Whether your favorite team is an extension of the West Coast offense or some variation of the East Coast offense -- if there is such a thing -- the truth is that teams use multiple personnel groups throughout each and every game.
I frequently get asked if there's one personnel group that causes more problems for defenses. While the personnel grouping that puts the best players on the field is any team's top option, I prefer one over all others. It's no coincidence that the teams with this personnel group are winning.
Most teams code personnel groups with a numbering system (which I describe in detail in my new book "Take Your Eye Off the Ball"). It's a two-digit system that declares the number of running backs first and the number of tight ends in the game second. For example 21 personnel means there are two running backs and one tight end on the field, but it also indicates that with two more eligible receivers allowed, there are two wide receivers in the game. Another example is 22 personnel (two running backs, two tight ends and one wide receiver). There can be upwards of 15 different personnel groups used in today's game.
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Now that there's an understanding of the personnel coding system, the number one personnel grouping that the best teams strive to develop and employ to create problems is 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers). The Colts used 11 personnel well over 500 times last season, the Vikings over 350 times, and the Packers, Patriots, Cowboys, Saints and Bengals were all in the 200-plus range. Six of those teams won their respective division and the Packers were a close second.
Get ready for the Ravens to go from about 150 snaps of 11 personnel to upwards of 300 this season with the roster they've built. So, what does it take to be a good 11 personnel team?
- A quarterback with a strong arm who would much rather spread out his offense to expose what the defense is doing and identify the blitzers are right away. In surveying many quarterbacks this summer and asking them what protection scheme they preferred, five-man protections with five receivers in patterns won out.
As Aaron Rodgers said, "I'd rather see the blitzer and take care of him myself than leave a blocker in to pick him up."
Matt Ryan agreed and added, "Spreading out the offense gives some very good running opportunities as well."
Eleven personnel can give the QB all the classic conflicts that drive a defense crazy.
- A flex tight end who can line up next to a tackle on one play and in the slot or outside on the next play. Dallas Clark is the prototypical flex tight end. Many teams interested in this personnel grouping have traded for or used a high draft pick on this type of player.
- An X receiver who forces teams to use some form of rolled coverage, or at least man and half coverage to this dangerous player. Think of New England's Randy Moss, Houston's Andre Johnson, Indianapolis' Reggie Wayne, New Orleans' Marques Colston, Minnesota's Sidney Rice (when healthy) and Atlanta's Roddy White.
- A super-quick slot receiver. This player is much more dangerous than a fullback, who typically comes out of the game for the slot receiver when a team switches from 21 to 11 personnel.
The Falcons didn't use their 11 personnel as much last season when Harry Douglas was injured, but he's healthy again and you will see a significant increase. Wes Welker is the prototypical slot guy and keeps coverage off Moss while offering Tom Brady a quality target. Welker had a league-high 123 receptions a year ago, mostly from the slot. Anquan Boldin or T.J. Houshmandzadeh suddenly makes the Ravens extremely dangerous at this position. Percy Harvin might be the biggest threat
- A Z receiver, usually lining up wide on the same side as the tight end, that can open the field up with his speed and take the "top off the defense." Minnesota's Bernard Berrian is a good example as well as Robert Meachem down in New Orleans.
- A running back that is a threat as a runner and receiver. Ray Rice led the NFL in receptions among running backs last year with 78 catches, and now the Ravens have Boldin and Houshmandzadeh to go along with old reliable Derrick Mason as well as tight end Todd Heap. That could be the hottest 11 personnel team in the league.
Adrian Peterson caught 43 balls a year ago and the plan is to up his production. Coupled with Harvin, Berrian, Shiancoe and a healthy Rice, that's a solid grouping.
If teams use their 11 personnel on first and second down, it becomes a simple read for the QB as to run or pass. The X and slot receiver frequently demand three defenders on good 11 personnel teams. On the other side, if the flex tight end and the Z receiver also demand three defenders or at least 2 ½, as they often do, then that means there are five defenders in the box, all of which can be accounted for by the offensive line, leaving a run as a very effective call.
The best teams in the league will also be excellent 11 personnel squads.
As you watch the season unfold, keep an eye on how often your favorite team is in 11 personnel and how effectively the offense moves down the field with the pass or the run.