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How multiple sets make defenses fret  
 
Pat Kirwan  By Pat Kirwan
NFL.com Senior Analyst



(June 1, 2006) -- The other day on my Sirius Radio show, a caller asked if his favorite team was going to carry eight wide receivers on its active roster. He said he read it on some website and wanted to know how a team could use all those receivers.

There were a number of issues that came up as I answered the question, which drove me back to some game tapes and old scouting reports I had from last season. Defensive coaches love when they can predict a limited number of offensive personnel groupings they will face in a game. It makes their preparation easy, and eight wide receivers on a game-day roster narrows down the options for an offense.

The Seattle offense typically gives defenses a lot to think about.  
The Seattle offense typically gives defenses a lot to think about.    
The NFL offensive trend is to roll lots of personnel groupings at defenses, especially early in games, and look for the favorable matchups and conflicts that offenses can create for defenses.

If a team actually carried eight wide receivers on its game-day roster instead of the typical five wide receivers most teams carry, it would actually help defensive coordinators know how to prepare for the game.

To add the three extra wideouts, most teams would sacrifice their second and third tight ends and a fullback. There's no way a head coach is going into a game short an offensive lineman or running back. Here's the problem when I see a roster with personnel limits: It's the same reason the "run and shoot" offense didn't last in the NFL.

The defense will know what limited pass protections you will be in with an imbalance in your personnel. The other team knows you can't create an extra running gap that develops when teams put two tight ends next to each other. The opponents know they are going to play defense in nickel and dime packages the whole game, and so they get more practice repetitions during the week, rather than having to cover every possible situation. Whatever blitz pressures they practice during the week can be used on Sunday.

As one of my favorite defensive coordinators always says, "I would rather run six different blitzes at one offensive set than one blitz for six different sets."

Offenses in today's game are trying to balance the run/pass ratios for every down and distance, with the exception of situations when it's third down and three-plus yards to go. There are simply too many restrictions if your team carries eight wide receivers.

I have watched teams like the Philadelphia Eagles, Seattle Seahawks and Tampa Bay Buccaneers roll through six personnel groups in the first six plays of a game. I watched New England start a game with three tight ends and two wide receivers (no running backs) and get in a spread set and throw the ball -- then follow that offensive series up with one tight end, two running backs and two wide receivers and run the ball.

The NFL game today is multiple personnel groupings!

Most defensive coordinators are going to quickly identify how many wide receivers are in the game before they declare what defensive package they send on the field. Believe me, identifying personnel groupings in a split-second and getting the right defensive group on the field can be very stressful on the sidelines. Offenses are no longer in the business of making life easy for the defenders by having personnel limitations.

Here are the most commonly used personnel groupings, and the majority of teams are using all of them every week.

1. 2 wide receivers, 2 running backs, 1 tight end.
(This is still considered base personnel in the NFL.)

2. 2 wide receivers, 1 running back, 2 tight ends.
(Referred to as "Ace" personnel -- can balance up a defense.)

3. 2 wide receivers, 3 running backs, 0 tight ends.
(Not often used, but New Orleans could employ it with Reggie Bush.)

4. 2 wide receivers, 0 running backs, 3 tight ends.
(This is what I watched Belichick use against Indy two years ago.)

5. 1 wide receiver, 2 running backs, 2 tight ends.
(Teams like this deep in their end of the field and protecting a lead.)

6. 1 wide receiver, 1 running back, 3 tight ends.
(A special tight end like Jeremy Shockey or Tony Gonzalez can create fits.)

7. 3 wide receivers, 1 running back, 1 tight end.
(Very popular grouping on third downs in the NFL.)

8. 3 wide receivers, 2 running backs, 0 tight ends.
(They spread out the defense and still have a two-back power play.)

9. 3 wide receivers, 0 running backs, 2 tight ends.
(Seven-man pass protection with three receivers.)

10. 4 wide receivers, 1 running back, 0 tight ends.
(This has lost some of its luster because of protection problems.)

11. 0 wide receivers, 2 running backs, 3 tight ends.
("Heavy" personnel for short-yardage/goal-line situations.)

12. 5 wide receivers, 0 running backs, 0 tight ends.
("Hail Mary" time.)

Can you imagine the stress a great coach like Andy Reid, Mike Holmgren or Jon Gruden puts on a defense, changing the personnel every play in the first series of a drive?

Let's take a look at how much playing time players get during a season to back up just how much coaches are rolling through personnel groups. The Steelers are often perceived as a very conservative, "old-fashioned" offense, but offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt stresses opponents with personnel as well as any coach in the league. Pittsburgh used 11 offensive packages last season to mix-and-match and find ways to create advantages. You might be amazed to see that not one player in this group played more than 81 percent of the offensive plays.



Player % of offensive plays # of plays Position
Hines Ward 81% 820 WR
Heath Miller 77% 783 TE
Antwaan Randle El 70% 712 WR
Dan Kreider 57% 573 FB
Cedrick Wilson 51% 518 WR
Willie Parker 50% 506 RB
Jerame Tuman 40% 408 TE
Verron Haynes 24% 239 RB
Jerome Bettis 19% 191 RB
Quincy Morgan 14% 146 WR
Duce Staley 8% 83 RB


As you can see, second tight end Jerame Tuman played 40 percent of the plays, which means there were a significant number of plays with two tight ends (since Heath Miller played 77 percent of the snaps). Cedrick Wilson is the No. 3 wide receiver, and he played more than Willie Parker, so you know Pittsburgh was doing things with personnel to find matchups on certain downs and distances.

Here's a look at the people who played for the Seahawks, and the way Mike Holmgren played his "chess" match in 2005.



Player % of offensive plays # of plays Position
Shaun Alexander 74% 786 RB
Joe Jurevicius 70% 750 WR
Mack Strong 65% 686 FB
Bobby Engram 64% 679 WR
Jerramy Stevens 59% 633 TE
D.J. Hackett 39% 418 WR
Ryan Hannam 33% 351 TE
Darrell Jackson 30% 323 WR
Peter Warrick 21% 222 WR
Maurice Morris 17% 177 RB
Leonard Weaver 11% 116 FB
Itula Mili 4% 37 TE


The first thing I notice when I look at the percentage of plays from the Seahawks is Shaun Alexander and Maurice Morris accounting for 91 percent of the plays that a running back was in the game, but that also means there were 9 percent of the plays with no running back in the game. Some of them might have been taking a knee at the end of a game, or a "Hail Mary" pass, but 9 percent is about 80 plays. It is important to identify all the personnel groupings used by Holmgren.

An interesting comparison for both teams is the use of the second tight end and the fullback.

In Pittsburgh, Tuman was on the field for 408 plays, while in Seattle, Ryan Hannam and Itula Mili combined for 388 plays. That's very similar use of the two-tight-end personnel groupings. As for the fullbacks, most people might guess that the Steelers would use a fullback more than the Seahawks, but the truth is Seattle had 229 more plays with a fullback than the Steelers. That is an average of 14 more fullback plays per game for Seattle than Pittsburgh.

It is still to be determined if those plays resulted in more runs than passes, but for a defensive coordinator playing these two teams, he has to be ready for everything.

 
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