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Summer School 2021: Exploring 10 personnel

Could four-receiver sets be the next big thing in the NFL?

Syndication: The Record Danielle Parhizkaran/NorthJersey.com via Imagn Content Services, LLC

We conclude our tour through the most common personnel packages in modern football with a look at what could be the cutting edge of offense in the NFL.

There have been two common themes we have seen throughout our look at the personnel packages commonly used at the NFL level. The first is the increasing influence of college football on the NFL, while the second are the ways in which forward-thinking coaches are using personnel groupings to manipulate defenses.

Today we’ll be looking at the 10 personnel grouping, which was largely unheard of as recently as 2018, but could be set to step into the limelight in 2021.

Just three years ago, only two teams in the whole NFL called more than 3 percent of their offensive plays out of 10 personnel, the Seattle Seahawks (7 percent, 76 total plays) and the Detroit Lions (5 percent, 52 total plays). Only one other team, the Baltimore Ravens, called more than 30 plays out of 10 personnel (32 total plays), and the New York Giants called just 8 plays (1 percent) from 10 personnel.

But something changed in 2019 and all of a sudden one team’s use of the personnel grouping exploded. That change was the Arizona Cardinals hiring Kliff Kingsbury out of Texas Tech. In addition to changing from Josh Rosen to Kyler Murray, Kingsbury brought his high-octane Air Raid philosophies with him from Texas Tech to Arizona. In 2019 the Cardinals called 10 personnel on 31 percent of their plays (310 total plays), and were responsible for more than one-third of the plays called out of 10 personnel in the whole NFL. But while the Cardinals dwarfed the 10 personnel usage of the rest of the League, it is notable that five other teams called 50 or more plays out of 10 personnel.

The Cardinals once again lead the NFL in plays called out of 10 personnel with 215 plays (20 percent) offensive plays in 10 personnel. But this time they had company at the top of the league, with the Buffalo Bills calling 15 percent (186 total plays) of their plays called from 10 personnel. Once again only one other team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, had more than 50 plays called out of 10 personnel (60 plays). The Giants, meanwhile were tied at the bottom of the league with just one play called out of 10 personnel.

The Bills’ decision to add 10 personnel packages likely played a role in their rise to being of the best offenses in the NFL. Buffalo was second in yards per game, third in passing yards per game, and second in points per game in 2020, while the Cardinals averaged an impressive 7.1 yards per carry when running out of 10 personnel.

That kind of improvement gets the attention of other teams, and we could be primed to see other teams make 10 personnel a bigger part of their offense. The Giants, in particular, could look to the 10 personnel grouping after their investment in the receiver position over the course of the 2021 off-season.

Given that possibility, it makes sense to familiarize ourselves with 10 personnel.

What it looks like

After looking at three different personnel groupings and the naming conventions, it shouldn’t surprise that 10 personnel consists of one (1) running back, no tight ends, and four receivers. As with 11 and 12 personnel, there are a myriad of ways in which offensive coaches can deploy 10 personnel sets.

This is just a quick and dirty look at some of the basic ways in which offenses can deploy four receiver sets. They also have the option of stacking receivers or motioning the running back out of the backfield to give a 5-receiver empty backfield type look — among many other options.

Benefits of 10 personnel

High athletic potential

While the NFL has seen an infusion of highly athletic tight ends, H-backs, and fullbacks in recent years, the fact remains that most of those bigger players can’t match the athleticism of an average receiver. And given the ceiling on receiver athleticism we have seen over the last few years, giving the offense the option of replacing two bigger, slower players (two tight ends or a tight end and a fullback) can represent a significant upgrade to its ability to strike at defenses in ways that are difficult to counter.

By fielding four athletic skill position players, offenses are able to put defenses in the uncomfortable position of having to go down the depth charts in their secondary to match up. While the nickel defense has become the de facto base in the NFL and every team tries to have a good slot corner and a good third safety, most safeties don’t match up well with wide receivers and few teams are able to get four starting caliber cornerbacks.

At that point defenses are in the unenviable spot of having to use defensive backs who are primarily special teams players to try and cover athletic receivers, which is usually a win for the offense.

This also allows offensive coaches a great deal of flexibility in designing route combinations to counter a variety of coverage looks. With four receivers to work with, coaches can include both man and zone beaters in the same play. Likewise, they can use stack or bunch formations, mesh concepts, or jet motion to create confusion or traffic off the snap, which can make a defense vulnerable to big plays.

Forces the defense to cover more field

Many of the spread concepts percolating up into the NFL are coming from the Big 12 conference at the college level. The Big 12 has a reputation for high-scoring offensive shoot outs that can leave fans and analysts joking that defense is optional in that conference.

