The New York Giants 2021 mini-camp has let out, so that means that Summer School is back in session.
This year I wanted to start on the offensive side of the ball by taking a look at one of the basics of offensive football and play design: Offensive personnel groupings.
Personnel groupings are one of the fundamental aspects of football, and the choices offensive coordinators make in particular, have a massive impact on the design of the play and how the defense will react to it. Whenever we watch film, one of the first steps is to identify the offensive personnel group and alignment. That simple step of identifying the grouping and alignment of the offensive skill position players can give us a great deal of insight into what both the offense and defense are looking to accomplish on a given play.
We’re going to get started by taking a closer look at the most popular and widely used personnel grouping in the NFL, the 11 Personnel package.
How personnel groups are named
Perhaps it says something about how the offensive minds of yesteryear viewed offensive football — and by extension their skill position players — that personnel groupings are most commonly named based on the number of running backs and tight ends on the field.
We commonly hear personnel groups called out as being “21 Personnel” or, the subject of this piece, “11 Personnel”. While offenses have used a number of different naming schemes over the years, the general convention is to count the number of running backs and tight ends (in that order), making “21 personnel” a grouping of two running backs (or a running back and a fullback), and a tight end.
As there are always five offensive linemen and the quarterback on the field, that leaves the wide receivers to fill out the 11 positions. So, “12 personnel” is actually a grouping of one (1) running back, two (2) tight ends, and two (2) receivers, filling out the five skill position players (besides the quarterback) eligible to receive and advance the ball.
Therefore, when we say “11 Personnel” we are talking about a three-receiver set which uses just one running back and one tight end.
11 Personnel packages have absolutely exploded in popularity over the last few years, dominating offensive play-calling and becoming the de facto base package for almost every team in the NFL. To put the package’s rise in usage in context, roughly 34 percent of offensive plays were called out of 11 personnel back in 2008 (per Pro Football Focus). In 2020 the league average was 60 percent, with an average of 61.6 percent of plays being called out of 11 personnel per SharpFootballStats.
Last year the Cincinnati Bengals lead the league with 76 percent of their plays coming with three receivers on the field, while at times some teams have blown past even that. In 2016, the Giants fielded 11 personnel packages on 90 percent of their plays, and in 2018 Sean McVay’s Rams surpassed that mark, using 11 personnel on 95 percent of plays before wide receiver Cooper Kupp tore his ACL in Week 10 of that year.
Back in 2008, 11 personnel was generally viewed around the league as a collegiate gimmick and was, for the most part, reserved for third-and-long situations. There were notable exceptions, such as the New England Patriots, who made the “spread” offense a staple in their offense, but most teams had not yet embraced it.
So how did the 11 personnel package rise to such prominence in the professional game? As with most things, the answers range from simple to complex.
The easiest answer is that this is largely the hand the NFL is being dealt by the college ranks. Almost every college program, even the mighty NFL factories in the SEC, have embraced spread concepts in their offenses and that has lead to them churning out NFL caliber receivers at an incredible rate. The uneven nature of college recruiting has largely driven the shift from run-first to pass-first offenses at the grass-roots level in college. Small programs struggle to compete with the football factories in recruiting, so they need to find innovative ways to put themselves in position to compete on the field.
So while programs might not be able to find enough offensive linemen with the rare physical traits to allow them to pound the ball on the ground, they can find relatively average sized athletes who can run fast and catch the ball. That tactic proved successful — and threatening — enough that even the big programs took notice.
Forward-thinking coaches and general managers in the NFL took notice of the trends in college football and were proactive in adapting their schemes to ride the wave of change which was about to break on the shores of the NFL. Eventually even the most “Old School” and conservatively-minded teams came to the same conclusion as the traditional college powerhouses: If you want to win games, you need to score points and high-octane passing attacks featuring 11 personnel “spread” personnel groupings are just better at that than the slower, heavier packages fielded in years past.
There are, of course, a number of other reasons why teams have largely adopted 11 personnel as their base package. We’ll get to a few of those in a little bit as we discuss the specific pros and cons of the three-receiver set.
What it looks like
While there are an incredible number of ways in which an offensive coordinator can line up his skill position players in an 11 personnel grouping, they generally fall into two main groupings. Almost every 11-personnel formation sees the offense line up in either a 3x1 or 2x2 set.
*Note: There are several rules set by the NFL which determine whether a formation is legal.
The 3x1 set consists of three eligible receivers on one side of the formation (either three receivers or two receivers and a tight end) and a single receiver or tight end on the other side. The 2x2 set has two eligible receivers line up on both sides of the offensive formation. As long as teams follow the rules constituting a “legal” formation, thes can line the tight end up on either side, stack receivers to make man coverage more difficult, or use bunch formations to help secure free releases. The possibilities aren’t endless, but there are a lot of them.
