Fat Camp: Personnel packages

(Note: This is in response to the numerous requests we've received asking us to review the basics of personnel groupings) 

When considering personnel packages, it's helpful to start with the most fundamental and obvious notion in football: an offense has eleven players.  From here, we note that six of these positions are almost always fixed:

  1. Left Tackle
  2. Left Guard
  3. Center
  4. Right Guard
  5. Right Tackle
  6. Quarterback

This is an important--although elementary--reminder.  That's because it cuts right to the heart of football strategy.

How do you employ the other five positions in order to take advantage of your own strengths and your opponent's weakness?

Non-Fixed Assets

The deployments of these five positions are not fixed.  They can, in theory, include any combination of the following:

  • Running Backs
  • Tight Ends
  • Wide Receivers

It's this combination of five positions that concern us;  it always determines the personnel grouping.

These five positions could form many different combinations, but they rarely do.  In fact, football has evolved to the point where there are effectively only eleven personnel packages.  Each package is identified by either a two-digit or three-digit number.  The only differences between the two- and three-digit systems is that the third number identifies the number of wide receivers in the package.  In the two-digit system, the number of receivers is implied.  For example, the most typical personnel package in the NFL is one with two running backs, one tight end, and two wide receivers.  This is written either as 21 or 212.  

The first number tells us how many running backs there are, the second tells us how many tight ends there are, and the third number (optional) tells us the number of wide receivers.  If you find it hard to remember the order of the  grouping, you can try this handy little mnemonic device:

Running Backs before all. Tight ends on Tuesday.  Wide receivers on Wednesday.

Saying this to yourself seven times while chewing gum should do the trick.

Now that we've got our basic information down, we're ready to look at all of the groupings in one place:

 Grouping: 2-Digit / 3-Digit   # - RB   # - TE   # - WR  
23 / 230 2 RB 3 TE 0 WR
22 / 221 2 RB 2 TE 1 WR
21 / 212 2 RB 1 TE 2 WR
20 / 203 2 RB 0 TE 3 WR
13 / 131 1 RB 3 TE 1 WR
12 / 122 1 RB 2 TE 2 WR
11 / 113 1 RB 1 TE 3 WR
10 / 104 1 RB 0 TE 4 WR
02 / 023 0 RB 2 TE 3 WR
01 / 014 0 RB 1 TE 4 WR
00 / 005 0 RB 0 TE 5 WR

Most hardcore football junkies will take the route of the coaches and players and use the two-digit system.  This is the system that you see our own Ted Bartlett use.  The three-digit system is also commonly used, though.  My pal Doc Bear uses it frequently.  For the purposes of our demonstration, we'll use both.

The personnel packages take you a lot deeper into the football strategy of individual teams than you might realize, for it's the first telltale sign of what an offense plans to do. However, personnel packages are not a substitute for offensive philosophies nor formations.

The Coryell/Vertical Offensive philosophy is a good example of this.  Chargers head coach Norv Turner currently uses a two-back personnel system to stretch the field.  He utilizes play action, running backs in protection, and mid-to-deep routes.  It's a very effective system.  Mike Martz, offensive coordinator for the Chicago Bears, comes out of the Coryell school, but utilizes an extensive one-back system with rare play action.

In other words, the offensive philosophy is not wedded to a specific personnel package.  The personnel package, rather, is the instrument of attack.  You can beat your opponent with pass-catching tight ends or speedy wide receivers.  It's simply a matter of degrees.

All of this being said, we can make some general observations about each of the packages.

The 20 Series (23, 22, 21, 20) - The Balanced Attack

Any package that includes two running backs is always in a good spot to run, although one could run a shotgun formation out of a two-back set as well (max protection).  Two-back sets also lend themselves to play action and the utilization of running backs as outlets (and blockers) in the passing game.  The variety of formations (which we'll cover another time) are immense.  A team can go very large with three tight ends and a fullback (23/230) in short-yardage situations, or they can go with three wide receivers (20/203) in a 2nd-and-5 situation and use play action. 

The 10 Series (13, 12, 11, 10) - Leaning toward the Pass

Packages that feature one running back are more likely to pass as the numbers of tight ends and wide receivers increase.  The Josh McDaniels system immediately comes to mind.  Under McDaniels, one-back personnel groupings were in heavy rotation.  I remember charting so many 11 (113) and 10 (104) personnel groupings during McDaniels' 1.75 seasons in Denver, I thought sometimes he'd forgotten what a two-back package looked like.  That's because these personnel groupings fit McDaniels' horizontal passing system to perfection.  He wanted to get his wide receivers into mismatches all over the field.  These personnel groupings were the way to do it.

That's not to say one can't effectively run out of a one-back package.  Again, the Martz system with Marshall Faulk comes to mind.