However, one of the advantages of their spread looks is that they allow the offense to attack multiple levels and areas of the field simultaneously. With 10 personnel, NFL offenses are able to run two and three level route concepts while maintaining an option for quick check-downs or using a receiver to to clear defenders out of an area to set up run after catch opportunities. By forcing defenses to cover large swaths of the field, offenses can stress zone defenses to the breaking point or flood individual zones with receivers and force defenders into responsibility conflicts.

One of the misconceptions about defenses that face spread offenses on a weekly basis is that they don’t play defense. The reality is that it is just difficult to play defense against an offense that is looking to score on every single play. Likewise, it’s difficult for defenses to find the athletes to match up with spread offenses when they put their own athletes in position to make big plays.

Can be an effective running grouping

Thinking back to our look at 11 personnel to start this series, we found that — perhaps counterintuitively — three receiver sets were surprisingly good for teams’ running games.

The 10 personnel package takes this element a step further. While many coaches might be hesitant to take a primary blocker off the field and replace him with a smaller player, doing so will likely force the defense into a still-smaller sub-package. Likewise, as we touched on above, the ability of the 10 personnel package to allow the offense to spread the defense can be used to force light tackle boxes.

If the offense is able to effectively force a sixth defensive back onto the field, and have shown they aren’t afraid to attack downfield, the defense is almost forced to vacate the tackle box. If they keep one or two safeties in deep coverage shells to protect against vertical passes and account for two slot receivers and two wide receivers, that could leave the defense with just six or five defenders around the line of scrimmage to defend the run.

Assuming the offensive line is able to execute their blocks, that could put the defense in position of having one — or no — unblocked defenders in position to make a play on the running back before he is able to find the open field. While it might not look like the traditional “three yards in a could of dust” rushing attack where the offense pits imposes its will on the defense, giving the running back just one defender to account for is about an ideal a situation as an offense can hope to have on the ground.

Taken a step further, this can make read-option, or run-pass option, plays particularly dangerous. Those plays use the quarterback as an offensive weapon, allowing the offense to take a numbers advantage and force defenders to be wrong. The best defense against a read-option play is to force the quarterback to make the read the defense is expecting. However, if there is only one defender to account for both the quarterback and running back, there is no right answer, nor a way to make a quick stop and limit the damage.

Drawbacks of 10 personnel

Receiver heavy

The college ranks are churning out NFL caliber wide receivers at an incredible rate. It seems as though every wide receiver is a strength of every draft class in the last few years, and we are getting an impressive breadth as well as depth of talent entering the NFL.

But still, with 32 teams vying for the same talent pool, it can be difficult for teams to find two truly starting caliber receivers, and three needs a concerted effort (likely over several years). Finding enough receivers such that their fourth is consistently better than most defenses’ fourth coverage player either requires commitment on behalf of the front office or a clear vision and savvy scouting.

Given that some teams still view receivers as something of a “luxury” position, not every team has a roster capable of fielding four receivers that really should be on the field for significant snaps. It takes away from many of this personnel grouping’s advantages if the third (or fourth) receivers are really special teams players pressed onto the field to fill out a personnel grouping.

Few blockers

The primary drawback of 10 personnel is the strain it puts on the offensive line and running back. With the previous three personnel groupings we have looked at (11, 12, and 21 personnel), offenses have had bigger, stronger players at their disposal to keep back to protect longer developing plays.

With 10 personnel, the offense is forced to rely on just their running back in pass protection to pick up blitzes or help offensive linemen with double teams.

Teams running 10 personnel might be better served using their running back in “scat protection”, or swinging them out as a check-down option. Assuming the quarterback can recognize a blitz or free rusher quickly enough, he can get the ball out and to his check-down in time to keep the offense moving forward.

Limited misdirection opportunities

While putting four receivers on the field can give an offense a number of advantages over most conventionally built defenses, it can also tie coordinators’ hands to a certain extent.

Some of the advantage of bigger personnel grouping is that they can give offensive coordinators options for adding misdirection to their play designs. We saw how they can use tight ends or fullbacks to give running looks which can open up passing lanes, improve play-action, and manipulate the defense into flowing away from the play-side. As with the 11 personnel package, the 10 personnel package features players who are relatively specialized in their roles. Receivers can certainly be employed in unconventional ways, but they are ultimately receivers. Defenses generally don’t have to worry that a receiver will be a pulling blocker in a counter run or playing back-side contain.

Just like every defensive scheme, every personnel grouping has its strengths and weaknesses. Its the job of savvy coaches to figure out the best use cases for each and which ones fit the personnel on their roster.