Welcome back to the Big Blue View classroom as the 2021 edition of our Summer School series continues.
Over the last few weeks we have been taking looks at the most popular personnel groupings employed by football teams at the college or professional levels. 12 personnel packages have always been a popular personnel grouping for football teams, though it has traditionally been looked at as a running set.
Multiple tight end sets were the New York Giants’ second most common personnel grouping in 2020, with the team playing 27 percent of their snaps with two tight ends on the field. They played another 100 snaps (10 percent) with three tight ends on the field, and all told 358 of the Giants’ 960 offensive snaps coming from a multiple tight end package. Only the Tennessee Titans (473 snaps) and the Cleveland Browns (452 snaps) used multiple tight ends more often than the Giants did in 2020 (all per SharpFootballStats)
And with the Giants making multiple additions to their tight end depth chart, it would likely behoove us to take a look at the personnel grouping they used so often.
What it looks like
If you’ve been following along with this year’s Summer School series, the naming scheme regarding personnel groupings should be predictable by now. The “12 personnel” package features one (1) running back and two (2) tight ends, as well as two wide receivers.
12 personnel packages can take on a variety of looks based on the players available and how they want to manipulate the defense.
Teams can use 12 personnel in traditional formations with the quarterback under center and tight ends attached to the offensive line, as well as in spread formations with the quarterback behind center and tight ends detached or in the slot — or any combination thereof.
But this only scratching the surface of how teams can deploy their tight ends.
Teams can certainly still use tight ends as extra blockers on running or passing plays, but modern tight ends have the potential to do so much more.
The Seattle Seahawks were one of the most frequent users of 12 personnel in the NFL in 2020, calling 303 plays (28 percent of their offensive plays) with two tight ends on the field. They were also one of the better users of 12 personnel, with a success rate of 63 percent on passes out of 12 personnel, compared to 43 percent out of 11 personnel (which they ran on 66 percent of plays).
(all stats per Sharp Football Stats)
Most football fans are fairly familiar with the generic form of a 12 personnel in the passing offense. Usually one tight end lines up in-line next to an offensive tackle on the strong side of the formation, generally whichever one needs the help of a double-team more. The other tight end is either detached from the offensive line or in the slot and usually tasked with running a shallow route as a check-down or perhaps challenging the seam between two coverage zones.
But again, that is only scratching the surface of what 12 personnel packages are able to do. The Seahawks don’t have a reputation for offensive innovation or sophistication, but their use of 12 personnel in this play highlights some of the advantages of the personnel package.
At first glance the Seahawks appear to be in a 21 personnel package and set to try and pound the ball into the endzone with a rushing play. They’re using a tight formation, have plenty of big bodies n the field, Pete Carroll is famous for erring on the side of running the football whenever possible. There’s also the situation: the Seahawks had just run the ball for 4 yards on a 1st and goal from 5 yards out after recovering a Dallas fumble. Every single context clue suggest that Seattle is going to go for a run here.
But on second glance, we see that this isn’t a play out of 21 personnel, and the “fullback” is 6-foot-4, 245 pound tight end Jacob Hollister, with fellow TE Will Dissly in-line next to the right tackle. But Russell Wilson does a good job of playing on Dallas’ expectations with a play-action fake to the running back. And rather than using his 245 pound frame to block a linebacker for the running back, Hollister sneaks out into the flat on a play-action pass. While Hollister isn’t as athletic as some tight ends in the NFL, his 4.64 second speed is more than enough to capitalize on the confusion and traffic created by Seattle’s play design and make for an easy touchdown.
Benefits of 12 personnel
The 12 personnel package might be the most versatile personnel package available to teams. As the tight end position has evolved — largely driven by the evolution of the athletes who play the position — teams have found new ways to deploy their two tight ends to various effects.
As we’ve covered before, changes in how colleges recruit and employ athletes as well as improvements in strength and conditioning practices, have lead to a wide variety of tight ends entering the NFL. Where the tight ends of yesteryear appeared to be closer to undersized offensive tackles and were primarily blockers, modern tight ends can run a wide gamut of body-types and roles. Big blocking tight ends certainly still exist in the NFL and still have roles, while smaller athletic “hybrid” tight ends who blur the lines between wide receiver and tight end.
The wide variety in skill sets available at the tight end position allows the offense to show a variety of looks that can mimic other personnel groupings.
They can use both tight ends to one side of the formation to mimic the 3x1 groupings used by 11 personnel packages or construct bunch sets to disguise releases or set up screens. Team can motion the running back out of the backfield to set up a true empty backfield spread look or they can move a tight end into the backfield as an H-back to give a 21-personnel look.
This gives an offense running 12 personnel impressive versatility to present a wide variety of looks out of one personnel package. That can be an incredible advantage to teams when coupled with a no-huddle attack.
12 personnel can offer similar advantages as the 21 personnel package in the running game, giving the offense similar options for creating a numbers advantage on the play side. Likewise, the heavier personnel package can force defenses to use heavier subpackages, creating opportunities in the passing game. On the flip side of that coin, teams with athletic hybrid tight ends can mimic 11 or even 10 personnel packages. By using their players’ athleticism and wider alignments, they can force heavier personnel packages to try and match up with spread looks. That can force bigger, less athletic players to cover wider swaths of the field.
In short, while 12 personnel might not excel in the same areas as 11 or 21 personnel, but it can offer offenses some of the same advantages as those personnel groupings.
As mentioned above, the 12 personnel package can be very useful for creating favorable mismatches for the offense.
