2021 Offensive Personnel Analysis: Rams and Bengals Go to 11
NFL Offseason - We're now entering our tenth season of the 11 personnel era. In 2013, 11 personnel surpassed 50% of all offensive snaps for the first time, continuing a pattern that had begun since we first started collecting personnel data. We have seen 11 personnel usage increase in all but two years since 2010, and it has stayed comfortably over the 50% mark for nearly a decade at this point. And the greatest adherents to the system have seen the greatest success. Last year's Super Bowl saw Sean McVay's Los Angeles Rams, who used the most 11 personnel in the league last season, defeat Zac Taylor's Cincinnati Bengals, who used the second-most 11 personnel in the league. It was the crowning achievement for the league's most common personnel grouping.
But under the surface, another change is happening. When I first started writing these yearly offensive personnel analyses after the 2016 season, it was the first time that every other personnel grouping had dropped below 20%. It has stayed that way ever since, until now. Two-tight end sets have seen a bit of a resurgence over the past few seasons and have once again passed that 20% barrier. Are teams around the league experimenting more and more with replacing those third receivers with second tight ends? Or is something fishy going on here?
Before we go any further, we should clarify a few things. This is personnel data, not formation data. When Cordarrelle Patterson goes out wide, he's still counted as a running back. When Deebo 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||2020 Pct||2021 Pct||Difference||2021 DVOA|
There's a little bit of a trend towards more beef in 2021, though it's spread out among multiple formations and sets. Last year, 30.1% of offensive plays had either multiple tight ends or extra offensive linemen, up from 28.6% in 2020. That's not a huge increase, but it's the most significant movement we saw in 2021.
Usage of 11 personnel has more or less plateaued; it has now been between 58% and 60% in four of the past five seasons. The league as a whole seems comfortable with how frequently they're trotting out slot receivers, and there aren't many situations where you can comfortably increase slot rate without going crazy like McVay and just using three receivers on essentially every snap.
Then again, the NFL is a copycat league, and McVay just won the Super Bowl by using three receivers on essentially every snap. Five teams hit 70% 11 personnel usage after rounding. Two of them just played in the Super Bowl, and a third, the Buffalo Bills, are our preseason favorites to win the Super Bowl this year. Never mind that the other two teams were disappointments in Washington and Pittsburgh—if you have a quarterback with a live arm, 11 personnel may well be the best way to maximize their production. Perhaps last season's results will be a tipping point to see more teams experiment with the upper limits of 11 personnel going forwards.
The overall table makes it look like 2021 was something of a holding year, with no significant changes around the league. That opinion quickly goes away when you look on a team level, however, so let's get to that.
Something in the Water
In 2020, for the first time in years, we saw every team use 11 personnel as its most frequent personnel grouping. But in 2021, we saw one team boldly zig while the rest of the league zagged. For the first time since 2012, a team used a personnel group other than 11 personnel more than 50% of the time. The leaders of the 12 personnel revolution, boldly moving us into a new, two-tight end future were the, er, Miami Dolphins.
|DVOA in 11 Personnel|
Yes, when I said something was fishy with our 12 personnel numbers, that was a regrettable pun. The Dolphins ran 667 snaps in 12 personnel, more than twice as many as second-place Green Bay (322). Remove the Dolphins from the equation and 12 personnel would come out at 18.8% of the league's plays; Miami raises the number by 1.3% by themselves. Mike Gesicki is really a tight end in name only, leading his position with 86% of his targets coming lined up either in the slot or out wide. Durham Smythe was the in-line blocking guy, helping out a porous offensive line. So what you're seeing there is less "brilliant two-tight end design" and more "Will Fuller is hurt, and you think we're going to trust Albert Wilson or Mack Hollins out there? Please." The fact that Miami dropped nearly 30% in their 11 personnel usage is more a result of Fuller's injury than anything intentional. With Mike McDaniel replacing the two-headed monster of George Godsey and Eric Studesville calling plays and Tyreek Hill and Cedric Wilson coming in in the offseason, expect this to be a one-year blip.
