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Film Review: A&M vs Vanderbilt

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A&M got back to offensive success with the help of a couple "new" tricks: two back sets and the famous "mesh" play.

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Ags win! Ags win! Ags win!

Ok, maybe it wasn't quite that exciting, but still, a 25-0 shutout on the road in conference play, especially after losing three of the last five games, is worth celebrating.

With the holiday week, I haven't had time to fully chart the game and break down all the formations and personnel groups and passing targets and whatnot. But here are a few notable things from the game:

  • No team this year has gained more yards or had a higher yards per play average against Vanderbilt than Texas A&M. (486/6.6)
  • No team besides A&M has passed for more than 330 yards against Vanderbilt this year, and only four teams have passed for more than 225 on them. A&M passed for 336.
  • No team this season has thrown for more than one touchdown against Vanderbilt.
  • No team this season has converted over 42% of their 3rd downs against Vanderbilt. A&M's 35% was the 3rd-highest number allowed by Vandy this year.
Kyle Allen returned to the starting role at quarterback and played well. His receivers dropped a few and Vandy's defense dropped a couple, but all in all, he played another solid game.

It's worth looking at Allen's season now from a healthy/not healthy perspective. He admitted yesterday that he was battling a shoulder injury during the Alabama and Ole Miss games but seems healthy now. I was very vocal in my defense of this offense back in week 5, which happened to be the last time Allen played a game in good health. If we now look at Allen's numbers in his first five games and his most recent game, they paint a pretty impressive picture.

  • 107/175 (61%), 1610 yards, 14 TD's, 2 INT's.
Now play along with me, but if we plug just those numbers into the national stats, here is where he would rank:

  • Yards per attempt: 6th (9.2 yards per pass)
  • Passer rating: 7th (162 rating)
  • Yards per game: 27th (268 ypg)
  • TD passes per game: 14th (2.3 TD's)
  • TD to interception ratio: 2nd (7:1)
Had he been healthy, certainly playing Alabama and Ole Miss would have been difficult still, as they were two very good defenses, but then he also would have played South Carolina, Auburn, and Western Carolina, so the numbers would probably even out for those five just like they did in the six healthy games he has played.

All in all, it remains true that when Kyle Allen is healthy, this offense is really a pretty good offense. Still not elite, but much better than most realize.

When looking at A&M's scheme and game plan against Vanderbilt, a couple things stick out. First of all, the H-back personnel group was completely gone. I don't know if Caden Smith was hurt or if this is what A&M just decided to do, but they didn't run any plays that I can recall out of their "sloth" formation with Smith in the backfield.

In its place, A&M finally brought out what we've been expecting all year: the two back set. I call the formation "pro," and it's simply a running back on either side of the quarterback with two wide receivers to one side and one to the other.

A&M used it over 20 times Saturday. This is one of the major things I thought we'd see this year. The Aggies did it twice against Arizona State but then James White got injured and it disappeared. Even when White finally returned to the field, he has been used to spell Tra Carson rather than used in conjunction with him, but maybe White is finally healthy and that's why A&M finally made it a major part of their plan.

The other big thing A&M did Saturday was make the famous "mesh" play a big part of their game plan. The Aggies have used mesh sporadically throughout the year, but it has never been as featured as it was Saturday.

In short, "mesh" is just a name for shallow crossing routes. The play is very popular among spread/air raid teams and is a base play for many. It can be run from almost any formation and it can be varied by changing which receivers run the shallow crosses and also by changing the other complimentary routes.

The six instances shown below show a great mix of variety within the mesh concept.

1. The first one is run from a 2x2 formation, and the slot receivers run the mesh. On the outside Speedy Noil takes an inside release and runs an out route at 10 yards and is wide open. Throwing to Noil would have been the play here.

mesh




2. The next time, A&M runs it from a 3x1 formation. The single receiver meshes with the inside receiver on the trips side. On this particular play, Allen had multiple options. He threw to Kirk who was coming from the trips side, but the #2 receiver on that side, Ricky Seals-Jones, ran about a 12 yards square in behind the crossing routes and was wide open. It was a gain either way, but I would say that Seals-Jones should have gotten targeted there, as he would have had a shot at converting the 3rd down.

mesh1


mesh2





One thing to note about those first two: look at how Vanderbilt's underneath linebackers defend the mesh. It's kind of a match-up zone type of coverage, where they initially have a zone look, but when the receivers cross each other, the defenders pass the responsibility off to each other and then chase the new player in his zone with a man coverage technique. This can be an effective way to stop the shallow crosses.

