Matching Up to 11

Matching Up to 11
Matching Up to 11
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Tom Gower

One of the tables you will see in Football Outsiders Almanac 2013 is performance based on most common personnel groups. We do this for each team and the opponents it faced. From this, you can get a good general picture of how a team played and how teams matched up to them. The limitations of space, though, don’t permit us to go into detail on particular matchups.

For 29 of the 32 teams, the most common offensive personnel grouping in 2012 was 11 personnel: one running back, one tight end, and three wide receivers. (The exceptions were Detroit, Houston, and San Francisco.) When researching the Texans this offseason for FOA 2013, one thing I discovered is that they played in base defensive personnel (with four defensive backs) 16 percent of the time against offensive 11 personnel in 2012. That was down from 27 percent in 2011. Staying in base personnel 27 percent of the time seemed like a lot to me, but I was not sure just how much it was relative to the rest of the league.

After running the numbers, it was indeed an awful, awful lot of the time. Even that reduced figure of 16 percent meant the Texans were in base personnel more than any defense in 2012 team save two. Here’s how often each team played in base personnel on defense against offensive 11 personnel the past two seasons.


Defensive Base Personnel vs. Offensive 11 Personnel, 2011-2012
Team 2011 2012 Team 2011 2012
ARI 10.6% 8.0% ATL 10.5% 2.6%
BAL 11.5% 8.5% BUF 5.7% 3.3%
CAR 33.5% 4.3% CHI 4.4% 3.4%
CIN 12.7% 8.9% CLE 7.1% 6.2%
DAL 9.1% 7.4% DEN 17.3% 6.4%
DET 21.2% 10.6% GB 2.6% 1.3%
HOU 27.2% 15.8% IND 13.7% 12.8%
JAC 13.5% 10.2% KC 17.2% 8.5%
MIA 8.5% 7.0% MIN 5.3% 3.3%
NE 15.9% 9.1% NO 14.4% 3.4%
NYG 5.3% 3.4% NYJ 10.2% 7.8%
OAK 10.7% 3.6% PHI 2.0% 3.4%
PIT 22.2% 19.9% SD 14.0% 9.0%
SEA 14.9% 17.1% SF 10.8% 5.9%
STL 5.0% 10.1% TB 9.0% 3.5%
TEN 11.4% 4.0% WAS 12.6% 13.8%

As you can see, in the past two years only the 2011 Panthers used base defensive personnel against 11 personnel more than the 2011 Texans did. In 2012, the Steelers led the league in how often they played base personnel against 11 personnel, and even they were in their sub package four-fifths of the time.

It is also immediately clear from the table that the Texans were not alone in playing more defensive backs against 11 personnel in 2012. In all, 28 of the 32 teams played base personnel less often, with the Panthers going from doing so over a third of the time to doing so hardly at all. Of the teams that increased how often they played base, the Eagles still ranked in the bottom five in how often they used four defensive backs. The Rams surprised me. They actually had healthy cornerbacks, Cortland Finnegan is relatively stout in the slot, and they drafted Alec Ogletree in the first round because they did not have a good cover outside linebacker, but that may just be Jeff Fisher's preference. I do not have anything on the Redskins or Seahawks; reader explanations are invited.

Fine. If teams are not playing with four defensive backs against 11 personnel, then how many are they playing? Unless you’re the Chiefs or Texans, the answer most of the time is five. Here are the full 2012 numbers for the most frequent sub package formation each team used, how often they used that many defensive backs, yards per play allowed, success rate (from the defensive perspective, so greater is better), and defensive DVOA.

