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Eagles Film Room: The benefits of 12 personnel

Looking at why two tight end sets are so popular in Philly.

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NFL: DEC 23 Texans at Eagles Photo by Andy Lewis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

I was inspired to write this piece by the wonderful Ryan Sasaki (you may know him as @ChipWagoneer) who joined my pod a couple of months ago. Ryan and I discussed the benefits of 12 personnel and he said he had been meaning to write an article about it but never found the time. So, after some discussion with him, I decided to research this topic myself and write about it!

I think this is the perfect time to write about this topic too as Eagles fans are fiercely debating whether or not to pay Zach Ertz. A lot of people seem to think that Doug Pederson has only been using 12 personnel frequently because he has had poor wide receivers and two great tight ends but I am hoping this article will show some people the benefits of using 12 personnel.

Before we get into the multiple benefits, I am going to give some you some useful statistics (via SharpFootballAnalysis) to consider as you read through the article. Also, a quick plug, if you want to hear me talk about this in even more detail than please check out the most recent episode of my podcast where we focused exclusively on 12 personnel for an entire episode.

The Numbers

- The Eagles used 12 personnel 52% of the time last season, the highest rate in the league. The rest of the NFL used it 20% of the time.

- On 3rd down, the Eagles used 12 personnel 46% of the time. The rest of the NFL used it 10%.

- On 4th down, the Eagles used 12 personnel 58% of the time. The rest of the NFL used it 16%.

- The first 11 games of the season, the Eagles used 12 personnel 45% of the time and averaged 22 points per game.

- The final 5 games of the season, the Eagles used 12 personnel 64% of the time and scored 28.4 points per game.

Now that you have the numbers, let’s look at the benefits of 12 personnel.

1. The defense has to defend an extra gap in the run game.

As shown above, the majority of the NFL use 11 personnel and not 12 personnel the majority of the time. 11 personnel usually will look like this:

Whereas 12 personnel will look like this:

When an offense is in 12 personnel, there is essentially an extra gap that the defense has to account for as the images below will show.

This instantly puts a defense in a bind. If they decided to keep 7 men in the box, the offense will have a numbers advantage and should be able to find a gap unblocked.

We can see a good example of this here against the Giants. The Giants choose to keep 2 safeties deep which means the Eagles have a numbers advantage and can pick up some easy yards.

Most defenses hate leaving an unblocked gap and hate being outnumbered in the box as it often means you are giving up easy rushing yards to an offense. So, when an offense comes out in 12 personnel, most defenses will put 8 men in the box to account for all the gaps that a run can target. Usually, to get 8 men in the box a defense will drop a safety into the box. Which leads me to my next point…

2. You force a defense into single-high coverage.

Essentially, by going to 12 personnel in normal down and distance situations, you will force a defense into single-high coverage and this will limit the different coverages they can use. Single-high coverage is also very susceptible to downfield throws to the outside receivers as the single safety cannot cover both sides. You can see this clearly in the following images (thanks to NoCeilingsFootball for them).

Now, unfortunately, the Eagles had no speed on the outside last year so they couldn’t take advantage of facing single-high coverage on a consistent basis. Sadly, when they forced teams into looks like the one below, they couldn’t take advantage and create big plays in the passing game.

This year it will be a different story. The Eagles will come out in 12 personnel and will have DeSean Jackson and Jalen Reagor (or John Hightower/Quez Watkins) on the outside. The defense is now going to have a big issue. Who wants to play single-high against those two receivers? If a team decides that is too risky and takes a safety out of the box in order to play cover2 and prevent a big play, the Eagles will fancy their chances running the ball against a lighter box.

3. The defense has to decide whether to prioritize stopping the run or the pass.

When a team comes out in 12 personnel, the vast majority of the time (especially in 1st and 10) the defense will come out in base defense. Unless one of the tight ends simply cannot block at all, a team will not want to be in nickel against 12 personnel as a tight end should have no problem blocking a defensive back out of the play.

As I’ve explained earlier, most teams do not want to give up easy running yards so they will prioritize the run and go into their base defense. The Cowboys did this week 16 last year and did a good job stopping the Eagles running game (Miles Sanders averaged 4YPC on 20 attempts). However, by putting their base defense out there, the Cowboys were relying on their linebackers and safeties to cover the Eagles tight ends wherever they lined up on the field. The Eagles took advantage of this and Dallas Goedert had 9 receptions for 91 yards and a touchdown in week 16. The Cowboys were more worried about Zach Ertz so he often had a safety on him which left Goedert on their linebackers.

You can see this in the following 2 clips, if the Eagles connected on the 1st play below then Goedert would have had 10 catches for 100+ yards. Both clips highlight how the Cowboys couldn’t deal with Goedert.

In this below clip, the Cowboys have a linebacker on Goedert and he smokes him downfield but there is a miscommunication between him and Wentz.

The Cowboys recognized this was an issue so the next time Goedert split out wide, they tried to use a safety to cover him. Despite this, Goedert was too big and strong for a 6’0 210 lbs safety to cover him.

Look closely at the above clip again. You will notice the Cowboys are in nickel. Why did the Cowboys go to nickel here against the Eagles 12 personnel here and not earlier? Game situation. It is 3rd and 6 here which means the Eagles are unlikely to run the ball and the Cowboys feel confident going against the Eagles 12 personnel with their nickel package.

If every 3rd and 6+ a defense goes to their nickel package, why would the Eagles stay in 12 personnel then? Why not go 11 personnel and give yourself a better chance of converting through the air? Surely this means 12 personnel should only be used on early downs and never on 3rd down and long?

Well, as I have mentioned throughout, if a team goes to their nickel coverage against the Eagles 12 personnel then the Eagles will fancy their chances running the ball. Who says you can’t run the ball on 3rd and long? Doug Pederson thinks you can and The Washington Football team found this out the hard way last year.

