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Passing Fancy, or Long-Term Trend?

A Twitter post by Bobby Skinner today raised the question of what happens to Darius Slayton when he and Sterling Shepard are healthy again, considering the emergence of Kadarius Toney and John Ross last Sunday and the Giants' like of 2 TE offensive sets.

This got me thinking about personnel groupings and trends in those. It's often noted that the NFL has become a pass-first league. Can this be seen in the prevalence of personnel grouping usage league-wide? The 3 most popular groupings are, in order, 11 (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR), 12 (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR), and 21 (2 RB, 1 TE, 2 WR). You can pass out of any formation, but 11 is the most aggressive pass-heavy look (except for the infrequently used 10 and 01 groupings, which have 4 WR) League-wide over the past 6 years, here is how usage has evolved (from Sharp Football Stats):

2016: 11 (56%), 12 (22%), 21 (8%), other (14%)
2017: 11 (54%), 12 (23%), 21 (8%), other (15%)
2018: 11 (65%), 12 (17%), 21 (8%), other (10%)
2019: 11 (60%), 12 (20%), 21 (8%), other (12%)
2020: 11 (60%), 12 (20%), 21 (7%), other (13%)
2021: 11 (58%), 12 (22%), 21 (7%), other (13%) through 4 weeks

So the change in league emphasis seemed to occur from 2017 to 2018 (coincidentally or not, the start of the Patrick Mahomes era) and declined a bit after that, but league-wide the change has only been a few percent. Added to that however is how often teams pass vs. run out of a given set. For 11 personnel, the % of plays that were passes has been 62%, 61%, 67%, 67%, 67%, 69% over the 6 years. Together these stats show the increased prevalence of passing in the NFL. This seems here to stay for a while, with analytics showing that passing-oriented offenses are more productive for the vast majority of teams, Baltimore Ravens notwithstanding.

How about the Giants under different regimes? Under Ben McAdoo in 2016, the Giants ran 11 personnel an amazing 91% of the time - no other team ran 11 more than 75%. The Giants' predictability that year was one thing that was blamed for that team's poor offense. McAdoo passed 62% of the time when he had the Giants in 11 and ran 38% of the time. In 2017 he dialed 11 usage back to 54%, equal to the league average.

Pat Shurmur ran 11 personnel 61% of the time in 2018, a little below league average, but passed 74% of the time when he was in 11, so that offense was also fairly predictable but in a different way than it has been under McAdoo. In 2019, Shurmur upped his 11 usage to 74% but only passed 60% of the time he was in 11.

Last year Jason Garrett ran 11 personnel only 55% of the time, passing 71% of the time out of it. This year, though, the Giants have run 11 personnel 66% of the time so far, above the league average, passing 69% of time they are 11.

Around the NFL, there is a wide variety of personnel grouping usage. The high end of 11 usage is by the LA Rams (82%), Pittsburgh (81), and WFT (80%). LAR doesn't surprise me since they have dangerous WRs and Sean McVay is at the forefront of modern creative passing offenses. Pittsburgh and Washington, I'm not sure, maybe it's just that both teams have good depth at WR.

At the low end, 11 has been run this year least often by Atlanta (31%), Baltimore (33%), Las Vegas (35%), and Arizona (39%). Atlanta's is not surprising, despite their having a borderline HOF QB in Matt Ryan, because they are now coached by Arthur Smith, who only ran 11 38% of the time last year when he was Tennessee's OC; he liked 12 looks a lot with Derrick Henry and 2 TEs. Before Smith's arrival Atlanta ran 11 61% of the time. Baltimore's low 11 usage is not surprising since they are a run-heavy team - they use a lot of 21 (26%) and even 22 (22%) looks. Las Vegas uses a lot more 21 (17%) and 22 (11%) than most teams.

The real surprise to me is Arizona. They should be a pass-happy offense with Kyler Murray slinging to DeAndre Hopkins, A.J. Green, Rondale Moore, Christian Kirk, etc., right? So why so little 11? Answer: What they like to do is to go even lighter. They've run 23% of all plays this year in 10 (4 WR) sets. They actually run a decent bit out of that 10 grouping (38% of 10 personnel plays are rushes), but they show a look that says "attack" to defenses a lot of the time.

Which brings me back to the 2021 New York Giants. Here is my summary of our offense at the present time:

1. We have a great RB who nonetheless is not great at quickly hitting holes.

2. That same RB, however, can be devastating as a pass receiver (see 4th quarter, NO).

3. We have a QB who is showing that he can excel in downfield passing.

4. We have an OL that is showing itself to be OK in pass protection but is underwhelming in run blocking.

5. And we are about to have a (good) WR problem. In several weeks Sterling Shepard and Darius Slayton should be back from their hamstring injuries. We have a big X receiver in Kenny Golladay who is starting to develop chemistry with Jones. And we have a 1st round draft pick in Kadarius Toney who must be causing sleepless nights for defensive coordinators watching him create missed tackles and YAC to do things like convert a 3rd-and-18 on a 5-yard pass. And we have blazing fast John Ross, who caused the DBs to shift deeper as soon as he came into the game, who caught a 52-yard TD pass despite that, and who, because of that threat of speed, was easily able to create separation on a medium-length comeback route for a 17-yard first down in the overtime game-winning drive.

That's 5 good, several potentially great, WRs, and that doesn't even count Collin Johnson, who's shown us he can catch the ball, and C.J. Board, who is not a liability either. In practice all 5 of the top WRs are or may be injury-prone, so on any given Sunday, we may be lucky to have 3 of them available. But maybe sometimes they will all be available. What do we do then?

The knee-jerk answer I see on Twitter is: Bench Slayton. He doesn't get open enough, he drops too many balls. Fair points. But a lot of that happened when he was covered by CB1s. He probably won't see a CB1 up close the rest of the season. Against CB2s or worse, he is still a dangerous threat. He shouldn't be buried on the depth chart.

Instead, why not start running 10 personnel a decent fraction of the time? That only gets 4 of our 5 top WRs on the field at once, but with WR4 being covered by CB4 or S1, and Barkley by S2, that could be a devastating look for us. The Cardinals are doing it a decent bit and they are 4-0, so it can't hurt too much. And 3-1 Buffalo has run 10 personnel 13% of the time this year. Keep all the receivers happy when they're healthy, have depth for when they're not all healthy.

I know, this is the tradition-bound Giants. The Giants have not run 10 personnel for even 1 play since Joe Judge became head coach. But we HAVE run 01 personnel (0 RB, 1 TE, 4 WR) 5 times this season. That would be OK too. (Shurmur ran 10 12 times in 2 years with the Giants.) Let's be the Greatest Show on...whatever that stuff at MetLife is that causes all the injuries.

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