Big is in for the NFL once again

Carolina Panthers v New York Giants
Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

Big boy football is primed for a major comeback this season.

Football is constantly evolving before our very eyes.

In recent years in the NFL, the name of the game has been speed. Offenses leaned into 11 personnel, putting three wide receivers on the field and looking to get playmakers into space. Defenses adjusted by getting lighter and faster as well, relying on two-deep safety packages, playing with lighter boxes up front, and focusing on eliminating big plays in the downfield passing game while daring teams to run the football.

Now the NFL may be at another schematic inflection point. Roster construction moves from a few different teams point towards such a change, as do some coaching hirings. Watching both NFL preseason action, as well as early college football games, also highlights how the trend may be turning.

Lighter personnel packages and spread formations are still present, but so too are bigger personnel packages, and tighter formations.

Big is back in for the NFL. Here’s how “big boy grilling on the roof” football came back in style.

What offenses might do in the season ahead

When you look at where NFL offenses have been in recent years, spread formations and 11 personnel have been the norm. But over the past few seasons, you can catch glimpses of that worm turning. Some teams are turning to more 12 personnel with two tight ends on the field — more on that in a minute — and even those that rely on 11 personnel are tightening up formations, rather than spreading them out.

For example, during the 2018 NFL season offenses used 12 personnel on 17 percent of their snaps. By 2021 that number was up to 21 percent.

And there are reasons to believe it will climb even higher this season.

Why might teams lean into 12 personnel? As a counter to what defenses have done in response to the 11-personnel, spread formations we have seen over the years. With defenses getting lighter in the box and playing with extra defensive backs on the field to slow down passing games, offenses are responding by putting two tight ends on the field in the hopes of making the defense wrong, no matter how they respond.

If the defense stays light? They can lean into the running game with a tight end on the field instead of a third WR.

If the defense plays bigger? They can still throw out of 12 personnel, thanks to the athleticism we are seeing from modern tight ends. When you have players like Darren Waller and company who can outrun many linebackers and safeties, that makes throwing out of 12 a very interesting proposition.

For more on 12 personnel — or the “12olution” as our good friend Max Toscano calls it — we would strongly recommend this meaty piece from Max on this personnel package at the college level.

Look around various NFL offenses from last season, as well as how some teams retooled their rosters in the offseason, and you see why this trend might continue. The Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Darnell Washington and look primed to use him as part of a 12-personnel package alongside Pat Freiermuth. Up in New England, Bill O’Brien is back with the Patriots as their offensive coordinator, and during his first stint in that capacity New England was a heavy 12-personnel team with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.

One of their offseason moves? Adding Mike Gesicki to pair with Hunter Henry.

The Seattle Seahawks are another example. Yes, Seattle drafted Jaxon Smith-Njigba this spring, but a season ago Seattle leaned heavily into 12 personnel, and with three capable tight ends on the roster, that may very well continue.

Of course, 12 personnel with a pair of tight ends on the field is not the only bigger personnel package available. One just has to look at the San Francisco 49ers and their 21 personnel package to see the various mismatches they can create. With Christian McCaffrey, Deebo Samuel, George Kittle, and Kyle Jusczcyk at his disposal, Kyle Shanahan can roll out two-RB packages but move those players around, creating a variety of mismatches while still putting the defense in a bind. How do you defend that group? Do you treat them all like receivers and play light and fast? Do you treat them more like running backs and play big?

Either way, Shanahan can make you wrong.

Then consider the defensive evolution into more two-deep coverages, daring offenses to run the football. Yes, the passing game is more efficient and explosive, but if defenses, through the use of two-high coverages, are starting to limit the damage, then offenses will adjust. One way is to check the football down more, and as we saw last year a higher percentage of throws than ever before came at or near the line of scrimmage.

We also may see more running plays. After all, Yards per Attempt in the run game hit an all-time high of 4.5 yards a season ago.

So as defenses adjusted to offenses and found ways to get smaller and faster, offenses may respond by getting bigger, and the cyclical nature of the sport rolls on.

Then there is the copycat nature of the league.

As we outlined in this piece looking at scheme trends to watch for the 2023 season, throwing out of bigger personnel packages was near the top of the list.

And perhaps the best team at doing that a season ago?

The Super Bowl Champion Kansas City Chiefs.

Patrick Mahomes led the NFL in passing attempts out of 13 personnel — offensive formations that utilize one running back, one wide receiver, and three tight ends — a year ago, attempting 46 passes last season of 13 personnel according to charting data from Sports Info Solutions.

How did he fare on those plays? He completed 33 of those passes for 545 yards and 7 touchdowns, without an interception. Mahomes posted a Total Expected Points Added (EPA) of 24.09 on those attempts, the best by a QB last year.

The Chiefs were able to put three tight ends on the field but create explosive plays downfield in the passing game. Plays like this one against the Los Angeles Chargers:

The NFL is a copycat league, and who better to copy than the Super Bowl champions? — Mark Schofield

How defenses are getting bigger

Before we can address how defenses have forced NFL offenses into bigger personnel and attacking downhill with the run game, we have to talk about the NFC West. That’s where it all began.

The Seattle Seahawks Cover-3 heavy defense led by versatile and dynamic superstars such as Kam Chancellor, Earl Thomas, and Bobby Wagner dominated the NFL. Everyone wanted the Legion of Boom, so everyone played the same style of defense as the Legion of Boom.

This is from 2016, but the same principles of the Seattle defense are still there: The front is shifted to the strength, with a tilted nose tackle and a 3-technique DT, with a safety walked up near the line of scrimmage. This made sure that every gap was accounted for up front, with both EDGEs taking the outside contain role and letting the second-level linebackers and safeties have free runs.

