Football 101: Offensive Personnel Groups
Dayne Young and Brent Rollins collaborate to discover the nuances of the Georgia Bulldogs and college football.
*All grades and other data via www.PFF.com*
This is part of a football 101 series where we lay out explanations and the merits of different football concepts.
Dayne: We received a Vent request to do some "Football 101" on our weekly FDL pieces in the offseason. This one focuses on offensive personnel groupings. It's one of the first stats that can create a narrative and display offensive tendencies.
The personnel group names are two digits. The first digit is the number of running backs that are on the field. The second digit is the number of tight ends. The remaining number of available players (after you take out the five linemen and a quarterback) are the receivers on the field.
Brent: What do we see Kirby Smart, Dan Lanning, and other defensive assistants do on the sidelines consistently throughout a game? Through some combination of verbal and hand signals, they substitute different players into the game. Sometimes it's an entirely new defensive line, and other times they bring in extra defensive backs.
Outside of injury or just getting a fresh body on the field, these substitutions are made so the Bulldogs' defense is in the best possible situation to match-up versus the offensive personnel on the field. We're going to examine this from an offensive perspective this week, remembering personnel groupings are just the first part of the equation. How that personnel is distributed via formations and motions is the second variable to create diversity for an offense.
Thus, let's examine how it looked for Georgia this past season, and how their personnel usage might change under new offensive coordinator Todd Monken.
11 Personnel: One RB, One TE, Three WRs
Dayne: Recent history and data show that 11 personnel is Georgia's base grouping. It provides a good amount of versatility, and therefore, does not give away as much information pre-snap. The true value of studying team tendencies is to understand what they are trying to do before they do it.
Brent: Dayne is spot on. The 11 personnel grouping is now the primary personnel grouping in both college and professional football. In the summer of 2018, I wrote an article examining "the rise of 11 personnel in the NFL," showing how the game has evolved over the past 10-plus years. College is now the same, as it's a wide receiver and space-based game as well.
This past season, the two national championship game participants, LSU and Clemson, were both in the top 20 in the FBS in 11 personnel usage, with LSU being 20th nationally (76 percent) and Clemson being 8th (81 percent). This personnel grouping gives an offensive coordinator a multitude of options in both the run and pass game, especially if your tight end is a blocking and pass-catching threat. Above, you see the Bulldogs spread out Baylor's defense and use TE Eli Wolf as a middle-of-the-field threat to open up a throwing lane after he clears. In 2019, the Bulldogs had 11 personnel on the field 66 percent of plays.
Dayne: Ever since I've known Brent, he has been harping on the necessity for play-action passing. Why? Look at Auburn's safety take one step in at the threat of the Brian Herrien run. This leaves the middle of the field open for Dominick Blaylock, who is running a vertical route the entire time.
Brent: Ask yourself, would the play fake have done as much damage to the safety's eyes and footwork, had Charlie Woerner been split out wide or in the slot? Possibly, but more than likely not. This is the next step of personnel usage: the formation. With Woerner being one of the better run-blocking tight ends in the country, Daniel Thomas (No. 24 for Auburn) gets caught with his eyes in the backfield, given Georgia's tendency to run inside or split zone from this set. In 2019, Georgia threw the ball on 58 percent of its snaps in 11 personnel, right in line with the national average of 59 percent.
One other note is what this personnel grouping does to Auburn's—and most other teams'—defense. Having three receivers on the field typically forces the defense to counter with a fifth defensive back, the slot corner. In this play, the safety taking steps down to play the run forces the Tigers' fifth defensive back, slot cornerback Christian Tuitt (No. 6), into an uncomfortable position of being off Dominick Blaylock, with the middle of the field vacant.
Dayne: Long before black jerseys dominated Vent chatter, the red-hot topic was the number of passes thrown to the tight end. In this grouping, it's always likely to have either a tight end or running back help in protection. D'Andre Swift's block here is critical to allow Charlie Woerner to get to the middle of the field.
Brent: Three clips, three different alignments for the tight end, and three different formations. At PFF, we call Charlie Woerner's alignment "inline." The inline tight end gives an offense more options from a run blocking/numbers standpoint, while also tending to give a free release off the line, as you see above. It will be interesting to watch this fall what Georgia gets from a number of players we've seen very little of between the hedges: Tre McKitty, Darnell Washington, John Fitzpatrick, Ryland Goede, and Brett Seither.
Dayne: Matt Luke can incorporate a lot of offensive line movement in 11 personnel. The tight end up allows guards to move and attack sections of the defense while exposing the backside of a play.
Brent: As I mentioned above, the inline tight end alignment you see from Eli Wolf here gives the offensive line/tight end combo more blocking options. The Bulldogs execute two fold blocks (outside blocker down-blocks and inside guy folds around and kicks out/leads) because of the numbers advantage and angles provided by Wolf's alignment. On this play specifically, Georgia Tech runs a double-corner blitz that still does not stop the play from being a successful one because of the numbers and angles created by the alignment.
12 Personnel: One RB, Two TEs, Two WRs
Dayne: Eli Wolf allowed Georgia to run more 12 personnel than it would have otherwise. The arrivals of Darnell Washington and Tre' McKitty in 2020 should replace some of the depth lost in Woerner and Wolf. One positive aspect of this grouping is that it quickly allows a quarterback to spot one-on-one coverage against a receiver.
