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Are we starting to see NFL teams move away from three wide receiver groupings?

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Super Bowl LIV - San Francisco 49ers v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

The NFL is now a league where most plays have at least three wide receivers on the field. A website called Sharp Football Stats keeps track of personnel groupings. They found that NFL offenses in 2019 ran 55% of their snaps from what is called “11” personnel. This means one running back, one tight end, and three wide receivers. This makes it the league’s dominant personnel grouping. (When determining personnel groupings, the first number tells you how many running backs are on the field. The second number tells you how many tight ends. Subtract the total number of running backs and tight ends from 5, and it will tell you the number of wide receivers.)

The NFL used to be a league where 21 (two running backs, one tight end, and two wide receivers) personnel was the status quo. Why did things change?

There are numerous causes. As offensive thought in the NFL evolved, teams started utilizing all five eligible receivers in the passing game instead of featuring only the wide receiver. It seems rather obvious, but a third wide receiver is typically more skilled as a pass catcher than a fullback.

The rise of spread offenses in college football also played a role in this. While people tend to think of spread offenses as pass happy, many in college football have smashmouth tendencies. When you have a fullback, he frequently needs to execute his block for the run game to be successful. If he misses his block, the play can end. Putting a third receiver on the field eliminates the danger of the missed block. A defender has to follow that third receiver outside of the tackle box so he is typically eliminated from a run play without a block being necessary. Fans frequently talk about running into eight man boxes, but that is largely a misnomer in today’s league. As third receiver takes one defender away from the play, dropping an extra safety down means a loaded box has seven men. That leaves the running back more room to operate. Like many college innovations, these philosophies eventually found their way into the NFL.

Yet as 11 personnel dominates most of the NFL, some teams have started to move away from it. Unsurprisingly many of the most successful teams in the league are setting the new trends. Of the ten teams that used 11 personnel least frequently in 2019, seven of them made the Playoffs. That includes the top seed from the AFC, Baltimore, and the top seed from the NFC, San Francisco. It also includes the AFC runner up, Tennessee.

Many of the league’s most successful teams found their own style. The 49ers had old school 21 personnel more than any team in the NFL. The Titans ran 13 personnel (one running back, three tight ends, and one wide receiver) more than any team in the league. Meanwhile the Ravens ran the highest proportion of plays with 22 personnel (two running backs, two tight ends, and one wide receiver).

The prevalence of 11 personnel makes nickel the base defense for most teams. With three receivers on the field, defenses have to play three cornerbacks at a time. You might think of having seven combined linemen and linebackers as the base defense. Many media members speak as though this is true, but it is outdated thinking. If you have to play less than five defensive backs at a time, your defense is taken out of its comfort zone. This is part of the reason adding extra tight ends and/or running backs is effective. Defenses aren’t used to playing with an extra big guy.

(Side note: This is part of the reason discussions about whether a team will run a 4-3 or a 3-4 when it hires a new head coach and/or defensive coordinator are largely academic. Nobody really has a “front seven” as a base defense anymore. There are only six linemen and linebackers on most plays.)

But these offenses aren’t just going back to an outdated old school playbook. They have modern elements to them. Take this play where the 49ers run a modern spread formation out of traditional 21 personnel. It isn’t just about having running backs and tight ends. Running backs who have route running skills and tight ends who can threaten the seam open things up for an offense.

The alignment with one running back Tevin Coleman in the slot and fullback Kyle Juszczyk out wide forces the defense to tip its hand.

There is also a tight end lined in-line.

This formation provides a presnap coverage identifier for the quarterback, making his life easier. Typically a running back would draw either a linebacker or safety in man coverage. When a running back lines up in the backfield, the defense can disguise who covers the back. That is not a luxury the defense has when a back is out wide. If a linebacker or safety followed Juszczyk out wide, the quarterback would know it is man coverage. He also would know presnap that Juszczyk has a favorable matchup. He might know to go there with the ball.

A cornerback is across from Juszczyk, however. You generally wouldn’t see a defense waste a cornerback to cover a fullback so this is a sign there is zone coverage.

Furthermore, the alignment of the defensive players tips off the type of zone coverage. This is the alignment of a Cover 3. A safety has the deep middle. The two outside corners have deep responsibilities outside, and there are zones underneath.

The personnel grouping and formation have huge advantages. The quarterback can figure out where to go with the ball before it is snapped without needing to make a complex read. If he knows his tight end can get to the seam, he can go there with the ball.

This is how you make an offense friendlier for your quarterback. The only player who can help is the outside corner, but Juszczyk holds him outside leaving the seam open.

The Hall of Fame executive George Young was known for espousing a philosophy called the Planet Theory. The theory went that there are only a handful of players big and athletic enough to successfully play on an offensive or defensive line in the NFL. When you have the opportunity to add such a player, you need to take it.

I wouldn’t go that far speaking about athletic tight ends or skilled receiving running backs, but I do think they are cost-effective additions teams should seek. These happen to be two of the most cost-effective positions in the NFL. The tenth highest paid running back in the NFL makes $6.1 million per year. The tenth highest paid tight end in the league makes $7.2 million per year. You don’t really need to restructure your team to add these players. They add to the versatility of your offense but remain cheap enough that you don’t have to go without core players.

In the NFL successful teams run unique systems opponents are not equipped to handle and find useful roles for players the market does not value highly. Eventually the rest of the league catches up. At this point, it seems like the trendsetters are moving away from 11 personnel and giving themselves an advantage with skilled receiving tight ends and running backs.