|Michael Dwyer / Associated Press|
|The growth of Aaron Hernandez (left) and Rob Gronkowski has given the Patriots a new dimension on offense.|
Deploying multiple personnel groups on offense is a common strategy used to create mismatches. A coach like the Eagles' Andy Reid will go through six to eight personnel groups in the first quarter to force opposing defenses to identify what he's doing. It's a solid way to gain an advantage, and something that isn't going away, but the Patriots' perfection of one package is spearheading the monster numbers they've posted through two weeks.
The Patriots have primarily relied on what is called "12 personnel" to put up a league-best 1,126 yards of total offense during their 2-0 start. If you're wondering what "12 personnel" means, defenses use coding systems to make offensive packages quick to breakdown in a scouting report. It's a two-digit system that first identifies the number of running backs on the field followed by the number of tight ends. In this case, the Patriots' 12 personnel references one running back, two tight ends and two receivers on the field. Since there are always five eligible receivers, the number of wideouts is assumed after the two-digit number is declared.
There are many other groupings teams can use (see chart to right), each presenting unique problems. However, no one is creating more issues for defensive coordinators than the Patriots.
The 12 personnel package is by no means a new idea. There are several benefits to the grouping, including keeping safeties off outside wide receivers and employing a power-run game against a nickel or dime defense.
However, the Patriots have taken things to a new level by finding a way to present all the problems of several other packages with their version of 12 personnel. Bill Belichick's vision for this dates back to the 2010 draft, when the Patriots selected Rob Gronkowski in the second round and Aaron Hernandez in the fourth.
Hernandez is a hybrid-wide receiver type for the Patriots, and Gronkowski is a legit in-line blocker with receiving skills. That combination gives New England the flexibility to spread both of them out to create a spread set, line them next to the tackles and create a balanced set with run options both ways or put one in the backfield and run a two-back lead or play-action pass. Basically, the Patriots can do whatever they want.
With the versatility they have out of 12 personnel, the Patriots can go no-huddle without making any substitutions and thus don't have to wait for the defense to make changes. That way, New England can keep a defense on the field in an unfavorable matchup.
In Week 1, the Patriots went no-huddle on 30 plays, 12 times coming after they picked up a first down, meaning the Patriots went right to the ball when the chains were moved. Against the Chargers, the Patriots went no-huddle 15 times, six after earning a first down. Many of the 45 combined no-huddle calls through two weeks involved 12 personnel, leaving the opposing defense struggling to keep up, mostly due to Hernandez and Gronkowski.
Tom Brady has been looking for his two young tight ends: Hernandez and Gronkowski have been targeted 10 times in the no-huddle and 31 times overall, combining for 24 receptions and five touchdowns. Although not all of the production has come from the 12 personnel, enough of it has that defensive coaches are left to find answers.
As defenses attempt to adjust, the first inclination might be not going to a nickel package against the 12 personnel, especially on first and second down. However, that will mean Brady will be throwing even more in those situations.
There's a chance the Patriots could be without Hernandez this week because of a knee injury. If that's the case, Dan Gronkowski will step in and take his brother's role as the in-line blocker while Rob would slide over to Hernandez's spot as a big receiver to keep the no-huddle package going.
The Patriots aren't the only team effectively implementing 12 personnel. A total of 355 snaps came from the package in Week 1. Detroit is very good at executing the grouping as was Indianapolis before Peyton Manning went down. Houston, Carolina, San Francisco and Cleveland are all developing versions of the package.
In fact, Bill Parcells, who Belichick learned under, once said to me, "When it comes to matchups, I like the two-tight end package more than the three-receiver package. There's an advantage of my tight end against a linebacker rather than a third wide receiver against a nickel corner."
It's clearly a concept that Belichick picked up on, and the Patriots are taking advantage of it.