Over the past few NFL seasons, getting smaller on defense has been all the rage. Safeties have become de facto linebackers. Linebackers have become edge rushers. And edge rushers have become defensive tackles. Speed — and the ability to negate offensive mismatches with it — has been at a premium, and teams’ quests to find mobility have often come at the expense of the size that defined so many defenses of the past two decades.
It’s important to remember, though, that any time the pendulum swings significantly in one direction, it likely doesn’t take long before it comes barreling back. When it does, people without their heads on a swivel are liable to get knocked on their asses. If the tendencies of the NFL’s elite last season are any indication, offenses plan to react to shrinking defenders and positionless football by promptly reversing course.
The Patriots used 22 personnel — an offensive lineup featuring two backs and two tight ends — a league-high 11 percent of the time in 2016. They ranked fourth in the use of 21 personnel, which removes a tight end from the field in favor of another receiver but still employs a fullback. Two spots ahead of New England in the latter category was the Falcons’ record-breaking offense, at 26 percent of its total snaps.
As coaches and decision-makers around the NFL took shrink rays to their defenses, the best offenses in football beefed up more than just about every unit in the league. Looking at some of the moves made this offseason, it seems as if other franchises are poised to follow suit. Not long after Martellus Bennett left New England for Green Bay in free agency, the Patriots dealt a fourth-round pick to Indianapolis to acquire replacement tight end Dwayne Allen. A month and a half later, New England made a late-round pick swap to bring in another big-bodied tight end, the 6-foot-4, 245-pound James O’Shaughnessy, from Kansas City. (Given his name, he should have a really hard time fitting in around Boston.)
While restocking his roster in San Francisco, former Falcons offensive coordinator and current 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan went after fullback Kyle Juszczyk, who inked a four-year deal with $9.8 million guaranteed, setting a new bar at the position. Also signing a four-year contract with a good chunk of guaranteed money was new Bills blocking back Pat DiMarco. No team in football used 21 personnel more frequently than Buffalo last season (29 percent of its snaps). Signing DiMarco is an indicator that new coordinator Rick Dennison intends to do more of the same. Oh, and did I mention DiMarco spent the 2016 campaign in Atlanta?
Most of the teams that utilize blocking backs and hefty formations are linked in some way, and all embrace a similar philosophy. By grinding undersized run-stoppers into dust, heavy packages are a way to mine a growing inefficiency for defenses built to live in the nickel formation. But the benefits don’t end there. Using tight ends and fullbacks also allows offenses to create mismatches, some of which may seem counterintuitive at first glance. Those varied advantages are why, as defenses get uniformly fast, the league’s smartest offenses are countering by getting big.
At the annual Offensive Line Clinic held in Cincinnati last month, Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz did his best to explain why heavier packages can be a pain to game plan against. "If you don’t know exactly what you’re doing on defense, 13 personnel can wear your ass out," Schwartz said, referring to offensive sets that feature one back and three tight ends. It’s not about the complexity of the play concepts, he explained. The issue comes from simple core designs that are cloaked in unfamiliar formations. "Guys don’t practice those gap controls very much," he said, "so I’d say probably, from a preparation standpoint, 22 and 13 are probably the most difficult things because you don’t see very much of it."
When thinking about how offenses can excel by using bigger formations, that last part is the first thing to remember. As a rule, football has spread out in recent years. The use of shotgun formations has skyrocketed, and the number of teams that regularly deploy a fullback has declined. The Patriots used 22 personnel on 11 percent of their snaps last year, but only six teams in the league cracked 5 percent. According to Sharp Football Stats, the Giants did it on just one snap.
That infrequency means most defenses don’t spend much time teaching the principles and rules associated with those formations. A lack of familiarity, coupled with the additional gaps created by cramming extra bodies around the line, can give offenses an edge before the ball is even snapped.
Schwartz’s clinic talk was especially focused on the run game, which — not surprisingly — is the reason that the majority of heavy formations are used. New England ran the ball 88 percent of the time it was in 22 personnel in 2016; the Titans, who ranked second in the league by lining up in 22 9 percent of the time, ran the ball on 87 percent of those snaps. Tennessee may be the best example of a team bulking up offensively as a means to push defenses around. By adding DeMarco Murray, Derrick Henry, and 2016 top-10 pick Jack Conklin to their roster last year, Titans general manager Jon Robinson showed his commitment to building a physical, run-based offense. Tennessee’s execution mirrored that. Only the Jets and Raiders ran fewer plays out of standard 11 personnel (one back and three receivers) in 2016, and that’s because each spent so much time with four receivers on the field.
