Colts' Money Downs: Mesh was a Massive Success in 2023

The Indianapolis Colts relied heavily on mesh calls in third down situations last season.
Sep 24, 2023; Baltimore, Maryland, USA; Indianapolis Colts running back Zack Moss (21) reacts after
Sep 24, 2023; Baltimore, Maryland, USA; Indianapolis Colts running back Zack Moss (21) reacts after / Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports
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The Indianapolis Colts struggled mightily on third down last season, converting just 35.34% of their opportunities. That number placed them 26th in the league in third-down conversion rate.

Hopefully, the Colts can turn around that concerning number heading into 2024. Quarterback Anthony Richardson is back and healthy while the team made a few key additions to the offensive personnel through the draft. On paper, the Colts have the personnel and the planning to improve upon this metric next season.

The goal of this new series will be to look at how the Colts won on third down last year and what the team can do to find even more success going forward. The first play call that we will look at is mesh, a design the Colts loved in short-intermediate situations a year ago.

The Numbers with Mesh

Mesh is a play design used to combat man coverage defenses. It's a playcall that features two players crossing over the middle of the field on drag routes in order to use natural picks to create separation. The Colts, by design, would feature one player as the intended rub runner to knock off the defender of the determined target.

The core foundation of mesh is the two crossing drag routes underneath, so there is some flexibility with how certain offenses can run this play. Overall, this is how a diagram of the call will/can look like:

The Colts leaned into mesh quite a bit early last season on third and short-intermediate situations. The average distance to go on these calls was roughly 5.8 yards, and the Colts had a conversion rate of 50% on mesh play calls. That number may not seem astounding for a 3rd-and-short design, but a team with a sub-40% conversion rate converting at a 50% clip on one playcall certainly does stand out.

Colts' quarterbacks completed 10-of-15 passes for 124 yards and 1 touchdown on these calls last season. The call generated quite a few open looks overall, with two of the incompletions being on plays that would have been completed with a better throw/better timing on the offense (Alec Pierce vs. New Orleans Saints in Week 8, Tyler Goodson wheel route vs. Houston Texans in Week 18).

Overall, Colts' quarterbacks boasting a 114 passer rating and converting third downs at a 50% mark on these play designs is a really positive showing for an offense that struggled on these downs on the whole.

Into the Film Room

Colts head coach Shane Steichen was masterful in his mesh designs last season. He added several notable wrinkles to the play to keep defenses guessing, which resulted in wide-open players for the Colts' offense.

The first simple design was this play against the Texans back in Week 2. The Colts' added some pre-snap motion to this design in order to indicate whether the Texans' were in zone or man coverage on the play. Once the linebacker moves with the motioned player, Richardson gets the read of man coverage on the defensive end.

Josh Downs ran this rub route perfectly into the teeth of two defenders as Kylen Granson broke open on the play. Granson then turned up the field for an easy conversion on 3rd-and-short.

Mesh is a play design run best out of tighter personnel sets. This next design is out of 11 personnel with a condensed trips to the tight end side. Pierce, the lone receiver at the top of the screen, ran his drag route downhill towards the offensive strong side on this design.

Pierce is able to uncover due to the rub action by Michael Pittman Jr. and Granson over the middle of the field. The circus catch to convert on third and short is just an added bonus on the play.

One of Steichen's best play calls from a season ago came against the Jacksonville Jaguars on this third-and-medium. The Colts began in empty personnel with running back Jonathan Taylor out wide at the top of the screen. Taylor motioned down pre-snap and got a running start to his drag route on this mesh call. His cover man, the off-linebacker, was tasked with running downhill into the box to chase the 4.3 speed running back over the middle.

Taylor was able to pull away from his defender on the pick set by Downs over the middle of the field. The result was a massive 40 yard gain for the offense.

The underneath drag routes aren't the only options on mesh calls. The rest of the routes run could act as window dressing, but a common option to pass to out of mesh is the running back wheel route. With running backs often drawing linebackers in cover, this is a rare opportunity to isolate a speedy back on slower linebacker.

Zack Moss was isolated on this play with Patrick Queen on the wheel route off of mesh. The Ravens brought some pressure, leaving Queen on an island with the running back in space. Moss was able to go up and snag a well-placed pass by Gardner Minshew for the score on the play.

The Bottom Line

The Colts may have moved away from mesh late last season, but this play design was one of their best go-to plays on third down early in the year. For a team that struggled to convert on third downs all season long, this was one play that consistently produced for the offense.

Going into next season, the Colts can build even more off of mesh. The additions of Anthony Gould and AD Mitchell should play a role here, as well as the return of massive tight end Jelani Woods. All three of these players could easily find production on these play calls (or at least serve as great window dressing down the field).

Overall, if the Colts want to fix their third down passing game next season, they have to contnue to rely on mesh to convert third and manageable situations against man coverage defenses. It was one of their few pillars to lean on that worked in 2023 for the team.

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Zach Hicks


Zach Hicks is the Lead Analyst for Zach has been on the NFL beat since 2017. His works have appeared on, the Locked On Podcast Network,,, &