Defensive Sub-Package Performance, 2012
Team DBs Freq Yards per Play Success % DVOA Team DBs Freq Yards per Play Success % DVOA
ARI 5 90.5% 5.3 60% -12.8% ATL 5 94.1% 6.6 53% 14.0%
BAL 5 85.2% 4.9 60% -2.1% BUF 5 83.4% 6.6 54% 20.0%
CAR 5 94.6% 5.6 56% 1.2% CHI 5 96.4% 5.1 59% -31.6%
CIN 5 88.8% 5.7 59% 0.2% CLE 5 87.3% 6.0 55% 8.9%
DAL 5 63.9% 6.1 55% 14.6% DEN 5 78.5% 4.7 60% -11.5%
DET 5 86.5% 5.8 58% 16.2% GB 5 51.4% 5.2 53% -4.3%
HOU 6 62.8% 6.3 59% -6.7% IND 5 80.8% 6.0 57% 11.9%
JAC 5 77.9% 6.3 57% 2.1% KC 6 70.5% 6.4 57% 27.3%
MIA 5 88.9% 5.6 60% -7.2% MIN 5 94.4% 6.3 52% 17.9%
NE 5 79.9% 6.4 54% 9.2% NO 5 62.6% 6.1 54% 12.0%
NYG 5 91.6% 6.4 55% 9.5% NYJ 5 60.8% 5.9 59% -4.1%
OAK 5 87.6% 6.2 55% 17.6% PHI 5 94.5% 5.8 56% 12.6%
PIT 5 77.8% 4.4 61% -4.7% SD 5 80.2% 5.9 52% 13.9%
SEA 5 72.4% 5.4 58% -11.4% SF 5 86.0% 4.4 60% -20.9%
STL 5 86.6% 5.4 57% -9.0% TB 5 59.0% 6.0 57% 22.9%
TEN 5 81.3% 5.8 55% 7.7% WAS 5 84.2% 6.4 56% 3.5%

The frequency column shows that most teams picked their preferred sub package and stuck with it. On average, they used it roughly 81 percent of the time. The Packers were the only team that showed a real split in how often they were in which package, using five defensive backs 51 percent of the time and six defensive backs 44 percent of the time. We only charted them with six snaps using their base 3-4 look against 11 personnel. Most teams were more divided between dime and base as their primary alternatives to the nickel they overwhelmingly preferred.

What does this all mean? To me, the most interesting thing in these tables is the apparent change in strategic preferences of having more defensive backs on the field. It does not seem to have been driven by necessity. Here is how teams did against 11 with a given number of defensive backs on the field in 2011.

DBs Freq Yards per Play Success % DVOA
4 11.7% 5.6 57% -1.6%
5 72.9% 5.8 58% 1.1%
6 14.2% 6.0 59% -3.3%
7 0.8% 5.9 70% -30.4%

If there was a reason to play more defensive backs based on these numbers, the jump is not going from base personnel to nickel, but instead to playing seven defensive backs. That is such a small percentage of snaps, though, that it is hard to draw any conclusions off of. The other numbers in the chart indicate that teams were not clearly better off playing base or nickel or dime.

Now, here is what happened in 2012.

DBs Freq Yards per Play Success % DVOA
4 7.3% 5.5 56% -8.2%
5 77.9% 5.8 56% 3.6%
6 14.3% 6.3 59% 5.8%
7 0.5% 8.5 59% 47.4%

As teams shifted from playing base personnel to nickel, defenses got slightly better in base personnel and slightly worse in nickel. The results when playing with seven defensive backs stand out again, though this time in the other direction. Again, the sample is too small to draw any particular conclusions. Looking just at having four to six defensive backs on the field, defenses as a whole performed slightly worse in 2012 than they did in 2011 as DVOA declined from 0.2% to 2.9% (defense, so larger numbers are worse). NFL defensive coordinators do not appear to have solved 11 personnel yet, though at least they haven't made the problem worse.


26 comments, Last at 19 Jun 2013, 8:32am

#1 by theslothook // Jun 13, 2013 - 2:42pm

To me, one of the more interesting things that I got from the table is just how dramatic the change has been for most teams from 2011 to 2012. We're seeing pretty large shifts from base to sub against 11 personnel. The reasons i find this so weird is that the league has been shifting to the spread for a few years now that I would've expected defenses to have started a slow progression toward going more sub. We don't have the 2007-2010 numbers, but I wonder what they would be. Were defenses fairly static in approach and then 2011 forced them completely switch?