Many of the big changes from 2020 can be attributed to specific changes in those teams' situations. The Falcons saw their 12-personnel usage jump 9.8% because it's good to get Kyle Pitts onto the field as much as possible, especially when your top remaining wide receiver is away from the team. The Jets imported the Shanahan system from San Francisco, but without a Kyle Juszczyk, they increased their two-tight end sets by 3.8% to compensate. On the other side, the Titans went to more three-wide sets as a result of losing Jonnu Smith, and the Vikings had to make the same adjustment with the loss of Irv Smith. You run with the players you have, not the players you wish you had.
And that brings us to Sean McVay and the Rams. In 2018, the Rams set the modern record by using 11 personnel 92.3% of the time, basically only dropping out of it during Todd Gurley's injury at the back end of the season. They have never been able to repeat that mark, dropping to 73.4% in 2019 and 65.3% in 2020 thanks in part to injuries and inconsistency at the running back position. Well, they were back to playing McVay's idealized version of football last season, climbing to 84.9%. That was the most 11 personnel in football, the biggest jump in 11 personnel from 2020, and the biggest gap between DVOA in and out of 11 personnel. This is how McVay wants to play football—the Rams had four games where they played 11 personnel on literally every snap.
Most divergences from that game plan were forced by things out of McVay's control. The most snaps they had in a game not in 11 personnel was against the Seahawks in Week 15, with 31 out of 60 snaps being in other formations. That, of course, was the game delayed two days by COVID, with 29 players spending time on the reserve list and players such as Tyler Higbee and Rob Havenstein missing the contest entirely, forcing some reshuffling and emergency game management decisions based on availability. McVay's scheme is all about getting the most possible looks and plays from the same personnel rather than bringing in ideal players for given plays and tipping hands. Maybe that's the optimal way to play football in the 2020s; it may say something that the Rams and Bengals combined for just one play last season with two running backs on the field, and just 38 plays with more than three receivers. Three wide, one back, and go.
It's not a cheat code to success, mind you. The Bears and Panthers each used 11 personnel more than 60% of the time but saw their DVOA drop by over 20.0% when in 11 personnel compared to everything else. Both teams had substantially more success in 12 personnel, with the extra blocker giving their struggling quarterbacks more time to work, and the added value of their subpar third receivers not doing enough to offset that. You can't live in 11 personnel all the time if you don't have the receiving corps to make it work, or an offensive line that needs extra help, or a quarterback that crumbles under pressure. You have to adjust your offense to the personnel you have, which is why Matt Nagy is gone, as is Matt Rhule and … what, really? Huh. OK, Carolina, you do you.
The team that should cause the most initial confusion on the list is San Francisco. The 49ers are always near the top of the league in non-11 personnel and they continued their success their last season—ninth in overall DVOA outside of 11, and fifth in run DVOA specifically. But they jumped to second best in the league with three wideouts on the field, with only the Buccaneers more efficient passing and the Eagles more efficient running than the 49ers in three-wide sets. Some of that is the Deebo Samuel effect, as he's listed as a wideout even when he was in the backfield. But that's not everything going on here. From Weeks 1 to 9, before Samuel started lining up in the backfield, the 49ers were still 11th in DVOA out of 11 personnel, ahead of teams such as Buffalo and Kansas City. Obviously, Samuel's versatility took the 49ers' offense to the next level, but this is also credit to Jauan Jennings being arguably the best third receiver the 49ers have had since Shanahan arrived. Considering we're talking about a player with 28 career receptions, that tells you something about the state of San Francisco's third receiver position over the past few years. With the Deebo conflict still ongoing in San Francisco, it will be interesting to see how the 49ers offense continues to evolve from a personnel standpoint this season.