The clip below is 3rd and 8. Washington go 2-high and are in nickel vs. the Eagles who are in 12 personnel. The Eagles choose to run and pick up the 1st down.

Later on, it is 3rd and long again. The Eagles come out in 12 personnel but once again Washington does not respect the threat of the run and comes out in nickel. The result is the same as earlier.

If you have two tight ends who can block (well enough) and are receiving threats, you will frequently have a mismatch against defenses. If teams play base against the Eagles, they will fancy their tight ends one on one against a linebacker or safety. If a team plays nickel to stop the receiving threat of Ertz or Goedert, then the Eagles are not afraid to run the ball consistently.

Therefore, 12 personnel should instantly give you a schematic advantage but only if both of your tight ends can block and are receiving threats. When you look around the league, this is incredibly rare. The Eagles are one of the only teams in the NFL that have two tight ends that can both block and are dangerous as receivers. Ertz and Goedert are also both built like ‘proper’ tight ends. They are both 250 lbs+ which means teams will have to respect them in the running game. This nicely leads to my next point, which is…

4. NFL linebackers and safeties are getting smaller.

We have seen a trend in recent years where linebackers and safeties are getting smaller and smaller. Look at the Eagles for example, our number 1 linebacker is Nate Gerry who is only 235 lbs and used to be a safety. We are not the only team with linebackers who used to be safetys either. Deone Bucannon has played linebacker and is 220 lbs. Mark Barron is 213 lbs. Linebackers are simply not 262 lbs like Jeremiah Trotter in his heyday anymore because most defenses are preparing to face offenses who play 11 personnel the majority of the time.

What does this mean? It means that if you have two big tight ends who can block you will have a major advantage in the run game.

The Eagles used their tight ends A LOT in the run game and it was extremely effective last season. Below is a great example.

Look at the great blocks by Goedert and Ertz here. Ertz is even able to break off his initial block and make a key second block to seal the gap for Jordan Howard. The defender Ertz blocks is Adrian Amos who is a pretty good safety. But Amos is 218 lbs and Ertz is 250 lbs, you don’t have to be a brilliant run blocker to win that battle.

Later on, in the same game, Goedert and Ertz had another key block to spring another big gain.

Goedert in particular is an outstanding run blocker. Ertz is also fine, he’s not great but he is good enough and is willing to do it which is an important trait for a tight end. On a football field, size undoubtedly matters, and having two big tight ends give you a particular advantage when the field is condensed.

5. You have an advantage in the RedZone.

Some more numbers for you…

- The Eagles’ success rate in the RedZone (per SharpFootballAnalysis) was 36% in 11 personnel (league average was 43%). In 12 personnel, the Eagles success rate was 56% (league average was 46%).

- The Eagles scored 34 touchdowns in the RedZone last year (I counted these manually so apologies if I am slightly wrong!). For 22 of these touchdowns, the Eagles were in 12 personnel.

So why are all teams (especially the Eagles) better in 12 personnel in the RedZone? The RedZone is an area of the field where the run/pass ratio is extremely unpredictable so 12 personnel is even harder to defend. Teams will rarely ever go nickel against 12 personnel in the RedZone which means the Eagles almost always get their tight ends against a linebacker or a safety.

I went back and watched every single Eagles touchdown from last year (via this very helpful video) and I focused on the ones in the RedZone. It is incredible how often the Eagles either threw to Ertz/Goedert or they had a key block on a running play. Don’t take my word for it either - go and look at the video and you will see what I mean! Let’s look at the Bills game for example.

Early on in the RedZone, the Eagles came out in 12 personnel with Ertz and Goedert on the same side and Wentz under center. It looks like a classic run play to Jordan Howard but it’s not and the Eagles end up with Goedert one on one with safety Jordan Poyer who was 191 lbs at the combine so didn’t really stand a chance against the size of Goedert. As I said earlier, size matters in the RedZone.

In the same game, the Eagles scored two other touchdowns in the RedZone and look at the blocks by both Ertz and Goedert on both of them.

NFL defenses are currently built to stop the spread passing game and if you can get big 250 lbs tight ends blocking smaller linebackers and safeties you have a have advantage in the run game, especially in the RedZone. Just look at how the Eagles current defense is constructed for example. This Eagles defense wants to play against teams that play 3 WRs so they can get Nickell Robey-Coleman on the field. They are not built to play against teams who use 12 personnel all the time. Who would you rather getting more snaps on Sundays, Nickell Robey-Coleman as your 3rd cornerback or Duke Riley as your 3rd linebacker?

This leads me to my final point…

6. You stand out!

This may seem a bit of a stupid point, but as I highlighted at the very start, most teams are not running 12 personnel anywhere near as much as the Eagles. This means that teams will not be spending as long preparing to face 12 personnel on a weekly basis and this gives the Eagles an advantage. Everyone always says it’s a copycat league but sometimes when the rest of the leagues is moving in one direction it is a good idea to move in a different direction.

If you are sat there wondering, if 12 personnel is so great why do most teams still use 11 personnel all the time? It’s because it is incredibly hard to find one good tight end who can block and is a receiving threat, let alone two! On the other hand, look how easy it is to find good quality wide receivers. Just look at this year’s draft class – there were 17 wide receivers drafted in the 1st 3 rounds and only 5 tight ends! Finding a good tight end is really hard and the Eagles are extremely fortunate to have two outstanding ones.

If you got to the end of this, then I appreciate you reading! It was a bit of a long one but this is something I have wanted to write for a while. Please check out my pod and follow me on twitter (@JonnyPage9) and I will answer any questions you have guys in the comments below as always. Thanks!