Benefits of the 11-personnel package
As mentioned above, building for an 11-personnel offense allows a team to more easily play the hand dealt to them by the college ranks. NFL teams can only draft the players coming out of college, and that heavily influences the way teams are constructed and can play on game day. Though coaches have tried to fight the trend over the years, teams have done better to make the best use of the players available. Basing their offenses in 11-personnel also helps to allow teams to get the most out of players early in their careers. Teams have learned over the last decade that they can get their players on the field earlier by using them in roles which are similar to what they played in college than forcing a longer development as they adapt to a “pro style” offense. This doesn’t just hold for receivers, but every player on the field, as the personnel grouping allows offensive coordinators to cater to younger quarterbacks and linemen as well as the eligible receivers.
On the field, one the main driving forces behind the rise of 11-personnel in the NFL is the sheer versatility of the personnel grouping. Using the three receiver set, the offense can choose to call a balanced or unbalanced formation, change the spacing between players to create conflicts in coverage, call enhanced protections, as well as provide solid blocking for running plays.
As we might expect from a formation with three receivers on the field, the 11-personnel grouping (generally speaking) makes for a relatively efficient passing formation. Wide receivers typically run routes a bit further downfield than tight ends or running backs, getting into the 10-15 yard range where value is maximized compared to the risk of turnover. Historically, 11-personnel packages have also attacked the weaknesses of “base” defensive personnel packages. A three-receiver set either forces the defense to match the third receiver with a linebacker or safety, which is almost always a win for the offense, or substitute in a fifth defensive back. Teams might not have a third cornerback who is as good a player or athlete as the third receiver.
The flip side of the offense using an extra receiver to force the defense to lighten its own personnel grouping is that it makes life easier on running backs. Along with using wide spacings to spread out defensive fronts, forcing smaller, lighter defenders onto the field creates better matchups for the offensive blockers. As we saw in last year’s edition of Summer School when we took a look at the analytics behind running the ball, one of the best things an offensive coordinator can do for his running game is force the defense to be smaller and more spread out.
And while relatively few coaches have yet to embrace it (surprisingly, former Giants head coach Ben McAdoo was one of the first) the 11-personnel set can be a better option for running the ball than the heavier sets favored by most offenses. Sean McVay and the Rams showed this to great effect, with Todd Gurley getting MVP consideration when their offense was able to play out of 11-personnel (and therefore run the ball out of 11-personnel) on nearly every play.
Drawbacks of 11-personnel
First, we’ll start with an entirely pragmatic reason why maintaining deep and talented 11-personnel offenses can be tricky for teams: Wide receivers are expensive.
While teams can always find receivers in the draft — and colleges are pumping out increasingly deep and talented receiver draft classes — they are finding it necessary to select even tertiary receivers highly to ensure they get ones with the skill sets to be true mismatches. Likewise, good wide receivers are often among the mostly highly prized, and therefore expensive, players on the free agent market. Long gone are the days when adding a receiver is a “luxury” for a team. Nowadays, teams need at least two good receivers to field a viable passing offense, and they would rather field three dangerous receivers than two. That puts a strain on teams’ resources and they can’t always muster the resources to fill out their depth charts in the ways they would like. That forces them to either adapt once more or play their preferred style of offense with less adequate players.
Moving onto the field, we’ve already acknowledged that the 11-personnel grouping offers impressive versatility and a variety of ways with which an offense can attack a defense. However, the specialist nature of wide receivers can limit the offense’s ability to use misdirection in designing plays.
Tight ends, H-backs, and fullbacks tend to be more generalist in nature (at least in the modern NFL), which can allow offenses more freedom in designing misdirection. For the most part, receivers are either catching the ball or trying to block someone on the perimeter. They can go into jet motion — sprinting across the offensive formation in the backfield prior to the snap — to help give the defense something else to keep track of. And receivers can be ball carriers on jet sweeps or end-arounds, but those plays can be dealt with fairly well by a disciplined defense.
Teams that rely heavily on 11-personnel and spread concepts can be prone to slipping into noticeable tendencies and become relatively predictable for defenses. That isn’t a given, and creative play callers can certainly give defenses fits with the personnel grouping, but the trap is there for coaches who don’t make the effort to add wrinkles to their game plans.
Likewise, modern defenses have adapted to the 11-personnel package. As NFL offenses have looked to the college ranks for inspiration and every advantage they can find, so too have NFL defenses. Not only are college defenses beginning to produce players who blur the lines between linebacker and defensive back, giving the teams a player who can match the versatility of the 11-personnel set on offense. College defenses, particularly those in the Big XII are also experimenting and devising ways to slow down (if not stop) the high-powered spread offenses they see on a weekly basis.
NFL defenses are largely adopting the nickel package as their base defense, and more of them are actively consulting with collegiate coaches on ways to counter the increasingly wide-open offenses popping up in the NFL.
However, as long as the rules and rosters still favor the passing game, we will still likely see the 11-personnel package dominate NFL offenses.