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Cowboys Offense: Can "11" Give Them What They Wanted From "12"?

In the past two weeks, the Cowboys appear to have moved away from two-tight end (12 personnel) as their base offense. The question is: can 3-wide formations give them the balance and element of surprise they wanted from the "12"?

Three WR sets allow the Cowboys to move Dez Bryant around the formation
Three WR sets allow the Cowboys to move Dez Bryant around the formation
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

As our own Tom Ryle detailed in his usual excellent fashion earlier today, the Cowboys appear to have shelved the "12" personnel that we have heard would be their base offense from the moment they drafted Gavin Escobar in the second round in last April's NFL Selection meeting. As Tom points out, this notion was made concrete when the team cut its lone remaining fullback, Lawrence Vickers, before the start of training camp.

In a best case scenario, the two-tight-end offense provides myriad match-up problems for opposing defenses. More specifically, if both TEs are receiving threats, the offense becomes extremely difficult to defend. The most basic notion goes like this: if a team keeps its safeties back to defend the pass, Dallas has a numbers advantage in the running game. If a team thinks the Cowboys were going to run and brings a safety up into the box, the Cowboys can exploit a size or speed mismatch and pass to either tight end against either a linebacker or the out-of-position safety.

But there are other advantages. Back in early June, I wrote a piece that began by looking at the way the Patriot's utilized 12 personnel to great advantage. A key was that they could line up either of their tight ends, Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, in a dizzying array positions: at the in-line, or "Y"; in the backfield, as an "H" or "F" back; "flexed" a few yards from the line of scrimmage; further flexed, in the slot; and fully flexed, out wide. And they can move from one to the other by using motion.

Indeed, in training camp, I noted that this was exactly what the Cowboys were working towards. I wrote, "there is a lot of variety in this [12] personnel package. I'm noticing a lot more motion; sometimes, two TEs will switch sides, sometimes two will motion from one side to the other (thus shifting the "heavy" side): sometimes, one or more will motion into the backfield." As New England did, the Cowboys were practicing to create confusion and mismatches.

Speaking of mismatches, a final positive aspect of 12 personnel is that it allows a team to run out of a passing looks (i.e., with one or more TEs flexed) and to pass out of run-heavy sets (with both TEs aligned just outside, say, the right tackle). Indeed, in his tenure with the Cowboys Jason Garrett has shown (and spoken to the fact) that he loves to do this; most obviously, this means running out of 3-wide sets and passing from "jumbo" formations. With two diverse tight ends on the field, an offensive coordinator can effectively do both.

So, with the demise of the 12, do Garret and Co. bid adieu to this cornucopia of schematic advantages that they so fervently wished to tap into? Given recent developments, it appears that they might not have to.

But first, some numbers. I've made a handy-dandy little chart, which details how many times the Cowboys have lined up in 12 personnel in each game this season. What I want to look at is how often they have utilized what I believe to be their new base offense, 3-WR - or 11 personnel - on a game-by-game basis. I'll explain why after we take a look-see:

Opponent 12 Personnel 11 Personnel S11 Personnel
Giants 18 3 27
@ Chiefs 13 0 22
Rams 13 12 21
@ Chargers 10 1 31
Broncos 8 6 10
Redskins 17 5 10
@ Eagles 13 1 34
@ Lions 10 9 16
Vikings 7 4 22
Saints 1 9 8
@ Giants 17 8 27
Raiders 11 14 27

As you can see, the Cowboys have used 12 personnel fairly consistently throughout the year. Whenever it appears Dallas is going away from it (as in the two-game stretch against Minnesota and New Orleans), they have returned to it, often with a vengeance. Indeed, in the last two contests, they have lined up in "12" 28 times, which is the third most in any two-game stretch this season.

So, perhaps it's not quite right to say that they are abandoning 12 personnel as it is to assert that they are incorporating other, more consistently successful, packages with greater frequency. I contend that they have come to realize that their most potent offensive combination is 3-wide, or 11, personnel. And it's not 3WR sets in general; as the third column demonstrates, s11, which designates "shotgun 11," has been an extremely popular formation throughout the season - indeed, their most popular by a comfortable margin.

What is different is the increasing frequency of regular "11," when Tony Romo lines up under center with a single back behind him. Think about it: s11 essentially broadcasts that it's going to be a pass play. That's fine on third and long when the only realistic move is to pass (indeed, 32% of the plays the Cowboys have run from s11 have come on third and fourth downs), but on other downs, it tends not to leave defenses guessing - and defensive hesitation is a huge key to offensive success.

With Romo under center, however, there is a much greater degree of defensive uncertainty. And, in a sense, this gives the offense the same advantages enjoyed by 12 personnel. Consider: when the offense deploys in a 3-wide set with the QB under center, the defense must counter with a nickel package, lifting one of its "heavies" (usually a linebacker) for a smaller defensive back and taking a big body out of the box. Last week, we saw this in action; at halftime, after deploying in 12 personnel for much of the first 30 minutes, Dallas had a meagre 7 carries for 12 yards. After the break, running from spread looks against Oakland's nickel, they amassed a tidy 132 yards on 23 carries - a handsome 5.74 yards per rush.

As Garrett likes so much, 11 personnel (with Romo under center) allows the team to go against formation, running effectively from a pass look. Not only do spread formations force the defense to replace a big man with a nickel defender, they place the opposing eleven in space, making sizeable running lanes easier to come by. And, when an offense has slot receivers who can block - and, in Dez Bryant and Miles Austin, they do - it adds further advantage.

At the same time, it is increasingly clear that three-wide is the team's most effective personnel grouping in the passing game. This is largely because it allows Romo to distribute the ball to a wide variety of targets. Against the Raiders (admittedly a small sample), the team predominantly utilized 12 personnel in the first half, and Romo was 11-20 passing. After the break, spreading the ball around to underneath receivers from a preponderance of 3-wide sets, Romo was a perfect 12-12.

Perhaps more importantly, it makes the Cowboys best offensive player harder to defend. With three receivers on the field, it's harder to remove Bryant from the game by placing a safety over him. If opposing defensive coordinators want to continue to double Bryant and Jason WItten, as they have much of the season, other receivers - Austin, Williams, Beasley - can make hay.

Two-tight-end formations can be effective, in theory, because they offer pass/run confusion; allow diverse players to line up in multiple places on the field; and allow offensive coordinators to call plays that "go against formation." Sadly, the Cowboys two-TE package wasn't giving them the full range of these advantages. In standard 11 personnel, however, they may have done the next best thing, as it gives them many of 12 personnel's positive factors - indeed more than any other formation they can put on the field.

Against Oakland, they called a season-high 14 plays with three receivers and Romo under center. Will this trend continue into and through December? We'll have to watch the games. But, then, you were going to do that anyway, weren't you?


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