With 11 personnel being the predominant offensive formation, one of the more interesting ways to look at this data is to see in which ways teams deviated from the standard. Did they bring a second tight end on the field, either as an extra blocker or a glorified big slot receiver? Did they pretend it was 1963 and use a fullback? Did the go full Air Raid and put four or five receivers on the field? The answer tells you something about the character of the team.
|Number of Plays in Different Personnel Groups|
Our database has McVay calling just one play with two running backs as a head coach of the Los Angeles Rams, in a Week 5 game against the Seahawks in 2017. I believe it's a mistake, with tight end/H-back Derek Carrier lining up as fullback in the I-formation. You can't say that the man doesn't have a philosophy. The Rams only used 106 unique common lineups on offense; second place was the Vikings with 242. The Rams' most common lineup (Darrell Henderson, Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp, Van Jefferson, Tyler Higbee, and the fully healthy line) was used on 20.3% of their plays. No other team even topped 10% in any given lineup. Some of that is good health, but it's astonishing just how far above every other team the Rams were.
The Ravens take the crown from the 49ers in terms of most plays with multiple running backs, even though Kyle Juszczyk remains the most-used fullback in football. This isn't all Deebo Samuel, Wideback, either—the Ravens held the lead even before Samuel started making regular appearances in the backfield in Week 10. Patrick Ricard joined Juszczyk as the only fullbacks in the league to appear on more than 40% of their team's snaps. The 49ers did end up having more plays with multiple players in the backfield because Ricard lined up as a tight end far more than Jusczyzk did. Both teams actually fall behind New England in terms of players in the backfield, however. The Patriots had Jakob Johnson as an actual practicing fullback, and very rarely had two running backs on the field without having both of them in the backfield; no running backs as receivers or extra tight ends for New England last season. We thought that Johnson would shed some of his role to the pair of free-agent tight ends the Patriots last offseason, but perhaps their various wide receiver problems made that less appealing.
As previously mentioned, the Dolphins lap the field with 777 snaps with multiple tight ends, which is a crazy number—in 2020, the Browns led the league with 518. Miami joins Cleveland and Atlanta as the three teams with more snaps with multiple tight ends than out of 11 personnel, which makes sense when you remember that Gesicki and Pitts were basically wide receivers last year. The Browns were more of a traditional two-tight end team; while 53% of David Njoku's targets came with him wide or in the slot, you were much more likely to see the Browns in a true two-tight end set, with both Austin Hooper and either Njoku or Harrison Bryant actually lined up tight. The Browns were also the only team to use 13 personnel with any regularity, hitting 183 snaps with all three tight ends on the field. Kevin Stefanski's teams consistently appear near the top of the league in multi-tight end sets, and that shouldn't change with Hooper gone and Bryant firmly established as TE2. We may see a drop in three-tight end sets, however; the Browns ran 202 of those last year. We'll have to see if Miller Forristall becomes a name you'll have to know.
The Cardinals led the league with 163 snaps of four or more receivers, which is actually down from their league-leading total in 2020 despite the extra game. They are the only reason 10 personnel hits our main table; they had 154 of the 559 snaps in it last season. Arizona had a 54.8% DVOA with at least four receivers on the field; without them, the league's DVOA drops from 11.2% to 0.8%. Arizona was on pace to hit nearly 300 snaps after the first two months of the season, but DeAndre Hopkins' hamstring injury forced some significant alterations to Kliff Kingsbury's strategy. With Hopkins suspended for the first six weeks of the season, I'd expect the Cardinals to forgo four-wide sets until October at the earliest.
While four teams hit the 100-snap mark for extra linemen, the Saints were the only team to use it as a regular part of their game plan. The Lions basically used no big sets until December, when injuries and illness at the tight end position forced them to get creative. The Cowboys occasionally used Connor McGovern as a fullback for short-yardage situations. The Patriots' numbers are inflated by the weather game against Buffalo where they ran on 48 of 51 plays; as they weren't passing anyway, they ran plenty of six-linemen sets. Very situational in all cases.
The Saints, on the other hand, had at least 10 snaps with extra linemen in 10 games last season, and never had fewer than four, with lots of jumbo sets. It wasn't just the Taysom Hill package, either. New Orleans used extra linemen on 24% of Hill's snaps at quarterback, but they also used it on 15% of Jameis Winston's snaps and 13% of Trevor Siemian's snaps. Sean Payton just really, really liked using multiple linemen! We'll see how much that changes now that he has entered retirement, though the point of keeping Pete Carmichael as coordinator was to not fix what wasn't broke.