Monday, July 13, 2015

Fundamentally Speaking - Part 1: Recognizing Offensive Alignments

The New England Patriots' offense is unique in the sense that they have been built to give themselves the tactical advantage in just about any personnel grouping - but how can you tell one personnel grouping from another?

Personnel groupings are relatively easy to identify.  By rule, there are five linemen in a formation, one quarterback and five so-called "skill position" players.  These personnel groupings acknowledge only the skill position numbers, as they are the only positions in the alignment that are not set in stone.

An offensive coordinator could elect to use any number of skill position players in just about any capacity that they see fit in order to give themselves a tactical advantage against the weaknesses of a given defensive alignment.

Consequently, many of these personnel groupings can tip the defense off to what kind of play is coming, allowing the defense to adjust their play call on the field.

In the chart to the left, you can see that the number of the grouping is dependent on the number of running backs in the formation (which constitutes the first number) and the number of tight ends in the formation (which constitutes the second number).

In other words, the number of running backs is the first number and the number of tight ends is the second number in a double digit moniker.

For example, if a team wanted to spread out the Patriots' defense, they would go to a "00 Personnel", which is five wide receivers or "Five Wide" - or if they wanted to go into their goal line or "Jumbo Package", they would call for a "23 Personnel", meaning two running backs and three tight ends in the formation with no receivers - though a coordinator could elect to try and surprise and out-maneuver their opponent by choosing instead to go with an unconventional approach, like on the game-winning defensive play from last February's Super Bowl.

The Seattle Seahawks have a second and goal from just outside the one yard line with only seconds to play.  In this position, and with one of the league's premier running backs in their backfield, just about everyone on the planet expected Seattle to run the football, given that they had two time outs remaining and could stop the clock if Marshawn Lynch couldn't cross the plane of the goal line.

But the Seahawks opened up in the "11 Personnel", which meant that they had one running back (Lynch) and just one tight end.  Normally in a goal-to-go situation, you would expect to see a "22 Personnel" (2 backs, 2 tight ends) or a "23 Personnel" (2 backs, 3 tight ends) Jumbo package, which is what the Patriots were expecting - so when Seattle broke huddle in the "11", the coaches started screaming for cornerback Malcolm Butler to get on the field, as the Seahawks had three receivers and New England had only two cornerbacks.

This formation tipped off the Patriots that the play was going to be a pick play to the right, as Seattle receivers Kearse and Lockette were in a stack formation, isolated away from the formation - and it didn't hurt that Seahawks' quarterback Russell Wilson telegraphed his intent by locking his eyes on his primary receiver, Lockette, seconds before the snap.

The slot receiver went in motion from the weak side to the strong side (the strong side for the purpose of this text meaning the side that the tight end is aligned on), taking Patriots' corner Darrelle Revis with him, while Lynch moved to the strong side as well, trying to sell the play going to the left - but Wilson locking in on his target pre-snap and Butler's familiarity with the play through film study and practice doomed Seattle to the end result of this play, the game-saving Butler interception.

So, we've seen how the number of running backs and tight ends in a formation determine its number designation, and also how looks can be deceiving in relationship to how these players are aligned within the designation, so now let's deal with each designation and the typical defensive alignment that is best suited to counter each.

The problem we face here, however, is that the Patriots offense is not built like a traditional pro set offense, thanks both to the presence of one Rob Gronkowski and a stable of reliable possession receivers, sans a legitimate deep threat.  Quarterback Tom Brady has never been a consistently accurate deep ball thrower, so it doesn't make a lot of sense to employ receivers who only function well deep.

Gronkowski is the deep threat in this offense, but only because he can not be matched up with.  The Patriots move him all over the formation, to create mismatches elsewhere on the field, and very few teams have a weapon that they can consistently do that with.  Most try to cover him with their speediest linebacker, perhaps with a strong safety over the top.

That means that with Gronkowski basically double-teamed, either someone else is open or the opposition has sacrificed run support in order to have everyone covered...

Next in part 2, the single-digit groupings and how rare it is for the Patriots to use any of them...

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