As the NFL enters the spread era, matchups have become more important than ever and teams employ a variety of strategies to get favorable matchups that can lead to big plays and points. The most basic strategies involve different personnel groupings and formations, mixing and matching players and moving them around. For example, motioning a running back lined up in the backfield into the slot and matching him up against a linebacker. After a quarterback and five offensive linemen that leaves five spots for skill players. In the current decade the most common personnel grouping is 11, or one running back and one tight end, which leaves three receivers. 12 personnel would be one running back and two tight ends and therefore two receivers, and so on. Splitting a running back out wide still counts as a running back.
In fact, per Football Outsiders, the amount the NFL has run 11 personnel has increased every year, from 40 percent in 2010 to over 60 percent in 2016. In 2012 it became the NFL’s most effective personnel grouping. 2017 was the first year to see a decrease, though it was slight. This increase in usage has coincided with a trend among teams throwing shorter and quicker passes but relying on explosive skill players to gain yards after the catch. The key is getting that player out in space. Hence, the spread. As it proliferates and begins to dominate the NFL (could argue the Eagles have proved it already dominates) teams should get better at being more explosive.
Bryan Knowles, who wrote this article for Football Outsiders, also had this to say:
Tarik Cohen was targeted 35 times out wide or in the slot. He still counts as a running back, so he allowed the Bears to have a three-wide look without actually using three wideouts. Alvin Kamara in New Orleans and Christian McCaffrey in Carolina offer the same sort of versatility, regularly splitting out wide for teams that used 11 personnel less than half the time. The 49ers, Patriots, and Ravens also all used 11 personnel less than half the time; they had the second-, third-, and fourth-most running back pass targets. When you have a running back who can catch the ball, be it split out wide or not, there’s less need to actually get extra receivers out onto the field.
Could we see Ronald Jones split out wide a few times next season? Motioning running backs out wide seems to be the next trend in the NFL.
So where did Tampa Bay’s offense rank when using 11 personnel last season?
Tampa was in 11 personnel 62.1 percent of the time in 2017, 14th-most in the league. Their DVOA, or defense-adjusted value over average, was 19.5 percent, or 19 percent better than an average team. That’s good enough to rank eighth-best in the NFL! It’s also worth noting that overall Tampa had the ninth-best passing offense in the NFL last season.
Here’s the top ten in 11-personnel in order, with the QB’s total-DVOA ranking in parentheses: Saints (Brees - 3rd), Chiefs (Alex Smith - 10th), Chargers (Rivers - 4th), Patriots (Brady - 2nd), Steelers (Roethlisberger - 8th), Rams (Goff - 5th), Eagles (Wentz - 6th), Bucs (Winston - 12th), Seahawks (Wilson - 15th), and the Vikings (Keenum - 1st). Appears to be more than a little correlation there, and I’m willing to bet with total team passing values as well.
What about other personnel groupings?
The Bucs had just three primary groupings, accounting for 95 percent of all their plays last season: 11, 12 (24 percent), and 13 (nine percent). But, collectively, their DVOA on their non-11 sets was -1.8 percent, which ranks eighteenth. That was the seventh-largest difference in the NFL.
What can we take away from all this?
First off, it seems that Tampa should be running 11 personnel more than they are. Eighth-best but only running it 14th most? It would be fine if Tampa was good with two tight ends of the field, but surprisingly they weren’t. But why was Tampa so much worse when it traded in a receiver for an extra tight end or two? Tampa should have one of the best, most talented tight end duos in the entire league. Was it the talent at running back? The lack of rushing success in those heavy sets? Or something more?
What’s also interesting is Tampa’s best rushing success rate in fact came out of 11 personnel, and not the heavier run-looks of 12 and 13 personnel. Perhaps it’s because with three receivers Tampa is able to spread the field more, not allowing defenders to crowd the box. I expect Ronald Jones to do really well running from more spread out sets like that. Another thing worth noting is Tampa, when lined up in the shotgun, had the second-highest pass rate in the league at ninety percent. Was this because they didn’t feel like they had a running back who could run from shotgun? Jones should help tremendously here as well, because one way or another Tampa has to be much less predictable going forward.
At this point it’s hard to know the definitive answers to some of these questions. Tampa is loaded at receiver and 11 personnel should continue to be a strong point for the offense going into the 2018 season and beyond, but there are clearly things to work on.