Last season 66 percent of plays in the NFL used 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers). It makes sense. Passing has exploded and so, too, has wide receiver usage. Every team in the league except for the San Francisco 49ers used 11 personnel on over half of their offensive plays — San Francisco was a significant outlier at just 39 percent.
While the passing boom has been widely accepted as the new normal, there is naturally a quest to find the next evolution of offense. Some would suggest going back to a run-based game plan would be the counter — a zig while the rest of the league is zagging. But since the league has yet to reach a point where passing is happening too often overall, a run-first offense is just not embracing the zag and getting left behind.
Instead of teams embracing heavy personnel packages to run the ball, they should start to use those heavier personnel packages to gain an advantage through the air, especially with 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends, and two wide receivers).
12 personnel usage dropped drastically league-wide in 2018. Teams used that package on 24 percent of plays in 2016, then on 25 percent of plays in 2017 but that dropped to just 16 percent last year. As most teams have embraced the pass, 12 personnel has fallen slightly out of favor. Because of the use of multiple tight ends, 12 personnel has always been a run-heavy package. In 2016, teams passed just 47 percent of the time from 12, a rate that went down to 45 percent in 2017. Passing rose to 48 percent in 2018, but it’s still a far cry from 66 percent pass rate from 11 personnel.
This matters because passing from 12 can be incredibly efficient. Last season, teams averaged 8.08 yards per attempt, 0.15 Expected Points Added per attempt, and had a positive play rate (the percentage of plays with positive EPA) of 54 percent from 12 personnel, per Sports Info Solutions. From 11, those averages were 7.16 yards per attempt, 0.03 EPA per attempt, and a positive play rate of 49.5 percent. There is a sample size discrepancy there because there were significantly more pass attempts from 11, but that’s kind of the point. Teams really should throw more from 12.
Tight end is an evolving position and not every team has the luxury of a high-end pass-catching threat at the position, let alone two, which could give teams pause for using this package for an increased number of plays. But those types of players aren’t exactly necessary to make throwing from 12 personnel work. Sure it’s nice to be the Philadelphia Eagles with Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert, but the Houston Texans used 12 more than any other team last season and their top tight ends were Ryan Griffin and Jordan Thomas — both fine players, but neither stands out as the future prototype at the position. Thomas, a rookie in 2018, was in the 11th percentile of SPARQ composite athletic scores among the 2018 tight end class and had just 31 career college receptions.
What does matter, though, is how defenses react to the personnel package and having two tight ends on the field greatly impacts defensive personnel regardless of the strengths or weaknesses of the tight ends. Because 12 personnel is often run-oriented, opposing defenses tend to play for it when they face that package — often with base personnel. With 11 personnel as the overwhelming base package on offense, the typical “base” defense — whether 4-3 or 3-4 — is no longer the most common defensive package and hasn’t been for some time. In order to defend against the pass, defenses are most often in “nickel” with five defensive backs on the field — that extra defensive back usually takes the place of a linebacker. Defenses used nickel on 60.5 percent of plays last season, per Football Outsiders, and used “base” on just 25 percent of plays.
Despite base defense accounting for just a quarter of all plays, over half of the pass attempts from 12 personnel (55.6 percent) happened with only four defensive backs on the field. Getting to keep a linebacker on the field instead of another defensive back gives the offense a massive advantage through the air. It’s basically play-action without having to fake a handoff (though add a play fake and teams averaged 9.19 yards per attempt on play-action passes from 12). It’s also not something that only has an impact on the tight ends.
Wide receivers were targeted on 46.8 percent of pass attempts from 12 personnel in 2018 and on those plays averaged 0.33 EPA per attempt with a positive play rate of 59 percent. From 11, wide receivers get thrown to more often (60.6 percent) and they average 0.20 EPA per attempt with a 51.5 percent positive play rate. Of course, tight ends also benefit with a jump from 0.14 EPA per attempt in 11 to 0.27 in 12.
Increased passing from 12 can also help the run game as defenses shift in an attempt to stop the pass. Part of the problem of adding tight ends to the field is the heavier defensive packages against the run because adding tight ends to the offense — while potentially adding more blockers — is a detriment to the run. But a lot of that is the case because teams are currently so run-heavy from that personnel package.
The Texans, Eagles, and Kansas City Chiefs were the three teams in the league to use 12 personnel on at least 30 percent of plays in 2018. All three passed more than they ran. The Eagles and Chiefs kept their pass-run rates similar to their overall offense. Philadelphia had an identical 61-39 percent split in 12 personnel and overall and the Chiefs threw more often (66 percent) from 12 than they did overall (63 percent). Because of that, the personnel package didn’t tip the offensive play and defenses had to decide whether to play the tendency or the personnel. That led to the Eagles running against a nickel look on 72.6 percent of their rushing attempts from 12 personnel. The Chiefs were at 59 percent. The league average saw base personnel on 66 percent of rushing attempts from 12. By just simply passing the ball at a rate they usually would, the Eagles and Chiefs got the rushing benefit typically seen with 11 personnel (a smaller defensive package with a linebacker replaced by a defensive back) while they had the size advantage with an extra tight end on the field. It’s embracing a spread to run philosophy without having to spread.
Not every team is immediately going to be able to take full advantage of a 12 personnel package, but all teams have the ability to do it more often than they have, especially compared to 2018. The passing benefit is too high and the potential to get creative with different looks is too vast for teams not to embrace this personnel package more. Progressive offenses like the Eagles and Chiefs embraced it in 2018 and it should be a part of the next step of offensive evolution in the NFL.