The Moron’s Guide to Football – Episode 1: Personnel Groupings
1. The Basics
In gridiron football, offensive personnel groupings are usually denoted by a two-digit descriptor – 11, 12, 21, etc. – the specifics of which we’ll get into in a second, but first we have to determine what the heck an offensive personnel grouping is.
Now, the league is evolving at an exponential rate and it’s possible we’ll have to reform these position designations in the future, but, as it stands, these numbers form the basis for almost every offense from high school through to the NFL level. In general, there are 11 players on the field (unless someone screws up) for each team on each play. On offense, 1 of those players is the quarterback, and 5 others are offensive linemen. This leaves five more players (1+5+5=11) to be filled, and it’s these positions that lend their numbers and names to offensive personnel groupings.
The three positions represented by these numbers are, in order, running back (RB), tight end (TE), and wide receiver (WR). The first digit represents the number of running backs in on any given play, while the second digit represents the tight-ends. The third digit is implied, rather than stated, and represents the number of wide receivers in the offensive formation. For example, 11 personnel means that there is 1 running back, 1 tight end, and 3 wide receivers. The number should always add up to 5, so you can fill in the number of wide receivers with what’s left out of the personnel grouping’s name.
2. The NFL Today
The 2010’s in the NFL, at least on the offensive side of the ball, will be defined by the rise of 11 personnel around the league. Per Football Outsiders, at the start of the decade, 11 personnel was just one of many common offensive groupings, accounting for 39.5% of offensive snaps around the league. By 2018, the league average had risen to 64.8%. Famously, this was the season that Sean McVay and his Rams used 11 personnel on 92% of their snaps.
After such a meteoric rise, defenses began to adapt to the heavy use of 11 personnel (through drafting faster, smaller linebackers that could cover receivers, use of additional cornerbacks in certain defensive formations, etc.), which has in turn led to a recent down-tick in its usage. Football, like most things, is cyclical.
It’s also a massive and constant arms race, not only between offensive and defensive philosophies, but between multi-billion dollar teams (and colleges) who invest hundreds of millions of dollars into becoming better at moving a prolate spheroid – apparently that’s what shape a football is – up and down a field than each other. As teams were scrambling to copy McVay’s success with the Rams, they were also already looking for the next big thing.
2019 saw a slight decrease in the use of 11 personnel, with 5 teams (the 49ers, Ravens, Eagles, Cardinals, and our beloved Vikings) using the personnel grouping on fewer than half their snaps. In 2019, the grouping was used on 59% of offensive snaps around the league, while it’s currently being employed on 60% of snaps this season, though the list of teams using the formation at a sub-50% rate has risen to 7 (and no team is running it on 80% or more of their offensive snaps).
The Vikings offense runs Gary Kubiak’s system. Kubiak was extended as Assistant Head Coach and promoted from Offensive Advisor to Offensive Coordinator earlier this year (I can’t believe that was this year!) and the tendencies from 2019 continue to hold true – despite Stefanski leaving for the Browns – though they are drifting slightly closer to the norms around the rest of the league.
On average, the league runs 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WRs) a whopping 60% of the time, while the Vikes operate out of this formation only 35% of the time, which is by far the lowest in the league. Interestingly, before Stefanski took over as OC, the Vikes used 11 personnel slightly more than the league average, employing it on 67% of their offensive snaps.
Under Stefanski, though, they began to lean heavily on 21 and 12 personnel. They run 12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TEs, 2 WRs) at a roughly league average click (21% for the Vikes compared to 19%) and 21 personnel (2 RBs, 1 TE, 2 WRs) almost as much as anybody else at 22%. That may not sound like a lot, but the vast majority of teams use this formation on fewer than 10% of their offensive snaps. They’re also unique in using 22 personnel (2 RBs, 2 TEs, 1 WR) on over 10% of their snaps.
The explanation for the Vikings’ use of these formations is pretty simple in my mind: personnel. Last season they had Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs at wide receiver and you get those two on the field every chance you have. This season it’s Thielen and Justin Jefferson. At RB you also have some guy named Dalvin Cook who you want to put out there as often as you can, while using Alexander Mattison and C.J. Ham for blocking and change of pace duties.
Plus, Cousins thrives on play-action, so you want to keep the receivers as options, but the threat of the run has to remain real, which Dalvin has more than proved it is, and the extra TE can (ideally) be used to buy time when needed. The versatility of these 2 tight end formations (12 and 22 personnel) allow them to present the same look pre-snap, but on any given play the TEs can either run block or run routes as receivers, adding a wrinkle of unpredictability to the offense. Unfortunately this season, though, Kyle Rudolph and Irv Smith, Jr. are not particularly scary receiving threats (with Rudolph averaging just 2 receptions per game, while Smith is averaging only a single reception).