11 Personnel
By Jeff Pasquino
June 15th, 2010

What is 11 Personnel?

Football is a part of our culture as Americans, rich with its own history and traditions. Like most sports, it is a simple game ("Get 10 yards in four plays", "Score by getting the ball into the end of the field") that can become more and more complex as you dive into the details. As each sport's intricacy increases, each sport tends to add its own terminology to describe what is going on - and it can become quite complicated to explain. From passing routes (like "Dig", "Curl" and "Sluggo") to defensive schemes (such as "Red Dog", "Man Under" and "Zone Blitz"), it is easy to see why coaches and teams can spend hundreds of hours on the game every year as they get their playbooks and teams ready for the coming season.

Now and then the sport's language starts to get even larger. In the past few years, I have been hearing more and more about different ways to describe the personnel packages that offenses use during each game. That makes sense in the era of specialization as teams have to run different groups of players out on offense depending on down and distance.

This article is intended to explain some of this new terminology and what it means and why both NFL fans and fantasy football fans should care.

11 Personnel

The newest way to describe player groupings on offense is based on a one- or two-digit numerical system. You might wonder what commentators are talking about when they say something like "The Dallas Cowboys are using their 11 Personnel package here" - but it really is not that complicated. The first digit in a personnel package (if there is one) is the number of running backs that are used, while the second is the number of tight ends on the field. Since most teams use five offensive linemen, that means the number of wide receivers on the field in these packages is determined by subtracting the number of tight ends and running backs from the maximum eligible receivers allowed on the field (five). Below is a table of the different personnel packages that teams can use:

Personnel Package
RBs
TEs
WRs
0
0
0
5
1
0
1
4
2
0
2
3
3
0
3
2
10
1
0
4
11
1
1
3
12
1
2
2
13
1
3
1
20
2
0
3
21
2
1
2
22
2
2
1
23
2
3
0

Table 1: Personnel Packages Based on Numerical Names

Personnel Matters

Now comes the interesting part of the discussion - why the personnel packages matter. More and more teams are using their 11 Personnel package in today's game. That grouping allows for three wide receivers to be on the field at once as well as giving the offense a running back and a tight end. With the NFL becoming a pass-happy league, teams are constantly looking for ways to create mismatches against defenses. One way that they can do this is by removing the traditional fullback on the field in favor of a third wide receiver. This puts pressure on defenses by having a slot receiver as a third target for passing plays.

11 Personnel is not just a passing formation. It may seem like it at first with no fullback and three wide receivers, but the reality is that defenses must adjust to the offensive package and cover the additional wide receiver either with a linebacker or an additional defensive back. If the offense has a tight end or slot receiver with good blocking skills, the lack of a fullback is overcome and it puts additional pressure on the defense. Defenders must account for both run and pass options out of the 11 Personnel formation while also adjusting away from their base defensive package.

Teams with the talent to use 11 Personnel often are usually at a significant advantage. It takes three capable receivers, a strong and versatile tight end and a running back that is comfortable as a receiver, pass protector and that is also comfortable carrying the ball without a lead blocker. If an offense has players with all or most of these skills at the ready, the pressure on defenses goes way, way up.

Consider a team like the Dallas Cowboys in 2009. They had most, if not all, of the talent to implement this package as a central part of their offense and to put pressure on opposing teams. Both Felix Jones and Marion Barber were comfortable alone in the backfield, while Jason Witten can excel as both a blocker and a receiver. The only concern was the lack of three elite wide receivers, but Dallas still loved to pull their fullback off of the field last season.

Here is the breakdown of all 994 of Dallas Cowboys' offensive plays from last year (thanks to DallasCowboysTimes.com) and the associated personnel packages implemented:

Personnel Package
Plays
% Of Total Snaps
0
1
0.10%
1
14
1.41%
2
8
0.80%
3
0
0.00%
10
0
0.00%
11
302
30.38%
12
287
28.87%
13
65
6.54%
20
0
0.00%
21
118
11.87%
22
190
19.11%
23
6
0.60%
30
0
0.00%
31
3
0.30%
32
0
0.00%

Table 2: Dallas Cowboys 2009 Offensive Personnel Group Breakdown

Of significant note is the frequency of not only the 11 Personnel package, but how often the Cowboys used only one running back. Dallas used 11, 12, and 13 Personnel packages over 65% of the time (highlighted rows in Table 2) - so that tells us that the Cowboys are perfectly comfortable with just one RB on the field. It is also noteworthy that the 11 Personnel package was the most commonly used, appearing over 30% of the time all season.

Fast forward to 2010 and it seems very easy to predict that Dallas will be a team that practically lives in 11 Personnel all year long. The addition of Dez Bryant immediately upgrades their wide receiver corps, arguably the weakness in that personnel package last season. Expect Bryant, Miles Austin and Roy Williams to all be on the field at least 35% of the snaps this year if not more.

This example is not limited to just Dallas - teams across the NFL will be using 11 Personnel packages with greater frequency because of the mismatches it creates against standard defenses. Defensive coordinators must adjust to the "non-standard" offensive package. Do teams bring on a nickel corner to cover the man in the slot? Offenses could easily see this and check down to a run with only six men in the defensive box. If a defense adjusts by sliding a linebacker out to cover the slot receiver, skilled passing attacks will see this and attack that coverage mismatch.

Fantasy Implications

While other fantasy owners are trying to figure out who will be the starting two wideouts for an NFL team in 2010, savvy owners that know that teams use three-wide groupings with greater frequency will not care. Dez Bryant or Roy Williams? Percy Harvin or Bernard Berrian? Pierre Garcon or Austin Collie? It does not matter - all of them will see regular playing time. As fantasy drafts wind down into their final rounds, many owners will wonder if a third wide receiver on a passing team is worth as much or more as one of the two starters on a weaker team like Cleveland or Carolina. The correct answer will be the third wide receiver if a team has impressive talent simply because of the growth of the 11 Personnel package. Remember, the NFL is a copycat league, and if a few teams start to have success in given situations it can and will be duplicated by other franchises.

Fantasy Implications - IDP

This is where the 11 Personnel package starts to impact both sides of the ball. Defenses constantly are adjusting to offenses throughout the NFL. As teams start using three wide receivers more often, defense coordinators across the league have to figure out their best approach to defend this player grouping. If this package starts to become the standard across the league, more and more teams will start to make base defense adjustments away from the 4-3 defensive box formation and go to a 3-4, which provides an additional linebacker who can help against both the run and the pass. That is significant for IDP fantasy fans as 4-3 defensive ends are becoming a rare breed. If there are fewer 4-3 defensive ends like Julius Peppers and Trent Cole, these unique players will go up in value and finding capable IDP defensive linemen to rack up both tackles and sacks will be much harder to find.

In conclusion, the NFL changes and evolves over time and at a rapid pace. Just like the advent of the West Coast Offense and the running back by committee, 11 Personnel could be the next en vogue way to line up on offense. With more receivers on the field at once, passing attacks have more options as long as their talent can meet the demands of the formation. The slot receiver position will no longer be just for smaller, quicker receivers that come in on third and long. Bigger and stronger options that can run short routes over the middle and separate from linebackers will exploit defenses, just as strong blocking tight ends and receivers will make up for the lack of a fullback in the ground game. Look for teams such as Green Bay, Dallas and Minnesota to get their elite skill players on the field in creative ways to increase the mismatches against base defenses in 2010 and for years to come.

Questions, suggestions and comments are always welcome to pasquino@footballguys.com.

© 2010 Footballguys - All Rights Reserved