As the league has evolved into a passing league over the last two decades, the usage of one-back sets has increased.   More recently still, the 13 (131) personnel grouping, which includes 1 RB, 3 TE, 1 WR, has become increasingly popular due to the prevalence and evolution of the tight end position.

The 00 Series (00, 01, 02) - Pass, Pass, Pass 

When a team features a package without a running back, it's usually 3rd and long, they are running the two-minute drill, or they are playing catch-up football.   Sometimes, a team will begin the game with a package like this, but it's almost always as a tactical surprise.

In order to run these personnel packages effectively, a team must have a diverse group of wide receivers and tight ends.  They don't necessarily need speed, but they'll need to be good route runners and be able to find the openings in zone coverage.  That's due to the fact that most defenses are going to play nickel and dime packages with deep zone coverage in the situations described above.  Of course, there are always exceptions, but most defenses find it very difficult to play man coverage against four- and five-wide receiver sets.

Personnel as a Function of Situation

By far the most interesting time to pay attention to personnel groupings is during the first four drives of the game.  That's when you learn how a particular team plans to attack their opponents, and further, how they've adjusted to their opponents.  If, for example, the Broncos typically run 21 (212) and 22 (221) packages, and you suddenly see them open the game with two straight drives in which they feature 10 (104) and 11 (113) packages, you can determine relatively quickly that the Broncos' coaching staff believed they saw a weakness in the opponent's secondary.  By the second drive of the game, the defense will have adjusted to the personnel groupings and formations of the offense, so it's also fun to see how the offensive coordinator responds.  Does he stay with the 10 series?  Or does he he suddenly trot out a jumbo package 23 (230) and pound the ball?

For much of the same reason, the beginning of the second half is also another time to pay attention to personnel packages.  Adjustments are made at halftime, and often you will see an offense open the second half (particularly if they are losing) in packages that do not resemble anything they started the game with.

Outside of these two situations, personnel packages are driven by context--specifically in the second half.  If a team is down, they'll run packages with more receivers.  If they are up, they run packages with more running backs and heavy tight ends.

The Defense and Personnel Groupings

Obviously, the defense cares a great deal about personnel groupings.  It can help them better diagnose tendencies.  Many defenses simply color code these groupings or use easy to remember words.  For example, 00 (or 005 if you prefer) might simply be known to the defense as Red or Raid or something like this.  It simplifies the recognition process upon memorization and saves the Mike linebacker, who generally makes the personnel call, time so that he can also identify the strong side of the formation, which, as you might have guessed, is also determined by the offense's personnel grouping:

Grouping:  2-Digit / 3-Digit     # - RB  # - TE  # - WR  Determination of Strong Side
23 / 230 2 RB 3 TE 0 WR Side with 2 out of 3 TE
22 / 221 2 RB 2 TE 1 WR Side with 2 out of 3 TE and WR
21 / 212 2 RB 1 TE 2 WR Side with 2 out of 3 TE and WR
20 / 203 2 RB 0 TE 3 WR Side with 2 out of 3 WR
13 / 131 1 RB 3 TE 1 WR Side with 2 out of 3 TE
12 / 122 1 RB 2 TE 2 WR Side with 3 out of 4 TE and WR; if balanced, side with #1 TE
11 / 113 1 RB 1 TE 3 WR Side with 2 out of 3 WR
10 / 104 1 RB 0 TE 4 WR Side with trips; if balanced, side with fourth WR
02 / 023 0 RB 2 TE 3 WR Side with 3 out of 5 TE and WR
01 / 014 0 RB 1 TE 4 WR Side with 3 out of 5 TE and WR
00 / 005 0 RB 0 TE 5 WR Side with 3 out of 5 WR

Anyone up for becoming a Mike linebacker?  Not only to you have to make the defensive call in the huddle, you've got to figure out the personnel grouping and the strong side of the formation.  And you've got to do it within several seconds of seeing the offense break the huddle.  Throw in the added dimension of motion--which can suddenly change the strength of the formation and the subsequent alignment of the defense, and it's a lot tougher than it looks.  This is particularly the case with Peyton Manning, who often uses motion and won't hesitate to audible to weakside running plays.    

As we suggested last week with our piece on gaps and techniques, as a fan you shouldn't hesitate to try and be your own Mike linebacker.  As soon as the offense breaks the huddle, quickly scan the backfield, identify the number of running backs, then let your eyes dart to the line of scrimmage in search of the tight ends.  From there you can either count the wide receivers or subtract from five.  Presto, you've identified the personnel package.  If you're feeling frisky, try and pick out the strong side of the formation.

After a few games of this, you'll become so proficient, you'll be able to do all of this before the offense runs their play.  This will allow you to take a guess at both the play call and the strategy of the offense.  You'll be surprised at how often you'll guess right.

I’m glad we had this talk.  Now, vaya con Dios, Brah.

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