2020 Offensive Personnel: Vikings, Browns Stand Out
It's time once again for our annual look at offensive personnel, where we look to see how the league continues to change and develop, and how teams get their best playmakers onto the field. This is generally the article where we get to talk about the ongoing trends around the league—the rise of three-wide receiver sets we saw throughout the 2010s, and the backlash to that we have seen over the past couple of years. Perhaps more than any other individual stat we look at, these offensive personal analyses help us understand the current thinking of offensive football.
But, of course, 2020 threw a wrench into everything. There were at least some games last season where coaches' choices of personnel were based less on strategy or detailed analysis of opponents' strength and weaknesses and more on which warm bodies could see the field on any given day. Multiple games were played with one team out of receivers or running backs, forcing coaches to dive deep into their practice squads and to play players out of position. That means we're going to see some wacky swings as coaches around the league struggled to keep up with the week-to-week uncertainty, right?
Before we go any further, we should clarify a few things. This is personnel data, not formation data. When J.D. McKissic goes out wide, he's still counted as a running back. When Curtis Samuel lines up in the backfield, he still counts as a wide receiver. We're using the standard numerical system where the first digit is the number of backs and the second digit is the number of tight ends—11 personnel means one running back and one tight end, with three wide receivers. 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."
Also, a shout out to our data provider Sports Info Solutions. They do all the charting that makes this analysis possible.
|NFL Offensive Personnel Groupings|
|Personnel||2019 Pct||2020 Pct||Difference||2020 DVOA|
Well, those are … amazingly similar to 2019's numbers. Just for comparison, we were talking about 11 personnel falling by 5.6% in our article last year after rising 4.9% the year before, with corresponding significant movements in 12 personnel as teams explored interchanging that third receiver and second tight end. In 2020, teams apparently decided that nope, they're good; they have zeroed in on the proper personnel management strategy. The closest thing we had to a significant change was a drop in six-lineman sets, and half of that can be credited to the Seahawks going from 222 six-lineman snaps in 2019 to one last season with the loss of George Fant. One player moving from one team to another does not feel like an immense shift in offensive philosophy.
Maybe that's because 2020 was such an odd year. With a disrupted offseason and limited time to work with the entire roster at once, it's entirely plausible that coaches just stuck with what they were doing just to try to get a familiar team on the field. Or, perhaps, teams have just started dialing it in after a decade of experimenting with how much 11 personnel they can get away with.
Teams have now used 11 personnel between 58% and 60% of the time in three of the past four seasons, with 2018's 64.2% being the one outlier. Considering the league started the 2010s with using 11 personnel less than 40% of the time, that's a significant increase, but what once seemed like an inexorable march forward to a world where slot receivers ruled the Earth has hit a plateau. Partially, this is because there are just very few situations left where you could reasonably increase 11-personnel usage. It's the most common formation on every down and almost every part of the field. It only dips below 50% inside the 10-yard line, where there are enough goal-line plunges to balance out the general 11-ocity of the league. Unless you're going to go all 2018 Sean McVay and just never take your slot receiver off the field, the league may just well be saturated at this point in time.
Ours Go Up to 11
That's not to say there were no changes from 2019, mind you! For the first time in years, every team used 11 personnel as their most frequent personnel grouping. In past seasons, you could count on Kyle Shanahan's love of fullbacks to put the 49ers over the top in two-back sets, or Kevin Stefanski's devotion to two-tight end sets to drive his team over the top; his Vikings only used 11 personnel on 21% of their offensive plays two years ago when Stefanski was their offensive coordinator. But not in 2020; the closest we got was Minnesota's 281 snaps of 11 versus 269 snaps of 21 and 227 snaps of 12—a plurality, if not a majority.
|DVOA in 11 Personnel|
Exceptions to the Rule
One trend we did see continue is more teams using 11 less than half the time. In 2018, Shanahan's 49ers were the only team to pull that off, standing alone against the rising tide of 11-ness. In 2019, they were joined by the Ravens, Eagles, Cardinals, and Vikings. In 2020, we're up to six squads. The Eagles dropped out, as injuries to Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert limited their two-tight end packages. But Stefanski brought his offense and his love of multiple-tight end sets to Cleveland, and Arthur Smith's Titans offense experimented more with having Jonnu Smith or Anthony Firkser paired with either Geoff Swaim or MyCole Pruitt as a blocking tight end. It's just that the major 11 personnel drop-offs that we saw with teams suchs as the Titans, Browns, and Giants were almost exactly wiped out by increases in 11 personnel for the Eagles, Broncos, and Chiefs. Leaguewide equilibrium maintained.
