The Basics of the Modern NFL Offense

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The Basics of the Modern NFL Offense

If you read the divisional preview or end-of-season award projections I wrote for BeerLife Sports, then it might be helpful to make sure some of the vernacular I take for granted is understood by all. Equally as important, I want to explain why the model values scheme so dearly. What follows is a basic introduction, crib-notes, as to what my model thinks is important to winning in the NFL and why. 

There are several takeaways from this article that will assist you in making better wagers, spotting deficient and proficient offenses by the scheme rather than a given result, and, I hope, generally improve the enjoyment you derive from watching a game. Some or all of this may be basic information to one reader and enlightening to another. At the very least, consider it an introduction to how the model I first created in 1997 thinks about the NFL. 

Personnel Groupings

Preferred personnel groupings are scheme-dependent, vary by coaching philosophy and talent. We will examine how personnel is grouped, and the strategic advantages specific groupings provide.   

How They Are Named

In the NFL, personnel packages on offense are generally referred to as 10, 11, 12, etc. (See the chart below). The explanation is straightforward. The first digit refers to the number of running backs on the field. The second number refers to the number of tight ends on the field. Consequently, 11 personnel would mean that one running back and one tight end were on the field. Since there is always a quarterback and five linemen on the field, we can deduce that 11 personnel also has three wide receivers. Conversely, there is a single running back, two tight ends, a quarterback, five offensive linemen, and two wide receivers in twelve personnel.

Two examples are probably sufficient. Let’s move on.

Strategic Advantages of Groupings

If you have watched the NFL for any period of time, you have undoubtedly heard that teams need to run the ball to open up the passing game. Kirk Cousins said just that only a few weeks ago. Speaking about phenom Justin Jefferson, Cousins said,

In this offense, we’re going to run the football,

so that’s going to open up a lot of explosive plays for Justin …

Kirk Cousins

This has been an unquestioned axiom in the NFL for as long as I can remember. Then, someone questioned it. Here is the thing, that is not true now, nor has it ever been. 

Cousins is implying that if an offense can “establish” the run, then it will force the defense to bring a safety down into the box. This defensive counter-move will, in turn, open up the passing game. It does sound logical. But you do not need to establish the run, whatever that means. 

It turns out that the offense can dictate the defensive formation. We have always known this to be true. The NFL even has a rule that acknowledges this fact. In the NFL Rulebook, Rule 5, Section 2, Article 10 reads, in part, “If a substitution is made by the offense, the offense shall not be permitted to snap the ball until the defense has been permitted to respond with its substitutions.” This is why you will see officials delay the snap of the ball from time to time. This rule implies that fairness requires that defenses are allowed to adjust personnel based on the offense. 

If the offense comes onto the field in 12 or 13 personnel, the defense will not want to be in a nickel or dime. They will want an additional linebacker to take on the extra bodies in an anticipated run play. If the tight ends line up on the offensive line, they compel the safety to come down into the box. Thus, without even snapping the ball, let alone “establishing the run,” the offense, through formation alone, has opened up the passing game.

Generally, the defense only has two other options in this situation, Both of which are disastrous. First, they could leave the safety up high. In that case, you have an even box, seven-on-seven. (The five linemen and two tight ends against the front seven of the defense. The offense could dictate the matchup they want or simply run into an even box. Second, the defense could respond to the 12 personnel with a nickel or dime. In which case, the box is light, and the offense will run. If I had a crystal ball, I think it would tell me the ultimate defensive response to this trend will be to place increased importance on linebacker/safety tweeners in the mold of Cleveland rookie JOK.   

Conversely, suppose the offense comes out in 10 personnel. (1 Running back, 0 tight ends, and 4 wide receivers). The defense cannot stay in their base defense, or the receivers will torch their linebackers. So the defense responds in a dime package (1 linebacker and six defensive backs). The offense spreads the field horizontally, the receivers sprint vertically down the field at the snap, and the quarterback hands the ball off to the running back, who is now rushing against a light defensive front. 

The preceding demonstrates that you do not need to “establish the run” to open up the passing game. You can simply dictate what you want through the personnel grouping and formation. There remains a surprisingly stubborn set of coaches and organizations that do not recognize this or are too entrenched in the outdated mode of thought. Last season, when Dallas had two wide receivers or less on the field, they ran the ball 70% of the time. 

They were not successful despite having a “special” runningback in Zeke Elliot. It was an embarrassment to the game and an affront to logic. The train of thought in these coaches is dogmatic and backward – “we are going to match our biggest guys to your biggest guys and let the cards fall where they may.” Another way of saying that is, “we do not care about winning.” I feel so bad for Detroit because that is the type of coach you just hired. 

To be fair, to excel in this level of defensive manipulation, you need at least two versatile tight ends. Versatile, but they do not have to be all-pros. Sure, you would love to have Kelce, but you can be wildly successful with Jonnu Smith – as Arthur Smith demonstrated. 

The new Falcons coach, Arthur Smith, is a master of manipulating the defenses and exploiting what he wants to accomplish. As the OC in Tennessee last season, Smith dialed up pass plays out of 12 and 13 personnel more than any other team in the league. And he did so with a high degree of success. Smith resuscitated Tannehill’s career with this strategy. Belichick has been pursuing this offense since the days when he had Gronk and Hernandez. He will utilize it again this year with Henry and Smith. Both of whom, the most successful coach in history, signed explicitly to run this offense. 

It is simple. You never have to run the ball to establish the passing game. Competent coaches use formations to manipulate defensive fronts and then take advantage. The coaches that will not adapt are generally introduced as former coaches while taking their new seats at ESPN. 

