaking route. That way you don’t have to work around these rub concepts when you’re in man. But, the Lions chose to stay with their straight man coverage and not switch assignments. The two inside defenders run into each other, Lazard does a good job selling a quick screen that forces linebackers to flow over, and Davante Adams runs a corner route which forces the defender to turn his back to the play. Aaron Jones is alone in the flats and walks into the endzone.

The only time the Packers ran Mesh against zone coverage was here. The Lions do exchange routes to the top of the screen. The corner has deep third and will take any deep routes, the defender in press is responsible for the first route to the outside, and the inside defender will carry the first inbreaking route. On the backside of the play the Lions have a lock call which means they’re in man coverage with the linebacker on Jones and their rookie Jeff Okudah on Marquez Valdes-Scantling. You can watch to the top of the screen as all the defenders transfer zones and how that now allows the cross sit to open up behind it. With defenders picking up the shallow drags, that leaves space in the middle of the field for Robert Tonyan. The linebacker to the bottom of the screen is late to pick up Lazard on the drag and Rodgers hits him for a good run after the catch opportunity.

To finish things off we’ll look quickly at two of the counters the Packers have thrown out there off of their Mesh concept. Both are pretty simple and really the goal is to make things look like Mesh, and then attack the space that that leaves after the defense reacts. Here the Packers are in empty with some more tight splits – an indicator that they might be running Mesh. They run the shallow drags with Jamaal Williams and Tyler Ervin except they convert what would be the drags and the mesh concept into two Whip routes where they push in like they’re running those drags and then bounce out. The hope is to get the defender chasing in man to over pursue to the drag and then get lost when they bounce back outside. It doesn’t work perfectly because the corner is playing off on Ervin and therefore has time to recover to the whip but the concept is there.

Lastly, while the full Mesh concept isn’t there to the bottom of the screen, to the top of the screen you have what looks like what the Packers beat them with for a touchdown earlier in the game. A corner from the receiver on the ball, a shallow drag by MVS coming in quick motion, and the running back flaring to the flats. The Packers are hoping all the defenders fly to those routes that they saw earlier in the game. MVS converts his drag into a drag seam which is trying to catch the corner coming down to chase the shallow drag and now turn up-field on him, the flat route by the running back pulls the linebacker out of position, and then Tonyan runs that corner route that Davante did earlier except he snaps it off for a corner stop once the DB is chasing him and he ends up wide open for a touchdown.

Mesh is a simple concept and the Packers are running simple variations of it but it’s incredibly tough to defend. By mixing up who is running what route, out of what formation, and what defender to target, the Packers are forcing defenses to adjust and react. Whether it’s the DB chasing across the field, a linebacker trying to transfer zones and pick up a receiver running full speed, or tracking a running back into the flats over traffic, the Packers are running Mesh and they’re running it with deadly efficiency. It’s only a small piece of the puzzle to what the Packers are doing but rest assured, if you see man coverage and a tight split from the Packers, your eyes better dial in and be ready because the Mesh will come at some point and good luck trying to stop it.

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NFL Film Breakdown: What’s Going On with Aaron Rodgers?

Despite an NFC Championship appearance and a 13-3 regular season record, the 2019 Packers were largely dismissed. The feeling was that Aaron Rodgers wasn’t his old self and as a result, the offense was struggling despite having perhaps the best run game in the Aaron Rodgers era. Was it his unfamiliarity with LaFleur’s new system? Was he aging? Was there a lack of receiving options? Let’s take a look and see if Aaron Rodgers’ demise is for real or if the offense and Rodgers will improve in year two of the Matt LaFleur regime.

            Rodgers had 4,002 passing yards, 26 touchdowns, and just 4 interceptions on the year. When combing through his stats, perhaps the numbers most indicative of Rodgers facing all the issues listed above is the amount of plays in which he held the ball for 2.5 seconds or longer. A constant issue for Rodgers during his career is taking unnecessary sacks and holding the ball too long. When it develops into a scramble drill for a play, it’s great, but when it doesn’t, it puts the offense in a big hole and way behind the chains. On 51% of his passing attempts, Aaron Rodgers held the ball for more than 2.5 seconds. On these plays his passing completion dropped from 71.79% to just 52.60%. He also, as one may predict, sustained the bulk of his sacks when he held the ball longer than 2.5 seconds. Clearly, when Rodgers throws in rhythm, he can be incredibly effective.

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            However, even on designed quick passes, Rodgers had a particularly difficult time throwing to boundary when going to his left and would routinely throw to the back hip or behind the receiver, limiting their ability to gain yards after the catch. He was also hesitant on some pretty simple flat defender reads, especially on double slant concepts. While Rodgers has made a career of throwing off platform and has gotten away with it because of his unreal arm talent, it has started to make him a little less consistent especially on deep balls. All that being said, he can absolutely make all the throws still. Arm strength and accuracy are still there and he is incredibly good at moving defenses with his eyes and manipulating defenders to open up windows. When he can set his feet, his deep ball is one of the best in the league and as he becomes more accustomed to the reads, timing, and rhythm throws of the new offense, I’d expect to see the ball get out of his hands faster. The time where he can throw off platform consistently and effectively may be coming to an end but there’s no denying he still has all of the tools necessary to play at and MVP level.