It's interesting to track which of these changes were caused by personnel movement and which were caused by coaching changes. The drop in 11-personnel usage by Cleveland is obviously a Stefanski thing, and Joe Brady's first year in Carolina went more or less how you'd expect, but you may be a little surprised to see the Giants falling so far. Jason Garrett's Cowboys teams generally used 11 personnel at an above-average rate; they were at 67.5% in each of the last two years. But Garrett wasn't calling plays in Dallas over the past few seasons. The last season Garrett called plays for the Cowboys was back in 2012, and he used plenty of two-tight end sets back then, pairing Jason Witten with the likes of John Phillips and Martellus Bennett. So seeing so much Kaden Smith on the field probably shouldn't have been too much of a shock, considering. The Giants receiving corps has been massively overhauled this season, but with Garrett still calling the plays, expect more 2-TE looks in the future.
The teams that increased usage are a little harder to pin down. Not the Broncos, mind you—they replaced offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello with Pat Shurmur, and Shurmur's Giants generally leaned on three- and four-receiver sets. But the Chiefs and Eagles turned to more three-receiver sets with no changes at playcaller. We already mentioned the Eagles' injuries at tight end, while Andy Reid saw his highest 11-personnel percentage in a decade; Kansas City's two-tight end set rate plummeted. That's a bigger impact than I would have thought losing Blake Bell would have caused, frankly. Bell's back and Sammy Watkins is gone, so maybe this is a one-year blip.
Man, the Vikings really do stand out there, don't they? When Kevin Stefanski took his system to Cleveland, he certainly didn't remove Minnesota's reliance on heavy formations. They used 11, 21, and 12 personnel basically interchangeably, with all three personnel groupings being used between 22% and 28% of the time. They join Arizona as the only two teams to have at least 200 snaps out of three different personnel groupings, and the Cardinals only got there because they loved sticking four receivers onto the field. Minnesota went big; they were the only team with at least 397 snaps with either two or more running backs or two or more tight ends on the field (and yes, I am frustrated they didn't get to 400 snaps with two running backs, why do you ask?). Minnesota had the likes of Irv Smith, C.J. Ham, and Chad Beebe running on and off the field on a regular situational basis. And seeing how 11 personnel was their worst personnel grouping, with their 4.0% DVOA there being lower than any other grouping with at least 10 snaps, you could make an argument that they were right to flee from three-wide sets. While other teams occasionally struggled in 11 personnel, no other team in the league saw it as their worst formation. I will note that the Vikings used more 11 personnel early in the season, going from 37.2% in September down to 23.7% in December, culminating with just 44 snaps of 11 personnel over the last four weeks of the season. Perhaps Gary Kubiak and company grew confident in just having Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson out there as Jefferson proved his mettle over the course of the year.
But the Vikings aren't the only team with some interesting personnel management last season. Let's go ahead and run the table showing all the different ways teams deviated from 11 personnel—be it by bringing second and third tight ends on the field, employing a fullback and pretending it's 1964 all over again, or by loading the field up with receivers and slinging the ball around, Air Raid style.
|Number of Plays in Different Personnel Groups|
With the 2010s seeing the rise of the three-receiver set, will the 2020s follow suit with the four-receiver set reigning supreme? It will if Kliff Kingsbury has anything to say about it. The Cardinals' 213 snaps with four or more receivers on the field were actually down a little from 2019, but are still more than three standard deviations above the average. It worked, too; the Cardinals had an 18.7% DVOA in 10 personnel, compared to 0.0% in 11 and -2.3% in 12. No matter how many actual receivers they had on the field, Arizona loved working with an empty backfield, with Kyler Murray's scrambling ability being the only rushing threat they needed. Of course, four receivers really do leave a flashing sign saying things are going to be a pass … which explains why the Bills were the other team with triple-digit 4+-WR snaps; they showed very little interest in running the ball at any point in 2020. With Emmanuel Sanders arriving to replace John Brown alongside Stefon Diggs, Cole Beasley, and Gabriel Davis, it's entirely possible they'll top the Cardinals in this category in 2021.
At least the Cardinals had the decency to use a tight end or two at times; the Bills were one of two teams to have less than 1,000 tight end snaps in 2020. The other was the New England Patriots, who had a league-low 23 snaps with more than one tight end on the field. Considering they just spent $87.5 million to bring in Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry, I somehow suspect that stat is likely to change this season. Call it a hunch.
Smith moving from Tennessee to New England, as well as Arthur Smith being replaced by Todd Downing, will make the Titans' offense an interesting one in 2021. With both Jonnu Smith and McCole Pruitt gone, and the Titans not adding any significant tight ends this offseason, that leaves an Anthony Firkser/Geoff Swaim combination if the Titans want to run two-tight end sets on a regular basis. I suspect the departure of the various Smiths and the arrival of Julio Jones will see the Titans drop off this particular list going forwards. Arthur Smith going to the Falcons might well have a similar effect as Kevin Stefanski going to the Browns had last season; the Browns went from a middling 268 snaps with at least two tight ends on the field in 2019 to a league-leading 518 in 2020. Coordinators have a lot of say in what their team looks like on the field; film at 11. Or 12, in this case.
