Fun With Formations: Wide Receiver Sets and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers

"Aaaaahhhhhhh!"

Football Outsiders just published their data for formations, using the amount of wide receivers in the play as the determining factor. The most interesting stat of all is that the Bucs were the 3rd-best team in the NFL when running sets with 3 wide receivers. Almost all of those 3 wide receiver sets came with Josh Freeman in the shotgun, with Kellen Winslow as the tight end (or really, fourth receiver), and Cadillac Williams as the blocking back. Of the 446 snaps the Bucs took with 3 wide receivers on the field, a whopping 372 or 83% were taken from the shotgun. 

Interestingly that formation was so successful despite a total lack of a will to run the ball from that formation. The Bucs rushed just 82 times with 3 receivers on the field, or 18% of the time. This formation was a staple of the passing game, basically the only formation the Bucs used in two-minute situation, and Josh Freeman's most productive personnel grouping. The Bucs were even better from 4 and 5 receiver sets, by the way, but they only ran those 2% of the time, and most of them featured the same personnel as 3-receiver sets, only with a tight end and/or running back split out wide. 

Only two teams in the NFL were better in formations with 3 wide receivers: the San Diego Chargers and the New England Patriots. With 3 wide receivers, one tight end and Cadillac Williams as a blocker, Josh Freeman has a lot of options to find an open receiver. In addition, having Cadillac Williams there gives him more versatility in pass protection, as well as a dump-off option. These 3-wide sets are a staple of all powerful passing offenses, with the Packers, Colts, Patriots and Eagles all using them over 40% of the time. This formation should continue to be a staple of the Bucs offense. 

Interestingly, the Bucs did not do nearly as well on 2WR sets, ranking 19th in efficiency in the NFL with 2 wide receivers on the field. A large part of this is the frequency of runs, as most of the Bucs runs came out of 2WR sets. Since the Bucs weren't nearly as good at running as they were at passing, it only stands to reason that the Bucs are less efficient than when they run less. In addition, this formation also decreases the efficiency of the passing game, as either 2 tight ends or a tight end and a fullback have to be on the field in these sets. This makes them better suited to running the ball, but limited as a staple of a passing offense. 

I knew the Bucs had a good passing offense, especially from the shotgun, but I was still surprised to see that they were 3rd best in the league last season with 3 WRs on the field. If anything this should prompt the coaching staff to give Josh Freeman more weapons on more downs. The fact that the Bucs drafted Luke Stocker seems to indicate that they want to run more 2TE (and less 3WR) sets, but at the same time Stocker is a threat as a receiver and hence fits that profile. 

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