The Titans are more than content to line up with two tight ends, a fullback, and one of their battering-ram backs in an attempt to wear down defenses. An offense that lacks a dynamic receiving talent has a defined ceiling (hence Tennessee using the fifth pick in the 2017 draft on wideout Corey Davis), but last year the Titans were so effective on the ground that they also maintained a reasonably high floor. They jumped from 32nd in Football Outsiders’ offensive DVOA in 2015 to ninth last season, thanks mostly to a running game that finished sixth in the same metric.
Overpowering teams sounds like a simple enough approach, but it goes beyond just loading up on big bodies and using brute force. Another factor that makes these formations so effective for offenses is flexibility. Having extra blockers — particularly those who can move — adds layers of complexity to a run game.
Given the movement skills most modern tight ends have, offenses can increase the number of ways to block basic concepts by putting more of them on the field. An H-back crossing a formation or an extra tight end folding back inside a tackle to lead up on a linebacker serves only to throw more unfamiliar information at defenders to process.
Keeping defenses off-balance is always a play-caller’s foremost priority, and when it comes to these jumbo sets, going to the ground doesn’t have to be predictable. The inherent complexities of these formations — combined with the ability to add a sixth offensive lineman or extra tight end to the mix and push small linebackers around — are why even the most creative offensive minds are willing to toy with what looks like boring, brutish football.
Look at the numbers associated with heavy formations, and it can feel like they’re small enough to be insignificant. If the Patriots used 12 personnel (one back and two tight ends) on only 16 percent of their plays last season, how much impact can the approach really have? That kind of thinking is only accentuated when it comes to pass plays.
New England threw just 53 times out of 21 personnel in 2016; out of 22 personnel, it did so 14 times. That number seems almost negligible, but 14 means an average of about one throw from 22 personnel per game. These plays pop up often enough to swing outcomes, especially considering how devastating throws from heavy formations can be.
With two backs (James Develin, lined up wide left, is a tight end used here as a wide receiver) and three tight ends on the field (23 personnel), the Pats all but guarantee the Ravens line up in a base defense on this first-and-10 play about midway through the first quarter in Week 14. The formation gives added credence to Tom Brady’s play-action fake, and with less speed on Baltimore’s base defense, Bennett is able to easily navigate the intermediate area of the field. Brady drops a throw near the sideline for a big gain.
No team has done a better job over the past few seasons of using heavy formations to generate big aerial gains than the Patriots. Forcing opposing defenses to keep an extra linebacker on the field is part of that, but part of it is also about the way New England has limited exotic pass rush packages that teams can use up front.
In January’s divisional-round 34–16 playoff win over the Texans, New England had trouble dealing with linebacker Whitney Mercilus serving as an interior nickel rusher with Jadeveon Clowney also working inside just a few gaps over. One way the Patriots combatted that was by passing out of heavy sets, ensuring that 300-pounders D.J. Reader and Joel Heath would chase after Brady instead of the Mercilus-Clowney combination.
The Patriots throw with their big bodies on the field to create scattered opportunities; for last year’s Falcons, this was a pillar of their offense. Out of 21 personnel, Atlanta passed 42 percent of the time. That’s dangerously close to run-pass balance — and for defenses, it meant a total inability to develop anything resembling comfort about what was coming next.
By calling for typical run formations on typical run downs (the above play is a first-and-10), Shanahan was able to pick up easy gains through formation alone, to say nothing of the talent advantage Atlanta’s pass catchers may have had. His approach will almost certainly be similar in San Francisco, and now, in Juszczyk, he’ll have an ideal candidate to get the most out of some of those plays. Meanwhile, New England will benefit from having Rob Gronkowski, a secondary tight end, and Develin throwing blocks while also helping create mismatches in the passing game.
There’s a reason the best minds and most efficient units in the NFL have chosen to supersize their offenses in the face of shrinking defenses. It’s working, and, as long as it is, we should expect more teams to do the same.