Brent: This was the second most common personnel group for the Bulldogs in 2019, as 20 percent of their plays were 12 personnel. That number is right at the national average, but still less than the 26 percent that Todd Monken ran in his three years as offensive coordinator of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Outside of numbers and angles, offensive football is about keeping the defense guessing, especially on early downs. This is a first down play that, based on Georgia's season-long tendency, screamed run. In fact, in 12 personnel, the Bulldogs ran the ball on 82 percent of their plays, almost 20 percent higher than the national average of 63 percent. During his years as offensive coordinator of the Bucs, Monken's offense was almost 50/50 run/pass in 12 personnel.
Dayne: The backfield action on this play is a way to extend the protection time and allow speedsters to get downfield. Georgia struggled to do this often, especially after it failed to complete deep passes late in the season against one-on-one coverage. Completions like the one above can go a long way toward unclogging the defensive front.
Brent: The primary thing 12 personnel does to a defense is make them play their own base personnel, which traditionally only includes four defensive backs. As you can see above, on an early down with 12 personnel, the offense is set up to push the ball down the field against a team playing the run. As Dayne mentions, it possibly gives two extra pass blockers as well, if the coordinator chooses to max-protect as Georgia did here.
Dayne: Kirby Smart loves downfield blocking from receivers and tight ends. Georgia did a better job getting runners on the edge in space with calls like the one above, where Zamir White follows Wolf and Woerner in the open field.
Brent: Unlike the downfield shot to Robertson above, where Woerner and Wolf were in stances, here the two are aligned as tighter wide receivers with the back behind them. This is traditionally an inside zone play to the left for Georgia's offense, but the two tight ends' ability to block on the edge gave offensive coordinator James Coley the confidence to continually go to this play to get outside and get his backs into the secondary quickly.
Dayne: As great as personnel groups are, the ability of the player is always paramount. D'Andre Swift neutralized great defenses often while wearing the red and black.
Brent: Four clips and four different formations/alignments, all from the same personnel grouping. There was diversity in Georgia's offense this past season; we just didn't see that plus great execution on a consistent basis.
21 Personnel: Two RBs, One TE, Two WRs
Dayne: Georgia did not get James Cook on the field as much as it probably wanted. When the Bulldogs did, he was most effective in misdirection plays or concepts where the defense has to react quickly to his quick foot speed.
Brent: Just when it appeared we'd see a lot of James Cook on the field, he got dinged up. Cook has seen the field for a total of 227 plays in two seasons. It will now be interesting to see the impact of Todd Monken. Over the past two seasons, Georgia has run a total of 78 plays out of 21 personnel, with Cook typically being that second running back. If you look back to Monken's final season at Southern Miss, he had future NFL running backs Jalen Richard and Ito Smith. Thus his offense employed two running backs on the field on 47 percent of their plays in 2015. Could Monken consistently put Cook on the field and use him much like the Saints use Alvin Kamara? We shall see.
Dayne: If James Cook can be a reliable receiver in the passing game, his number might be called on often in the Todd Monken offense.
Brent: For his career, Cook has caught 24 of 25 targets for 221 yards and a 103.5 passer rating when targeted. He's forced seven missed tackles in the passing game and gotten nine first downs on those 24 receptions.
10: One RB, Zero TEs, Four WRs
Dayne: The lack of depth and dependability at wide receiver prevented Georgia from often going to the 10 grouping. That's likely changing in 2020 as the Bulldogs adopt more of a spread mentality with Todd Monken, and a bolstered depth chart at wide receiver. Having many different true wide receiver options can confuse even the best defenses.
Brent: This is the one area that greatly deviates from the national average. The FBS average for 10 personnel is 13.5 percent. Now, this number is skewed because of teams like Hawaii and Washington State using it almost exclusively, but it's still something Georgia's offense has rarely used. Over the past two seasons, Georgia has run a total of 14 plays from 10 personnel.
Dayne: It takes a speedy runner to get to the edge in the 10 personnel. D'Andre Swift showed how to do it with this productive run in Jacksonville.
Brent: As any fan of Georgia football and Kirby Smart knows, wide receiver blocking is a focus. As the above play against Florida showed, you can still run the ball because of what 10 personnel does to the number of defenders in the box. Notice the Gators only have five players 'in the box', allowing Isaiah Wilson and Cade Mays to double the edge defender before Wilson tried to work to the middle linebacker. If the returning and young receivers can show an ability to block, look for Monken to use more 10 personnel to spread teams to run, not just throw.
13 Personnel: One RB, Three TEs, One WR
Dayne: Confusion is great, whether in chess or formation football. Everything about this play looks like a run. Georgia brings in a heavy set and it's third and short, deep in Auburn territory. The Bulldogs take advantage of that and test Auburn's lateral mobility in comparison with that of Brian Herrien. Advantage Herrien.
Brent: In this specific play, you even have what we designate as 13* since Cade Mays is in as an extra offensive linemen and lined up at tight end. Throwing when teams thinks you are running is a great way to scheme a receiver, or in this case a running back, open. This personnel grouping and throwing from it have always been a Kyle Shanahan offense staple, and something Todd Monken did in his Bucs days. During the Falcons 2016 Super Bowl run, Matt Ryan was 35-43, 564 yards, 6 touchdowns and zero interceptions and a league-leading 89.7 passing grade out of 13 personnel. Hopefully enough playmakers emerge from the tight end room to allow Monken to deploy this package.