Points: 0

#14 by JasonPackerBacker (not verified) // Jun 13, 2013 - 10:31pm

The first thing I thought of was...strike-related?

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#2 by Walshmobile // Jun 13, 2013 - 2:54pm

The Skins had a sub-par DB group to begin with, then had injuries to those DBs.

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#3 by Karl Cuba // Jun 13, 2013 - 2:55pm

Do the numbers take any account of short yardage or goalline? I could see some teams staying in base when backed up on their own end zone.

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#9 by Tom Gower // Jun 13, 2013 - 4:35pm

I did not. Within 10 yards of the end zone, teams were in base 12% of the time, nickel 79%, and dime 9%. That's about 4% of all 11 plays. Deep red zone (line of scrimmage between the 11 and the 20) numbers are basically the same as all-field numbers (7% nickel, 79% nickel, 13% dime).

Points: 0

#4 by Bobman // Jun 13, 2013 - 3:07pm

"This defense goes to eleven." Nigel Tuffnel, defensive coordinator

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#26 by Dean // Jun 19, 2013 - 8:32am

Why don't you just make ten louder and make ten be the top number and make that a little louder?

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#5 by Aaron Brooks G… // Jun 13, 2013 - 3:16pm

I thought the Packer base-D was a 2-4.

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#7 by justanothersteve // Jun 13, 2013 - 4:07pm

I'm guessing lot of the 6 DB vs 11 formations used Woodson like a LB. Even when Woodson missed several games due to injury, the Packers would play 6 DBs with one DB (Bush) more a LB in blitzes or shallow coverage.

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#8 by Tom Gower // Jun 13, 2013 - 4:25pm

The nominal depth chart had them as a 3-4. What they actually played the most, and the extent to which depth charts can, should, and do reflect reality versus a context-free form thereof is a different story and another reason why I started looking at matchups.

Points: 0

#6 by little bobby tables (not verified) // Jun 13, 2013 - 4:01pm

Kind of amazed to see seattle's base personnel numbers so high. Their a man-coverage team on the outside. Without your corners playing quarters, how the hell were they consistently defending the slot receiver in base?

Points: 0

#10 by Karl Cuba // Jun 13, 2013 - 4:38pm

I thought they played a lot of cover 3?

Either way, one answer to your question would be good safeties.

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#12 by CBPodge // Jun 13, 2013 - 5:37pm

That was what I thought. Their base coverage seems to be a vague press-cover-3, with the two outside CBs playing press man but having deep responsibility, and Earl Thomas covering the middle of the field (but basically the whole deep area of the field cos he's so damn fast). That frees up Chancellor to play closer to the line, and probably more covering of the slot guy.

I'd imagine that might well the explanation for the Rams - they played a lot of cover 3 last year, which put Quinton Mikell down in the box and Craig Dahl deep (oh god). If you're confident that you've got three guys who'll get deep (two CBs and the FS) then covering the slot guy and tight end with LBs isn't such an issue - if it goes wrong, you've still got plenty of deep help to stop it going *too* wrong, and it makes you stouter (relatively) against the run.

Will be interesting to see where the Rams go this year - we kept Dunbar and Laurinaitis on the field pretty much constantly last year. Interesting to see if Dunbar comes off the field in nickel, or we look to use Ogletree in a quasi-safety role in a cover-3.

Points: 0

#11 by speedegg // Jun 13, 2013 - 4:40pm

Some of the Seahawk Linebackers are as fast as safeties (KJ Wright and Bobby Wagner), so I think their coaching staff was okay with base personal in short and medium yardage against 11 personnel. You'd usually see their complex nickel or Bandit (Big Dime package) on 3rd and long.