Pre-Snap Motion

At its base level, we are all familiar with pre-snap motion. After the offense is on the line, the quarterback will give a signal, a hand gesture, or a foot tap, and a player will start in motion. These pre-snap movements can create a plethora of advantages for an offense. 

The first thing they do is provide information to the offense. If the defender moves with the player in motion, the offense knows the defense is in a version of man-to-man coverage. If the defense does not move, then they are likely in a zone defense. This information provides a decided advantage to the offense. 

The next thing motion does, is create a little chaos on the part of the defense. The defense is set and expecting the snap of the ball. The motion causes them all to adjust on the fly. It is not a significant barrier, but it does cause uncertainty. For example, have you ever found yourself driving in a crowded, unfamiliar city during rush hour? Drivers instinctually turn down the music. Why? They still know how to drive their car. They turn the music down because they are uncertain. Uncertainty causes discomfort. In a nutshell, that is what pre-snap motion does at its most basic level. Then, it does so much more. 

Personnel groupings allow the offense to dictate the defensive personnel from a macro level. It enables the offense to decide who is on the field for the defense. Pre-snap motion takes the control a step further. It allows the offense to move individual defensive players around the field before the snap. 

The following play by the Patriots is absolute perfection. The play combines the benefits of personnel groupings and pre-snap motion flawlessly. The Patriots dictate which Dolphins players are on the field by their personnel grouping. Then they move the one Dolphin player that could impede a touchdown. And they accomplish all of this before they even snap the ball.

The motion draws the Dolphins’ deepest defender, and last line of defense, away from where the action is heading. He is out of the play before it even begins. He might as well have stayed on the sideline.  Every time the motion starts, I see the puppet master cover of The Godfather and hear the theme song playing in my head. 

Here is another example from earlier in the same drive. The Patriots face a third down and five from the Dolphins’ 24-yard line, typically a passing play. The Patriots have spread the Dolphins out by using 10 personnel. The personnel grouping dictates that the Dolphins respond with their dime package, two-deep safeties. Before the snap, the Patriots motion the back hard to the sideline, confirming to all that it is going to be a pass play. The Dolphins’ defender tails the back, leaving only four men in the box. Cam goes on a designed run. The Patriots have five players to block four. The safety at the bottom of the screen, who started the play 15 yards off the line scrimmage, has to come upfield to make the tackle after Newton gained seven.  

In a word, this is perfection. Pre-snap motion enables the offense to move the defense out of the way. When combined with personnel groupings and formation, the offense has the defense on a string. 

Still, despite how practical this approach is, some teams/coaches simply refuse to adapt.  

This tweet is from last season, and while there is no direct correlation, it seems evident that coaches that enjoy winning would prefer to be on the top of the list.

Play-Action

Play action works. Not only does it work, but it is also more effective than non-play-action passes. They have a higher completion percentage and gain more yards. We also know that to date, they do not seem to be subject to diminishing returns. No team has come close to using it so often that the effectiveness begins to wane in a game or season. For now, it is a bottomless plate of cheddar-bacon fries. 

Why it works can be explained on the physical level but only estimated on the psychological level. In short, the answer seems to be instincts. Players have been told since they first joined pee-wee football that they need to stop the run. Linebackers in the NFL see the action and then run to their gap. It is as automatic your leg spasming forward when the doctor hits your knee with that odd, red hammer. 

This instinct is so ingrained that no study to date has found any diminishing returns on the effectiveness in play-action even within the same game. No matter how many times you run play-action, the linebackers bite on the run, allowing receivers to get behind them and into the vacant intermediate depth of the field. What follows is an exceptional example. Please notice all three linebackers bite, and run toward the line of scrimmage. The receiver drops perfectly behind them into the space they vacated for an easy pitch, catch, and first down. 

So the next question is, how effective is it? We can answer that question now that the NFL made player tracking data available to the public. The new data makes it possible to measure the distance players travel in the wrong direction during play-action and quantify the effect. The following gif, which is actual player tracking data, is typical in the amount of wasted movement. Play-action causes linebackers to waste seven yards per play on average. Notice in the video below that as the play begins, the linebacker will bite on the play-action, charge toward the line before recovering, circling back, and trying to get deep in pass protection. 

Josh Heimsmeyer, 538

Play-action has the linebacker running in circles. Play-action works. 

Here is an example of Russell Wilson exploiting play-action in the context of an RPO (Run-Pass option). The corner for Green Bay, number 37, sees the action and reads run. He immediately begins closing down the line of scrimmage. As soon as he commits, Wilson takes the ball back. The receiver is now between the corner and the safety. He makes a wide-open catch and runs in for the touchdown. 

Here is a final, beautiful example from Aaron Rodgers which combines all three of these elements into a single play. The Packers start from 22 personnel, but with one back out wide. The Saints responded with seven in the box and the defensive backs looking into the backfield. The Packers run pre-snap motion from left to right. Notice how fast the player runs in motion, and how close he is to Rodgers. This motion is designed to make the Saints think jet-sweep. 

At this moment notice the position of the deep safety at the bottom of the screen. Before the motion, he was at the 40-yard line and moving backward. As soon as the motion starts, he moves forward to the 39 yard-line. Almost instinctively, he drifts with the motion toward the defensive left of the formation. 

As Rodgers instigates the play-action, this safety is moving in to play the run. Rodgers boots to the offensive left of the formation, and the play is over. The safety is out of position because of formation, pre-snap motion, and play-action. The safety made six false steps, four of them pre-snap, and it was curtains.

Conclusion

There are lots of ways to win football games. If nothing else, the Ravens have demonstrated that conclusively. Yet, no matter one’s offensive philosophy, the task is easier when you utilize every available advantage. Those advantages include, at the most basic level, personnel groupings, pre-snap motion, and play-action.

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