The Vikings were joined by the 49ers, Ravens, and Patriots as teams with more than 300 snaps with multiple backs in the backfield, and I again curse Minnesota and Baltimore for not having just a couple more plays so I could round that up to a nice even 400. San Francisco's Kyle Juszczyk is uniquely important to his offense; he's the only fullback to get a full comment in Football Outsiders Almanac 2021 (available now!); the only player left in the league who plays a significant role as an old-school, all-purpose fullback and not just as a glorified H-back or undersized guard. Minnesota's C.J. Ham and Baltimore's Patrick Ricard are load-bearing parts of their team's respective running games. The Patriots, on the other hand, are likely to vacate a decent chunk of Jakob Johnson's snaps to their new two-tight end sets; there doesn't seem to be much call for a pure blocker in what New England wants to do going forward.
Death of the Sixth Lineman
We mentioned this earlier, but the decline in six-lineman sets is mostly due to George Fant leaving the Seahawks. Fant played a hybrid tackle/tight end role in Seattle, playing hundreds and hundreds of snaps as an extra run blocker between 2018 and 2019. Well, he played a ton of snaps in 2020 as well, but that was as the Jets' starting right tackle, to perhaps predictably poor results, and Seattle replaced most of Fant's snaps with actual tight ends. That left the extra lineman mantle in the hands of James Hurst in New Orleans and Matt Skura in Baltimore, with Skura taking on more snaps in jumbo after being benched for Patrick Mekari at center and after blocking tight end Nick Boyle went down with injury. Dedicated followers of the Big Man Touchdown hope that someone else steps up going forward, but regular-use sixth linemen are nearly always the result of emergency circumstances and not a dedicated play-calling strategy.
Odds 'n' Ends
We close with some final tidbits from our personnel files:
- I don't get what the Raiders were doing last season. Most teams' 11 personnel usage in 2020 makes sense, but not Las Vegas'—they saw their DVOA rise by 15.1% when they went into 11 personnel, and yet they ranked 26th in actually using it. It's like they forgot it existed in the middle of the season; they used 11 personnel just 40.7% of the time from Week 5 to Week 11, and 55.3% of the time at the beginning and end of the year. That middle portion of the season is when we saw plenty of Jason Witten on field next to Darren Waller, as well as 5-10 snaps a game where the two would be joined by Foster Moreau in three-tight end sets. That seems like a degree of overthinking, when you could just trot Henry Ruggs, Hunter Renfrow, and Nelson Agholor out there on a regular basis with fairly clearly superior results.
- Then again … the Raiders and Browns were the two teams to use three or more tight ends on at least 100 snaps, and both managed positive DVOAs while doing so. Then again then again, the Raiders had a 50/50 run-pass split with three-plus tight ends on the field and still managed a -6.8% DVOA when running the ball in those jumbo sets, so I'm back to just scratching my head there.
- The Rams retain their crown with the least diverse personnel groupings in football. The Rams ran 702 snaps in 11 personnel, 326 snaps in 12, 44 snaps in 13, two snaps in 02, and one snap in 01. That's it. The Rams used 118 different offensive lineup combinations over the course of the season, by far the fewest in the league. To put that into context, Washington was 31st with 200 different offensive lineups, while the Saints led the league with 545.
- There was one unique personnel grouping in the league last year. In Week 17 against Cincinnati, the Ravens stuck J.K. Dobbins, Gus Edwards, and Patrick Ricard next to Lamar Jackson in the pistol, with Miles Boykin and Dez Bryant split out wide. There were 12 plays in 2020 with three running backs on the field, but that was the only 30 formation the league saw last year. The play call? With three backs in the backfield, obviously Jackson ended up keeping the ball himself and running for 20 yards. The resulting 230.3% DVOA makes that, technically, the best personnel grouping in football last season, so long as you allow a sample size of one. Long live the full house backfield!
- Thirty teams ran at least a few snaps in 21 personnel; even pass-happy teams such as Buffalo and Pittsburgh found a way to sneak a second running back onto the field once or twice. The two exceptions were the aforementioned Rams and your Super Bowl champion Buccaneers. As someone who grew up in the era of the pro set and the I-formation, this is a personal affront. Remember, this is personnel data and not formation data, and both teams did put a tight end in the backfield once or twice a game, but that just doesn't give you the same thrill.
- That burst of 01 personnel comes mostly from Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Carolina, all of whom had at least 50 snaps with one tight end and no running back on the field. For the Panthers, that feels very much like a reaction to the Christian McCaffrey injury; Mike Davis is just not the same kind of receiving threat. In Pittsburgh, the arrival of Eric Ebron turned some of 2019's 00 sets into 01s. As for the Bears, they spent much of last offseason collecting every tight end they could find, with nine on the roster at one point during the offseason. Have to figure out some way to get them all on the field.
- 20 personnel disappeared from our main table this year. In 2019, Cleveland had led the way with 77 snaps, but I'm fairly sure Kevin Stefanski is allergic to not having tight ends on the field; the Browns only had two such snaps in all of 2020.