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#19 by Jeff M. (not verified) // Jun 14, 2013 - 11:04am

And when they went with Malcolm Smith over Leroy Hill, they had 3 LBers who were all probably better in coverage than their nominal nickelback (an on-his-last-legs Marcus Trufant).

Look for the Seahawks % of 4-3 vs. nickel to change dramatically this year, as they appear to have grabbed Antoine Winfield to play a "base nickel" slot role instead of filling their hole at WILL.

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#22 by The Ancient Mariner (not verified) // Jun 14, 2013 - 1:44pm

Another factor is that the 'Hawks really didn't have a strong slot CB option last year. Thurmond was injured (again), Jeremy Lane has the tools but was a sixth-round rookie, and Marcus Trufant, though a smart veteran, never really was a slot CB at his athletic peak. Plus, we spent four games down another CB with Browner's suspension. All of which is to say, the available personnel caused problems for playing nickel. Throw in Wagner's speed at MLB and his growth in coverage over the course of the season, and I'm not surprised by the numbers.

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#13 by BigDerf // Jun 13, 2013 - 9:11pm

I mean, at this point, The Big Nickel is basically the Giants' base defense. I don't know if the number totally back this up, but the eyeball test has them in it as much as they can reasonably be. They will react if the other team goes big or has tendencies to pound the football, but the Giants seem to want to be in their 5 DB package if at all possible.

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#15 by JMM* (not verified) // Jun 14, 2013 - 7:13am

"...the most common offensive personnel grouping in 2012 was 11 personnel:..."

How common was the 11 personnel?

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#21 by Tom Gower // Jun 14, 2013 - 1:34pm

Assuming I ran the numbers right, 45.6% of all plays last year were 11 (with 3 WR).

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#16 by DenverCheeze (not verified) // Jun 14, 2013 - 9:05am

So, why not start drafting a hybrid Safety/LB guy who is fast with some size so that you can match up better against both Run and Pass in the 11 package? Seems to me that should be coming shortly...just before Offenses start changing back to the 12 package.

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#18 by Karl Cuba // Jun 14, 2013 - 9:58am

I hope everyone follows this and then the 49ers will roll out their 22 package and crush them into the dirt. More seriously, I do think that teams will have to move in that direction in one way or another. When you throw in the ever increasing prevalence of tight ends that are often little more than big receivers the trend towards a passing league is clear and defenses will have to adapt to stop it.

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#20 by Jordan (not verified) // Jun 14, 2013 - 11:09am

I feel like these charts are a basic explanation for the why the Chiefs got the number one pick. They played with 6 DBs 70% of the time for an astoundingly terrible DVOA. That's what happens when you play 6 DBs and the 5th and 6th ones are a combination of Abram Elam, Travis Daniels, Standford Routt, and Jalil Brown. With injuries to Flowers and Kendrick Lewis it makes things even worse.

It gives a good reasoning why Andy Reid would basically remake the secondary outside of Flowers and Berry. It's unreal how bad they were playing in sub packages.

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#23 by Chad Toporski (not verified) // Jun 17, 2013 - 1:48pm

According to the 2012 FOA, the Packers used 4 DBs 27% of the time, 5 DBs 63%, and 6+ DBs 7%. So they've gone from using dime packages 7% of the time in 2011 to 44% of the time in 2012? That's a fairly substantial leap.

Based on the data and offensive personnel they faced, does that change stem more from their opponents or their own personnel?

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#24 by Tom Gower // Jun 18, 2013 - 1:10am

The numbers in this column are just how they matched up against offensive 11 personnel, so they probably didn't use 6 DBs on 44% of all snaps. FOA13 will have all-play numbers like FOA12 did.

Points: 0

#25 by Chad Toporski (not verified) // Jun 18, 2013 - 6:47am

Thanks. I couldn't quite tell if that was the case for that chart.

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