There is no correct way to run an NFL offense. (We can argue there are multiple wrong ways to do so… looks in the direction of MetLife Stadium.) Different teams have different strengths from players to scheme to a general comfort level between the two. Just because something works for one team doesn’t mean it will click for another. The best coaches are the ones who can adapt and figure out what works best for the players on the field — or even which plays should be out on the field to behind with.
For that reason, we see a lot of different schemes and personnel groupings on Sundays, and Thursdays, and Mondays, and maybe on Tuesdays more often now. With that in mind, let’s take a look at three teams who have gotten the most out of adapting to some different personnel packages this season.
Personnel grouping names are based on the number of running backs and tight ends with the first number noting the number of backs and the second noting the number of tight ends on the field.
Green Bay Packers: 21 personnel
Usage rate: 30%
Matt LaFleur has coached under Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan and his system has taken some of what’s worked with each of those schemes and combined them into his own offense. The Packers and Shanahan’s San Francisco 49ers are the only two teams in the league that have run 21 personnel on at least 30% of their offensive snaps. While Shanahan’s system often relies on fullback Kyle Juszczyk as the second back, LaFleur has mixed in a second running back on most of these plays.
This personnel package came more into play as the team figured out how to handle to loss of Davante Adams and has become a weapon in the red zone, especially in the Week 3 game against the New Orleans Saints — all three of Aaron Rodgers’ passing touchdowns in that game came from 21. It’s not just that there are two backs on the field. The Packers have used those backs to create misdirection, which has opened up other passing opportunities. That’s also been a huge help to the play-action game.
On Green Bay’s first touchdown against New Orleans, the Packers had Aaron Jones (33) and Jamaal Williams (30) on the field at the same time. Jones started stacked wide to the right and came across on jet motion at the snap. The motion plus play-action run to the left for Williams carried most of the Saints defenders, which allowed Allen Lazard (13) to sneak across the field from the left to the right for an open touchdown.
Later in the game on a third-and-2 in the high red zone, the Packers had Jones in the backfield with Tyler Ervin (32) as the outside receiver in a tight bunch. The personnel and alignment brought New Orleans defenders close to the box and play-action caused them to bite and allowed tight end Marcedes Lewis (89) to sneak out down the sideline with a step on Malcolm Jenkins (27) for a touchdown.
How teams have decided to defend the 21 personnel package hasn’t really mattered. The Packers have averaged 0.11 EPA per play against base personnel (four defensive backs) and 0.19 EPA per play against nickel. The biggest advantage has actually come when opponents have played the pass with five defensive backs; the Packers average 0.31 EPA per play passing from 21 personnel against nickel this season.
Buffalo Bills: 10 Personnel
Usage rate: 21%
One of the shifts Buffalo offensive coordinator Brain Daboll made this season was embracing the idea of spreading out opposing defenses with four wide receivers on the field. The Bills opened with 10 personnel on 25% of their offensive plays in Week 1 and the question was whether that was a one-week blip or if it would be part of the offense going forward. The answer was the latter, as the Bills lead all teams in the use of 10 personnel with only the Arizona Cardinals also over 5% (18%).
But unlike the Cardinals, the Bills haven’t just used 10 personnel to get the ball out quickly. Buffalo has used the package to allow Josh Allen to create some big plays. 53% of Allen’s dropbacks from 10 personnel have produced positive EPA, compared to just 47.7% for Kyler Murray.
Spreading the defense out has allowed Allen to get into a rhythm as a passer and this past week’s game against the Tennessee Titans showed how important that might be for the Buffalo quarterback going forward. Without John Brown in the lineup, the Bills used 10 personnel on a season-low 12% of their offensive snaps and Allen was just 2-of-7 passing. Prior to Tuesday night, Allen had averaged 8.5 yards per attempt with four wide receivers on the field.
Buffalo has often even gone one-step further in 10 personnel by going into an empty side with the running back split out wide. That either puts a linebacker out wide against the running back in man coverage or leaves a linebacker potentially isolated in the middle of the field against one of the wide receivers in zone. The Bills have done this 15 times and Allen is 11-of-15 for 126 yards on those attempts.
This has also helped the Bills’ running game, though just 16 rushing attempts have been made from 10 personnel this season. Still, 62.5% of Buffalo’s rushing attempts from 10 have produced positive EPA, a massive improvement over the 38% rate from 11, which is the fourth-lowest in the league. Buffalo could see a bigger benefit on the ground by using 10 personnel more often than the team already has this season.
Cleveland Browns: 12 personnel
Usage rate: 29%
When Kevin Stenanski was named head coach of the Cleveland Browns this offseason, it was expected he would bring over a Gary Kubiak influenced offense after his time in Minnesota. The majority of that means heavier personnel groups and a whole lot of play-action. Stefanski has indeed brought both.
Only the Philadelphia Eagles (47%) and Cardinals (30%) have used more 12 personnel this season than the Browns and Cleveland has been significantly more efficient with that package. So much of that comes from how effectively the Browns have been able to pass from the heavier set.
The league average pass rate in 12 personnel this season is 48%. The Browns are at 56%. A high pass rate puts the defense in a bind with how to defend the personnel package. Typically, teams would come out in base to defend the run, but with a team that is going to pass more often, an extra defensive back might be needed. Teams facing the Eagles treat Philadelphia’s 12 personnel lineup like 11 since they pass 67% out of that grouping. In turn, opposing defenses have used nickel against the Eagles 67% of the time when they’re in 12.
But opposing defenses have yet to figure out what to do against the Browns and Cleveland has been able to take advantage either way. Opponents have countered Cleveland’s 12 personnel with base defense 65% of the time this season and on those plays, the Browns have averaged 0.41 EPA per play. On the 31% of the time opponents use nickel, Cleveland has averaged 0.29 EPA per play; it’s been a no-lose situation for the Browns.
Cleveland hasn’t overly relied on play-action out of the formation, either, just 23% of Baker Mayfield’s dropbacks (well below Cleveland’s overall 31% play-action rate) but Mayfield has been able to strike big on those plays with 11.1 yards per attempt off play-action in 12 personnel.
Mayfield had his best week out of 12 personnel in Week 5 against the Indianapolis Colts with 107 yards on 10 attempts. The Browns used the personnel package to put the Colts defenders in conflict, as evidenced on this 30-yard pass to Jarvis Landry at the end of the first quarter.
After Odell Beckham motioned across the formation, the Browns had a 3×1 look with Austin Hooper on his own inline on the right of the formation. With play-action and Harrsion Bryant’s delayed release off the line with a chip block, Indianapolis’s entire second-level was caught hesitating for the run. As the single-high safety drifted toward the opposite hash, that left Landry and Beckham 2-on-1 against the corner. As the corner carried Beckham on the deeper break, Landry was able to cut in wide-open for the catch.
This all worked on a second-and-8 but the caveat to this formation and the play-action-heavy game plan is that the Browns have to stay in a positive game script for this to be at its most effective. At 4-1, this hasn’t been a problem yet for Cleveland with an average lead of 1.29 points at the start of their offensive drives. That figure only ranks 12th in the league, but it’s enough to keep the deception alive.