Short-yardage passing had a good year, except at the end of the Super Bowl. We look at the return of quarterback runs, the rise in pass-happy strategy, and 2014 success rates for offense and defense.
22 May 2014
by Aaron Schatz
A couple of days ago, we got a question over Twitter regarding personnel groupings during the 2013 season. Usually that information shows up in the book, in the "Performance Based on Personnel Groups" tables in each team chapter. But there's no reason to hold it all the way until then. We'll save just how well specific teams did in certain personnel groups for Football Outsiders Almanac 2014 and for more offseason articles like this one from last summer, but today I'm going to share some interesting things you see going through personnel grouping data from 2013.
Before we get into things, a quick note: this is personnel data, not formation data. When C.J. Spiller goes out wide, he's still a running back, and when Cordarrelle Patterson lines up in the backfield, he still counts as a wide receiver. We're using the standard numerical system where the first number is the number of backs and the second number is the number of tight ends. We count formations with six or more offensive linemen separately, rather than counting the offensive linemen as tight ends. A formation with two backs, one tight end, one wideout, and six offensive linemen is marked as 621 and not 22. No "wildcat" formations with a non-quarterback taking a shotgun snap are considered in this analysis.
We've noted it in the past, but the trend accelerated over the past two years: three-wide is the default formation in the NFL right now, and the second tight end or (hey, remember this guy) the fullback are the part-time players. We've written before that the majority of plays in the NFL have three or more wide receivers, but for last year you can even just delete the words "or more." Teams came out in 11 personnel on a majority of plays: 51.2 percent. They came out with three or more wide receivers on 58.8 percent of plays. We've tracked personnel data separate from formations for four seasons now, and look at the way 11 personnel has grown over those four seasons:
|Eleven is One Louder: Offensive Personnel Groupings 2010-2013|
"6+ OL" adds together all personnel groups with at least six offensive linemen; the most common are 621 and 611, each with about 1.0 percent of offensive plays last season.
Use of 11 personnel skyrocketed over the past couple seasons, and one reason it has skyrocketed is that it works. Look at how more efficient offenses were with 11 personnel last year. This isn't a one-year fluke. In 2012, the leaguewide DVOA with 11 personnel was also 8.1%. In 2011, it was 5.5%, and in 2010, it was 9.1%. Right now, the most efficient way to play offense in the NFL is to put three wide receivers, one running back, and one tight end on the field with your quarterback in shotgun for a majority of snaps. Not all of them, you have to switch it up of course, but most of them.
(It also paid to get those six-lineman sets on the field last year, but unlike with 11 personnel, that may not be a trend. The year before, the combined DVOA of all personnel groupings with six or more linemen was -7.2%.)
11 personnel was the most common personnel group for 29 of the 32 NFL offenses last year. The exceptions:
The 49ers are really in their own world as far as personnel groups are concerened. They were the only offense to use 11 personnel less than 30 percent of the time. Add in 12 personnel, which they used on 15 percent of plays, and for the second straight season they were the only offense to have four different personnel groups that were used on at least 15 percent of all plays. The 49ers were also the only team to use seven offensive linemen on a regular basis, with 721 personnel on 3.4 percent of plays.
The team most devoted to 11 personnel? Why, that would be Baltimore, believe it or not. So much for Vonta Leach as the best blocking fullback in the NFL. The Ravens used 11 personnel on 75 percent of all their offensive plays. That's a big shift from the year before, when Baltimore used 11 personnel on 43 percent of plays, slightly less than the NFL average. Two other teams used 11 personnel over 70 percent of the time in 2013, Philadelphia and Denver.
Thanks to Dennis Pitta being out for most of the season, the Ravens were the least likely team to put 12 personnel on the field, using it on just 5.9 percent of plays. Oakland and Tampa Bay were the other teams below 10 percent. (That's definitely going to change in Tampa this year.) Cincinnati was the only team to use 12 personnel over 40 percent of the time, but four teams used it over 30 percent of the time: St. Louis, Cleveland, Dallas, and San Diego. The Rams are this high in part because we've categorized Cory Harkey as a tight end rather than a fullback. The Bengals also like to use tight ends as fullbacks but rotated their tight ends through that spot -- it was a lot of Alex Smith, but Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert would also show up there, plus Orson Charles on the rare occasion he got offensive snaps.
At this point, "conventional" 21 personnel should be called something else, like "old school personnel" or "70s personnel" or maybe "John Facenda personnel." The Oakland Reeces used it the most, as noted above, and the 49ers used it a lot. Three other teams used it on more than 20 percent of plays: Houston, Tampa Bay, and New Orleans. The Patriots used it on 19 percent of plays after not using it at all the year before, which is a great stat to quote the day before Brown Reunion Weekend. As long as Develin is playing this much, both me and Chris Berman will be completely unsufferable. Although the Patriots were tossing 21 personnel out there a lot in 2013, three teams used it on fewer than five plays. As noted above, Cincinnati and St. Louis don't get marked with 21 personnel because of how we marked certain tight end/fullback hybrids like Cory Harkey and Alex Smith. The third team is Denver, because Peyton Manning doesn't need your stinkin' fullbacks.
Every year it seems like one team uses six linemen much more than any other team, and this year that team was Chicago, which used a sixth lineman (usually Eben Britton) on 15.9 percent of plays. Six other teams used six or more linemen more than five percent of the time, in descending order of frequency: Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, New Orleans, San Francisco, Oakland, and Tampa Bay.
A few other notes:
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