It’s been a little bit of a rallying cry around these parts - the Cowboys should spread out their offense to really open up its potential. It’s been less about the receiving component of the offense and more about giving Ezekiel Elliott some room to run. In the past, the Cowboys kept trying to run two tight end sets, or slip a fullback into the situation, which inevitably led to the defense stacking the box.
That’s an oversimplification, but there is no denying that the Cowboys operate best when they are in 11 personnel. The numbers from last year are proof. ESPN has an article discussing the best offensive personnel groupings to see who ran the different groupings the most, and who ran them the most successfully. They also tagged the teams that ran each formation the least, and who to watch out for in 2020.
When it came to 11 personnel, the Cowboys were king in 2019.
11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WRs)
Why it works: With a tight end on the field, offenses can pick up an extra blocker on the line of scrimmage in pass protection while adding another gap to attack in the run game. And tight ends with pass-game upside give offensive coordinators another weapon in the toolbox to complement the three wide receivers on the field.
The team that ran it the best: In 2019, the Dallas Cowboys ran 713 snaps out of 11 personnel and averaged 7.16 yards per play while registering a league-best successful play rate of 50.4%. Quarterback Dak Prescott averaged 8.47 yards per attempt, with a league-leading 23 touchdown passes. And running back Ezekiel Elliott’s 823 yards rushing led all backs on 11 personnel carries.
In addition to converting third downs at 48.1% — tops in the league — Dallas generated an NFL-high 54 explosive play receptions and averaged 5.44 yards per rush in this scheme.
Given the Cowboys ran roughly 1,120 offensive plays in 2019, that’s a pretty high percentage of 11 personnel. Still, there is a thought that they should utilize it it even more. And while they are at it, they could throw in some more play-action. When you read all of those stats that came out of 11 personnel, it seems only logical they should go to the well even more.
The Cowboys have swapped out Randall Cobb for CeeDee Lamb. How that will affect the offense is a good debate. Cobb was a long-time veteran, you kind of new his capabilities and what you would get, although his 2019 season was much better than his previous few seasons that had been interrupted by injury. Lamb’s impact this season is the wild card. He looks to have a higher potential than Cobb, especially with his amazing yards after catch ability. On the down side, though, he will be a rookie in 2020 and wide receivers tend to take a while to acclimate to the NFL game.
Maybe it’s for that reason, or maybe it’s because they want to have a different answer and bring another team into the conversation, but ESPN chose the Chiefs as the team to watch out of this formation in 2020 instead of the Cowboys.
The team to watch in 2020: Kansas City Chiefs. Yes, the Cowboys should once again register upper-level numbers under new coach Mike McCarthy, given the offensive line play in Dallas and the addition of rookie wide receiver CeeDee Lamb. But let’s not sleep on the Super Bowl champs. The Chiefs’ 8.47 yards per attempt in this grouping last season tied with the Cowboys, and Patrick Mahomes tossed 21 touchdown passes out of 11 personnel in 14 games.
With the speed K.C. has at the wide receiver position, plus the matchup ability of tight end Travis Kelce, the Chiefs can jump into trips sets to dice up defensive game plans. And don’t forget about rookie running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire, who has the pass-game traits and running ability to register great numbers as a rookie.
When you’re battling a Super Bowl-winning team like the Chiefs, led by Patrick Mahomes and with all that speed on offense, you’re in good company.
An interesting side-note is that the team that ran 11 personnel the most in 2019 was none other than Andy Dalton’s Bengals. The Cowboys new backup QB has plenty of experience in that formation, but the Bengals were one of the worst teams in generating production out of that formation. They ran it 788 times compared to the Cowboys 713, but the results were abysmal. That’s part of the reason Dalton now plays for the Cowboys although it’s hard to lay all the blame on him as the Bengals had all kinds of deficiencies in personnel last year.