            Let’s start with putting one thing to bed. Aaron Rodgers still has it. As mentioned before, Aaron Rodgers’ ability to move defenses with his eyes and create space for his receivers is next level. Here he looks off the safety #29 in the middle of the field on a 2 high safety robber look from the 49ers. #20 robs the middle of the field and doesn’t actually have responsibility for a deep zone here. #29 Jaquiski Tartt rotates back to the middle of the field but is held with Rodgers’ eyes while he looks to the left. You can see below how Aaron peeks to the left to see what #20 Jimmy Ward is doing. If the 49ers were actually in cover 2 here like they’re showing, the ball needs to come out relatively quickly to the dig route across the middle before he enters into the flat defenders zone. As soon as he sees Ward flat footed and sitting on the middle field route, he quickly moves his eyes to the backside to influence the safety, before launching the ball 50 yards in the air to Davante Adams. You may also notice the difficulty of the other receivers, Geronimo Allison and Allen Lazard, to get any separation or create space for themselves.

            Again here you can see Rodgers’ look off to the top of the field, moving the safety just a few yards and opening up space to put a little more air on the ball to Davante Adams down the sideline.

            Rodgers is also unreal when running to his left. He is able to create an incredible amount of torque with his hips and because of his penchant for throwing off platform, he’s able to generate power without getting his feet totally set.

            You can see that the arm talent is clearly still there. We’ll go into the inconsistencies of his mechanics in a moment, but when Rodger is on, he can make absolutely any throw.

            Part of getting Rodgers in a groove and at his best is finding ways to get him in rhythm and throwing on time. His ball placement when he has all of his cleats in the ground, can get his feet set, and can step into throws can be absolutely lethal. When he can take his first read or hitch and find his second, he’s incredibly more accurate and efficient with his throwing motion. Part of this is having good play design early and part of it is Rodgers understanding the timing, trusting his receivers to be where they need to be. As a result, a lot of the throws Rodgers makes on rhythm tend to be to receivers he trusts – mainly Davante Adams with a little bit of Geronimo Allison and Allen Lazard mixed in. You can see particularly in the last gif how almost every receiver, including Davante, isn’t get a whole lot of separation with the Lions running man coverage – this is a common theme when the Packers encountered man defense.

            Even if they’re schemed up or he’s given simple reads though, he can tend to hold onto the ball. He’s especially had trouble the last few games of the year with double slant concepts against two high safeties. When given a two high look, the read is to check the playside linebacker or slot defender. If he drops under the first slant from the #2 slot receiver, the window is open on the second slant. If the linebacker gets more depth and out to the outside slant, you throw the inside slant. Here you can see the linebacker, while showing blitz, drops under the first slant from the slot receiver #81. As a result, this leaves Davante Adams outside wide open – especially with a corner who is bailing at the snap. Aaron is looking right at it and decides not to throw it, eventually scrambling and throwing the ball away.

            Here again is this same concept with double slants at the top of the screen. The slot defender stays with the inside slant, and the #1 receiver is open on rhythm. Aaron holds it and takes a sack.

            A super simple variation of the double slant is the slant / flat. This is better versus cover 3 and a one high safety. The defender key is the flat defender. If the flat (in this case the defender over the slot receiver) defender flies to the flats, it opens a window for the slant right behind him. Again Rodgers looks right at it, and doesn’t throw on rhythm to an open Davante Adams.

            Same concept but this time he throws the flat without reading the defender at all. As soon as that defender flows, he needs to hit the slant sit right behind him for a first down to Jimmy Graham. Yes, you’d like it and expect your running back to be able to make someone miss in the open field and get 3 yards here, but the lack of read and the pre-snap decision to throw to an area of the field where you’re outnumbered by the defense 3 to 2 isn’t a good one.

            While drop footwork are largely all preference and is different for each quarterback, Aaron’s drop isn’t doing him any favors. A good amount of the time, he does a backpedal drop. While this is great for seeing the field throughout the drop, it also makes it more difficult to close your shoulder to the throw and to get your hips and feet set. As someone that already throws off platform and tends not to set his feet when he throws, this kind of drop can exacerbate that issue. Here’s an example of just that on a miss behind Davante Adams on a quick out. You may love the choice to throw to Adams, but if you look at the bottom of the screen, LaFleur has the perfect play on to exploit the 49ers man coverage with a simple rub route and Allen Lazard wide open.

            These might not seem like much but when it’s in the open field, back hip throws like this towards the sideline can reduce the ability for the receiver to run in stride and get yards after the catch and also gives defenders an opportunity to jump the route for an interception. Here he is again throwing to his left and throwing behind the receivers on a quick outs using his backpedal drop and throwing off balance and off platform.

            These same accuracy issues crop up on deep balls as well. While there is certainly PI on this play, this ball is also way out of bounds and uncatchable. Aaron has plenty of time to set his feet and deliver despite an unblocked man.

            Rodgers has the arm talent to make these throws and mechanics and footwork aren’t always necessary, they just help you be a more consistent thrower of the ball. When the momentum, platform, and throwing level are changing from throw to throw, it makes it incredibly difficult to routinely hit throws in the same area every time.

            So is Aaron Rodgers done? Not by a long shot. Has he regressed and become more inconsistent? Yes. Aaron Rodgers is missing throws that we aren’t used to seeing him miss and while his footwork and mechanics have never truly been conventional, they may now be impacting his consistency. When facing pure man coverage, almost every Packers receiver outside of Davante Adams struggled to consistently create separation without the aid of play design. Combined with a new offense, new timing, and his penchant for holding the ball to eliminate turnovers, and you have what feels like a totally different player when you watch him on TV. He clearly still has the tools and with a small cleanup of his fundamentals, another year in the system, a piece or two outside to give him weapons that he trusts, Aaron will be right back in the MVP conversation and the Packers will be a force to be reckoned with in the playoffs until he decides to hang it up.

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