What this creates is a situation for the offense where if teams want to run gap schemes like power or counter at them, the defensive line is already in the gaps they’re designated to hold. The shaded nose is in the backside A-gap, 3 tech holds the play-side B-gap. This means, if the guys up front do their jobs, the second level of the defense gets to run and chase. Different game from 2016, but same offensive personnel, same lineup, no gain for the offense.

Opposing offenses were pretty much flummoxed until you inserted Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay, who incorporated more wide zone/outside zone concepts to beat this style of defense. Because of all the gap scheme runs the Seahawks were seeing, they had bigger guys up front to control that one gap with power (remember that point, we’ll return here later). The starters for that 2016 Seahawks defense at DT? Athyba Rubin and Tony McDaniel, weighing in at 315 and 305 pounds, respectively. That Seahawks roster didn’t have a DT on the roster below 305 lbs.

Instead of banging their heads on a wall to take those guys on, what Shanahan and McVay did was implement a heavy outside zone offense to take advantage of the size disadvantage they had up front. Unlike gap runs like power and counter, wide zone asks for the linemen to block towards an area instead of to a man or gap. With the angles the wide zone creates for cutback lanes against an aggressive defense like Seattle’s, the Shanahan and McVay offenses rode that to massive success on the ground.

Where the Legion of Boom and other Cover-3 heavy offenses were hurt badly by this offense was in the passing game. With the outside zone being able to pair with bootlegs and play action so easily, it wasn’t hard to get an aggressive defense leaning, then hit them over the top with an over route paired with play action. By 2020, outside zone paired with play action over routes had essentially turned the Legion of Boom defense into a relic. Per Sports Information Solutions, 11 teams ran outside zone on at least 100 of their rushing attempts. Opposing defenses needed to punch back.

Which is where we get our next critical inflection point, led by defensive mastermind Vic Fangio, Brandon Staley, and of course Bill Belichick. While outside zone was taking over every NFL offensive room, defenses figured out how to at least slow down the offense, while taking away most explosive plays. The first thing to do was downsize up front. With not as many teams running power and counter anymore, the big nose tackle was partially becoming obsolete. Smaller linemen who could play a “gap and a half” (hold primary gap, but have outside shoulder in secondary gap) were the priority. Because the outside zone was so predicated on the cutback, and linemen getting to the second level, opposing defensive linemen’s job became not to penetrate, but to slow down the progress of the OL to the second level, ensuring that the cutback lanes were cut off.

In 2018, the Rams and Patriots met in the Super Bowl, one that New England would win in a defensive slugfest. How did Bill Belichick end up slowing down that outside zone? By using a 6-man front, with only one true off ball LB spot. This would take away all the space needed for the ball to cut back, and would string plays out to the edge, for their secondary to get involved in the run game. This also shut down the pass because of the two-high safety shell they played on early downs to negate their play action passing on early downs.

To simplify: when the Rams ran outside zone, they did it with a TE on the LOS, making 6 people on the LOS for the offense. The Patriots put 6 people on the LOS defensively, meaning that every linemen had to hold their block and couldn’t move to the second level.

This was taken to the next level by Fangio and Staley, who played light boxes (box counts of six or fewer defenders) at extremely high rates. In 2020, the two teams that played light boxes the most were the Denver Broncos and Los Angeles Rams, coached by Fangio and Staley respectively. What this did was essentially knock out two birds with one stone. You negated the play action passing by playing fewer people in the box, putting the numbers back in your favor, while also taking away the outside zone using front manipulation and the defensive line holding blockers up and shutting off cutback lanes. We saw how the Seahawks lined up in 2016, now compare that to the Los Angeles Rams, who lined up like this in 2020:

You can see how different it is. Instead of one primary gap being controlled, it’s more of a gap and a half, and the defense is asking more of their safeties and DBs to help in the run game.

This is where we talk about how physically smaller defenses have gotten. That 2020 Rams team shown above only had three defensive tackles on the roster over 300 pounds, compared to the 2016 Seahawks having five. On average, the Seattle DT group weighed in at about 310 pounds. The Rams? 303, and they only had five defensive tackles on the roster, compared to Seattle’s eight.

To deal with the pace and space of opposing offenses, defensive linemen had to get slimmer to play more snaps, while doing more control than gap attacking. Now that defenses have punched back, and offenses looking to implement more 12 personnel and gap scheme runs, where do opposing defenses go?

Well, the answer is to some amalgamation of both. Will we see more one-gap, attacking defenses? Perhaps. With Demeco Ryans and the 49ers attacking defense becoming the next hot coaching tree, it could happen. In addition, the reason the Brandon Staley and Vic Fangio defenses have worked well for Brandon Staley and Vic Fangio and not as well for others is simple: Fangio is the originator, and Staley had Aaron Donald, who defies logic. NFL teams will more than likely go to simpler, more attacking style of defenses to defend the gap schemes up front.

What we will also see is opposing defensive linemen getting bigger. At the college level, there are still more “tweeners”, but instead of smaller EDGEs who drop into coverage like LBs, we’re seeing more EDGEs who kick inside on passing downs. Bigger, thicker guys on the defensive line to actually protect the smaller DBs that are being targeted by opposing offenses in the run game. Remember Staley? Well his defenses haven’t been able to stop the run at all as the head coach of the Los Angeles Chargers, and a large part of that is how light they are up front.

As Mark said above, football is a cyclical sport, and we might not see the true peak of this cycle until years down the line. However, the big boys are coming back, and it might benefit defenses as well. — J.P. Acosta

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