Both “complete” tight ends (that is, tight ends with enough size to be reasonably expected to block EDGE defenders while having the athletic ability to attack multiple levels of the defense in the passing game) such as Rob Gronkowski or Travis Kelce and “hybrid” tight ends like Evan Engram or Darren Waller have the ability to present match-up problems for a defense. Both types of tight end types have the athleticism to attack the valuable intermediate to deep area of the field 10-15 yards downfield, while having advantages over the defenders who typically cover that area of the field.
This is often stated but bears repeating: Modern tight ends are bigger and taller than even box or strong safeties, giving them larger catch radii and the ability to generate instant separation by virtue of their size. They often have an athletic advantage over most linebackers at any level of competition. Those twin athletic advantages give offenses a variety to ways to attack most common coverages.
For instance, Cover 3 defenses are balanced with defenses against deep passes, shallow passes, and a natural 8-man box to defend the run or send pressure on blitzes. 12 personnel packages give the offense the offense a pair of options to attack the vulnerable seams between the three deep coverage zones.
The athleticism of modern tight ends also allow for flexibility in blocking schemes. While smaller tight ends might not be more than speed bumps against NFL caliber EDGE defenders, their athleticism allows them to get in position quickly enough to pick up blitzing defensive backs or smaller linebackers on deep passing attempts. Their athleticism also allows offenses to scheme pulling blockers to create numbers advantages on counter runs or to disguise the which side is the play side on rushing plays.
Drawbacks of 12 personnel
While modern tight ends in general — and hybrid tight ends in particular — can be incredibly athletic, on average they’re less athletic than wide receivers. Between that and the tendency for tight ends to run shallower routes limits the 12 personnel package to generate explosive plays.
The college ranks certainly are producing hyper-athletic tight ends, usually by converting big receivers to the position. However the players who both have elite measurables and the skill sets to be reasonably complete tight ends at the NFL level are relatively rare. That usually means acquiring a tight end with the athletic ceiling to compete with a wide receiver is costly from a team building perspective. It usually means either spending a high draft pick to select a player with an athletic premium or spending more on the position in free agency than teams historically have.
The consistency and general efficiency of the 12 personnel package are important advantages, but on average it doesn’t have the potential to generate yards and points as 11 or 10 personnel. In an era when predictable, long term success is dependent on offensive output, that can be enough to make 12 personnel a secondary grouping for most teams.
Defenses are adapting
One of the great constants in the NFL, and football in general, is the arms race between offense and defense. Offenses are always looking for any edge over defenses they can find to score more points and win more games. Meanwhile, defenses are constantly looking for counters to offensive schemes as well was new ways to disrupt offenses and sack the quarterback.
As we saw with the 11 personnel package, defenses are constantly innovating new ways to counter the latest trends in offensive football. As offenses moved to smaller, faster packages and more spread looks, defense began to run more and more nickel packages, effectively making that the base defense of the NFL. Some teams have even gone so far as to make dime defenses their base look, and have used that package to surprising success.
As colleges and NFL teams make greater use of athletic hybrid tight ends and H-backs, defenses are employing more athletic and versatile defenders to counter them. While there have always been players like Brian Urlacher or Doug Plank who combine rare size and athleticism for second level players, they were few and far between.
But over the last decade or so we have seen players like Kam Chancellor, Telvin Smith, Landon Collins, Jabrill Peppers, Darius Leonard, Isaiah Simmons, Jeremy Chinn, Kyle Duggar, and more enter the NFL. In an effort to combat high-octane and unconventional offenses, the college and professional ranks alike are seeing a boom in the numbers of second level players who effectively blur the lines between linebacker and safety.
With these players with the size to play linebacker the athleticism of a defensive back in hand, defensive coaches are able to scheme defenses that are able to match modern 12 personnel offenses. While no defense had a concrete answer for a healthy duo of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez a decade ago, modern defenses are much better equipped to handle modern 12 personnel offenses today.
Defenses are beginning to be able to rotate and disguise coverages to match the versatility of the personnel group, and this new bread of safety/linebacker hybrids can match up on modern tight ends athlete-to-athlete.
Of course, the evolution — and chess match between coaches — will continue.
Needs dedicated coaches
While the previous downside to 12 personnel was shared with 11 personnel, this one is shared with 21 personnel.
Like 21 personnel, this isn’t a problem with 12 personnel itself, but rather with how some coaches may be tempted to employ the personnel package. We saw with 21 personnel how scheme and play design can be used to manipulate the defense and create opportunities for the offense to catch the defense completely off-guard. We saw that the fullback doesn’t need to be a battering ram for power runs between the tackles, but rather an offensive weapon in his own right.
Likewise, we’ve seen how offenses can employ two tight end sets to create mismatches, change looks without substitutions, and attack the defense in ways it isn’t expecting and can’t easily counter. However, there is a tendency among coaches to use tight ends as blockers and safety blankets first. This can see hybrid tight ends expected to hold up against EDGE defenders as blockers, or athletic tight ends running check-down routes rather than attacking coverage seams.
12 personnel is the second most popular personnel grouping in the NFL with 20 percent of all offensive plays coming with two tight ends on the field. However, it’s unlikely to make much more ground on 11 personnel packages while coaches artificially limit the potential of their own offenses through their own choices in how they use their players.
There are, of course, some coaches who understand the potential of the 12 personnel package and how to use it to keep defenses off balance and on their heels. The NFL is a copycat league, and teams will always go to school on each other to find new tactics and advantages, and there are always new players and skillsets entering the League. Perhaps we’ll see new concepts and perceptions regarding 12 (and 21) personnel spread throughout the NFL in the coming years.