Often times, the rules for the receivers are to settle down in the first hole they find after crossing if it's a zone but keep running if it's man coverage. Defending it this way (letting them cross and then chasing with a defender who is already right there rather than chasing from behind) can sometimes negate the shallow crosses, as it did in the first example above).

Look back at how Alabama defended A&M's shallow cross last year. On this play, A&M ran a shallow with Malcome Kennedy and had the other receivers blocking, not even looking for the ball. Here is the play design, and I circled the defender who appears to be responsible for Kennedy:


bama


But when Kennedy runs the shallow cross, the Bama defender immediately passes off the responsibility to the next player who is already in Kennedy's path and he runs with Kennedy, ruining the play.


bama1




So I just wanted to show that as another example of the coverage concept Vandy was using.


3. Moving on, A&M now runs mesh out of a bunch formation with five wide receivers. This time, the two outermost receivers run the mesh, while the other three receivers run routes that are all deep and to the wide side of the field.

mesh3


And maybe it was the bunch formation that confused the defense, but one of the underneath linebackers reacted like I described above, releasing Ratley when he crossed in front of him and coming down to chase Noil, but the other linebacker stayed on Noil in man coverage, so both defenders chased Noil and neither covered Ratley.


mesh5


mesh7






4. The three above were all in the first half. In the second half, A&M faced 3rd and 11 on their first drive and went right back to the mesh concept, running the same version out of a 3x1 formation that they ran above, but flipped from trips right to trips left. Remember above when I pointed out that Ricky Seals-Jones was open? Apparently our coaches pointed that out to Allen as well, because this time, he hits RSJ for a big first down.


mesh8


One other thing to notice: Seals-Jones has his man beat within the first eight yards of his route, and Kyle Allen sees that, but he knows he can't throw it until the receivers and chasing defenders of the crossing routes clear out of the way. Allen does a great job of waiting for that to happen and stepping up in the pocket and THEN throwing the ball once the throwing lane has opened.




5. Next, A&M goes back to the bunch formation. The pre-snap alignment of the three bunched receivers is different than it was the first time, but the route combination is the same.


mesh9


Above, we pointed out how in the first two examples, Vandy played the underneath mesh with a certain technique, but in example #3, the bunch formation example, their defenders got confused and one played straight man coverage while the other played that zone/man chase coverage and they ended up covering the same man while leaving Ratley uncovered.

On this play, the same thing happens. Exactly the same, as the one defender chases Jeremy Tabuyo all the way across while the defender who is initially over Josh Reynolds passes Reynolds off and also chases Tabuyo. Somewhere in there, the Vandy defense either had confusion (both times) with the bunch formation or else a flaw in their defensive rules against this formation. Either way, it leads to another easy pass for A&M.




Five for five, right?

6. Finally, A&M runs the mesh play one more time, but with two new wrinkles.

Here the formation is a 3x1 again, but this time, Christian Kirk has lined up as a running back in the backfield. Sneaky Aggies! In the examples above from this formation, the running back just ran a flare out to the edge to be used as an outlet for the quarterback (see Allen's first pass to Carson in example #1). This time, the "running back," Kirk, runs a wheel route up the sideline.

To add to that, A&M runs mesh again but this time uses the #2 receiver on the trips side rather than the inside receiver.

mesh10



Vanderbilt plays straight man coverage on the crossing routes this time, each defender chasing the receiver all the way across the field, and while Jeremy Tabuyo is open, Allen throws the back shoulder pass to Kirk for a nice gain.




You may notice that three of the examples were on 3rd and long, one was on 2nd and long, and the others were on 1st and 10.  I'm sure LSU noticed that as well and will be looking for shallow crossing routes on 3rd down. A&M should, in my opinion, sprinkle a few of them in on second down and on 3rd and short.