We’re in the dog days of training camp as the Eagles prepare for their first preseason game against the Ravens this Saturday night. We won’t see much of what they are planning for this year at that time - teams keep everything vanilla in the preseason - but we do know that training camp is where the foundation of the offense for the upcoming season is built.
It’s fair to assume that the Eagles in 2023 will look much like they did in 2022: a “pick your poison” nightmare for defenses who must choose between defending the deep pass or defending the threat of the quarterback run. They are, after all, returning nine of eleven starters on offense. But it’s the fact that they replaced one of those starters (Miles Sanders) with two different players (Rashaad Penny and D’Andre Swift) that got me thinking about what might be different in 2023.
As a full disclosure, I’m not really an X’s and O’s guy, and even if I was I could not compete with the indispensable work Johnny Page does for BGN. If you’re interested in that, I recommend you read his series on Eagles’ concepts, if you haven’t already.
What I am is a “big picture” guy, which has become a staple of my contributions here. And the big picture I see is that the Eagles have:
- Two capable (if oft-injured) running backs who can be the feature back in an offense
- An elite receiving trio in A.J. Brown, DeVonta Smith, and Dallas Goedert (who is also an excellent blocker)
- A mild lack of depth beyond that receiving trio
- The best truly dual-threat quarterback in the league (if we don’t count Pat Mahomes’ scrambling as a key part of the Chiefs’ offense)
When considering these facts together, we find that the Eagles’ best offensive skill position players (outside of quarterback) are two running backs, a tight end, and two wide receivers. And that leads to the “big picture” question: What does it look like if all of those players were on the field at the same time?
A Pop Warner Revolution?
I wrote out the Eagles’ “top five” the way I did because it is how football offensive personnel packages are described. Two running backs and a tight end are known as “21 personnel.” When accounting for the five lineman and one quarterback who are always on the field, the remaining players are the wide receivers (in this case, two).
21 personnel is more or less a relic in professional football at this point - a defining feature of blue-collar, run-heavy offenses working out of the I-formation with a fullback and tailback. While these began to fall out of favor in the mid-oughts, Chip Kelly accelerated their demise when he brought the concept of using three wide receiver sets (11 personnel) to force the defense to play nickel and create mismatches in the run game without the need for a fullback. This has now become the “standard” among NFL offenses and does not show signs of changing soon.
You can still find 21 personnel at other levels of football. Notable college programs that lack passing talent (such as Army and Navy) often lean on a version known to Madden die-hards as “gun split close pro,” where the quarterback in shotgun is flanked on either side by running backs. (The 49ers will use a version of this since they have an actually useful fullback in Kyle Juszczyk.) This formation is used at the college and high school level to run an option-heavy, run-focused offense, where the quarterback is essentially another running back. It is so pervasive at the Pop Warner level that it provided the namesake for youth football
Of course, the Eagles have a quarterback who can run the option... and also pass, which made me wonder what a “supercharged” 21 personnel package would look like. I discuss that here in terms of my perceived advantages and disadvantages.
It would be a new look for defenses to stop. As mentioned before, the 49ers do employ some 21 personnel in their offense, but they have never had a truly dual-threat quarterback under Kyle Shanahan (I suspect this is what they were trying to do when they drafted Trey Lance). 11 personnel is king right now, and defenses have started to adjust, as scoring took a noticeable dip last season with the deployment of two-high safety alignments. This would be a shift by the Eagles to get ahead of the curve and potentially ignite a sort of “mini-revolution” harkening back to Pop Warner’s breakthrough offenses over 100 years ago.
It increases the option threat. Defenses are starting to devise ways to stop the “standard” option, where the quarterback “reads” an unblocked defender and either hands the ball off, keeps it himself, or delivers a pass. Having an additional runner in the backfield allows these options to be diversified. Maybe a direct snap to Penny? How about a pitch from Hurts on the run? A screen pass to Swift? Or maybe copy how the Lions ended the Packers’ season last year?
It can help protect Jalen Hurts. The “secret sauce” the Eagles will need to discover to keep Jalen healthy is how to limit the hits he takes without compromising his threat as a runner. That’s something teams with running quarterbacks have not yet been able to unlock. 21 personnel could help reclassify the QB runs as “setup” plays to get the defense keyed in on Hurts, and then work in variations like what I mentioned above to keep him clean.
It may get the running backs in rhythm faster. Often, running backs need to “warm up” by getting multiple carries before they really maximize their effectiveness. With two starting-caliber running backs on the team, this may prove difficult. Substituting every few plays - or every other series - may not be conducive to establishing a rhythm for either back. If they’re both on the field at the same time, they might get up to speed faster, even if they’re not touching the ball every play. It might also help the staff load manage them and keep them healthy!
It forces the coaches to get creative. This may be bit of a reach for football, but in business a lot of innovation happens when companies are constrained in what they can do. In fact, sometimes an organization will deliberately hamstring themselves when brainstorming to force a mindset of doing more with less. 21 personnel could offer a similar challenges to the coaches. How do you continue to stretch the field - both horizontally and vertically - with only two wide receivers? Maybe send Goedert out wide? Have Swift out in the slot? In a similar vein, I think this forced creativity also lends itself well to integrating more pre-snap motion that has proven to be effective at confusing defenses. It’s something the Eagles have lacked to some degree under Sirianni’s tenure. By leveraging Goedert’s and Swift’s positional versatility, the Eagles could start in a “typical” gun split alignment and motion to something else that stresses the defense, especially if they’ve sent a defensive back to the bench in response to the offensive personnel.
It condenses the offense. I think this would be the biggest argument against deploying 21 personnel as a primary offensive package. The Eagles could add “window dressing” and utilize motion to add some variety here, but at the end of the day it’s still a package with only two wide receivers. This will likely bring a third linebacker onto the field, making mismatches in the running game more difficult. Being able to pass effectively and consistently out of 21 would be key, and it’s fair to question how long the Eagles could keep that up before defenses figure it out.
It would require more complexity in play designs. Unless they’re calling basic run concepts into the teeth of the defense, the more “exotic” looks I described in the Advantages section are going to come with a higher degree of complexity. This places a higher burden on execution, and could be disastrous if something goes wrong. What if someone fumbles a pitch? Misses their block? Runs the wrong route? These things are all possible with any play, of course, but I think the risk runs higher when you have more people and action in the backfield.
It may still be more valuable to have a third receiver on the field. Regardless of what the Eagles do to reinvent 21 personnel, they would still be lacking the field-stretching element that was so vital to their offense last year. A.J. Brown was their best deep threat last year, and he would be in for 21 package plays, but he still benefited from having Watkins running down the field as well. Without that factor it will be harder to hit the big play.
Given the pros - and cons - of running 21 personnel, to me it makes more sense as a subpackage than as the primary identity of the offense. Given the emphasis the coaches and front office have given on incorporating running backs into the passing game, I would be mildly surprised if we don’t see it at all during the season. But the tradeoffs may be too steep to run it more than, say, 10-15 plays a game.
Of course, I’m just an armchair coach with no real football experience. What do you think? Is 21 personnel something the Eagles should add to their arsenal this season? Sound off in the comments!
Should the Eagles experiment with 21 personnel this season?
This poll is closed
It would add a new dimension to their offense and should be used extensively to confuse defenses and keep Jalen Hurts healthy
It would be best used as a change of pace to keep the offense from getting stale, but shouldn’t be a primary facet of the offense
It seems too complicated, and they were unstoppable last year - why fix what isn’t broken?
I don’t really care as long as they score points