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Cowboys vs. 49ers Game: A Look At The Cowboys Personnel Packages Utilized By Scott Linehan

With week 1 in the books, Iet's take a look at the game film and chart the personnel packages. It is only one game, but there could be something telling already.

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Scott Linehan
Scott Linehan
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

What personnel groupings did the Dallas Cowboys use against the San Francisco 49ers? What can that tell us about the future? Let's examine the personnel groupings from last Sunday's game. Before we jump into that, here are the numbers for all of the NFL in 2013 thanks to Pro Football Focus, along with a descriptive quote from the article.

The first thing to say is that the NFL clearly favors three packages: 11 personnel (one back, one tight end, and three receivers), 12 personnel (one back, two tight ends, and two receivers) and 21 personnel (two backs, one tight end, and two receivers). The table below that indicates the league average for each:

11 Personnel 12 Personnel 21 Personnel
51.62% 19.74% 13.26%

One thing to keep in mind before we look at the latest data is how much we were counting on the 12 package just last year. In fact, our own FPW Tom Ryle did a nice article back in December of last year where he wondered if the great 12 personnel experiment was over before it got much traction.

And another article along the same lines of the disappearing 12 package.

It’s true that Romo has a lot of options and perhaps more than he’s ever had. The emergence of rookie wideout Terrance Williams and the steady performance of second-year player Cole Beasley have made other formations more attractive. One of them is 11 personnel, which features one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers. Out of that package, the Cowboys feel they can create better mismatches at the same time they coax the defense into revealing their strategy.

"It forces them to play a lot of man," Beasley said. "It really forces them to show exactly what they’re doing. That’s the big thing. Whatever receiver we put out there we feel like that’s too much space for anyone to really cover us. We feel like we can get open. They can try to double guys, but we feel like no one can cover any of us one on one. That’s why we went to it a lot more and we’ve been successful with it."

One of the things to keep in mind about just how good the 12 package can still become, and why it worked so well for New England not too long ago, is the fact that a team needs one tight end that excels at blocking and one that excels at getting separation and can still competently block on running plays.

The idea is to use the 12 package as the base offense and make the defense live with one of two mismatches. First if they bring out the normal base defense, then you can split out your pass receiver tight end and force them to try to cover him with either a linebacker or a safety and either choice favors the offense. Or, if they trot out the nickel, then you run the ball.

Guys like Jimmy Graham, Vernon Davis and Rob Gronkowski are all guys that can easily get separation when covered by a linebacker by out running them, and easily have a height advantage on any safety covering them. Anyone want to guess if we can get Gavin Escobar to fill that spot for us?

And this article further explains just why the Patriots decided to go to the 12 package.

Spoiler Alert!  -  They HAD to!

The New England Patriots have been at the forefront of one of the latest offensive trends that is becoming more commonplace, the 12 personnel. The Patriots began relying on more of a two-tight end based offense in part due to declining talent at the wide receiver position. Playoff losses to the New York Jets and Baltimore Ravens, who found ways to slow down the New England attack also played a role in the change in strategy. The recent change in philosophy is a far cry from the years when Randy Moss and Deion Branch once stretched the field for the Patriots and Tom Brady threw the ball anywhere from 40-50 times per game.

As mentioned above, the Patriots use of the two-tight end set came about for a number of reasons. The primary reason the Patriots found the need to change their offensive strategy came about due to teams finding success slowing down New England’s pass-happy offense. The Jets were one of the teams that deserve credit for supplying the NFL with a blueprint to slowing down the Patriots on offense.

But now the new wave is toward more and more of the 11 package, but keep in mind the 12 package is second in the Cowboys list, so it hasn't been abandoned yet, at least so far this season. And here is the groupings from that first game:

Group RB TE WR QB Position Num All 11 All 12 Rest
01 0 1 4 Under Center 0 36 16 11
11 1 1 3 Under Center 7
12 1 2 2 Under Center 12
13 1 3 1 Under Center 3
21 2 1 2 Under Center 0
22 2 2 1 Under Center 1
23 2 3 0 Under Center 0
S01 0 1 4 Shotgun 6
S02 0 2 3 Shotgun 0
S11 1 1 3 Shotgun 24
S12 1 2 2 Shotgun 2
P01 0 1 4 Pistol 0
P11 1 1 3 Pistol 5
P12 1 2 2 Pistol 2
P21 2 1 2 Pistol 1

Now for some comment on terminology.  I considered a Pistol position as one that was about 5 yards behind the L.O.S. instead of the normal 7 yards, and also where the running back was behind the quarterback at least a yard. So, when you see "Pistol" in the groupings, it is not the Pistol formation, per se, it is just the depth of the quarterback we are talking about. And the last column where you see "All 11", and "All 12", it means that I am adding up the 11, the S11, and the P11 and the same for the 12, and then the "rest" means all the rest of the personnel groupings added together.

Now for some observations.

  • The 11 personnel is by far the most significant. It accounts for 57% of all the plays the offense ran.
  • 40 of the 63 plays were run from shotgun or pistol depth.
  • Comparing the Cowboy's 57% to the league wide 52%, we can see that Linehan does like to use the 11 personnel a little bit more than the rest of the NFL. However, keep in mind that in the 4th quarter especially, he had to go more with the pass than he might have wanted because of the scoreboard. 14 of the last 15 plays were pass plays, so that makes it difficult to determine if the was going to run the ball more than he did.
  • I counted 38 pass plays to 22 run plays. I did not count plays where Romo was sacked or if they ran or passed and then got a penalty.

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