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Blueprint for Cardinals’ 12 Personnel

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at Arizona Cardinals Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Background: Dec 20, 2020; Glendale, Arizona, USA; Arizona Cardinals tight end Maxx Williams (87) against the Philadelphia Eagles at State Farm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas

With the Cardinals’ signings of TEs Zach Ertz, Maxx Williams and Stephen Anderson, plus their drafting 2021 Mackey Award winner, Trey McBride:

If you recall, back in Kliff Kingsbury’s inaugural season, the Cardinals’ offensive linemen and their coaches, Sean Kugler and Brian Natkin, implored Kliff to employ a more steady diet of 12 personnel (2 TEs, 2 WRS, 1 RB). To Kliff’s credit, he was amenable to making that change, and in a number of ways, it made the Cardinals’ offense more difficult to defend.

First, in order to clarify was 10, 11, 12. 13 and 21 personnel mean —- it’s pretty simple:

  • The first number is the number of RBs in the formation.
  • The second number is the number of TEs in the formation
  • The number not included is the number of WRs, but by using simple math, the number of WRs is dictated by subtracting the first two numbers from 5 (eligible receivers).
  • Therefore, 10 (4 WRs), 11 (3 WRs), 12 (2 WRs), 13 (1 WR), 14 (0 WRs) 21 (2 WRs).

If you ask NFL defensive coordinators which personnel groups present the greatest challenges for their defenses, they are apt to say 12 personnel, followed by 10 personnel (spread).

What is so challenging about having to defend 12 personnel?

  • Having to counter for what amounts to be a 7 man offensive line. What most teams will try to do at the outset, is line their NT head up on the C. Then they will line up their DTs in the “B” gaps, the gaps between the tackles and the guards. That way, they are hoping to occupy the front 5 in order to try to keep their inside linebackers clean.
  • Then, however they need to put their two best edge defenders head up across or on the outside shoulder of the TEs. What these defensive alignments ensure is a 5 man defensive line, where in the offense has a two man advantage up front, 7 to 5. If the defense is having trouble, the DC is apt to add in another DT, to narrow the number gap from 7 to 6. But, of course, that takes away one of their linebackers.
  • Most defenses will want to keep 2 inside linebackers versus 12 personnel, because of four offensive plays that can attack a 5 man front where it is most vulnerable:
  • (1) the off-tackle play is made to order when the play-side DT is lined up in the B gap, because it’s a made to order down block by the offensive tackle, and a one on one block for the tight end on the edge player. The TE’s job is to either “kick out” the edge player or “seal” him to the inside. So, having two inside linebackers puts the play-side LB in closer proximity to the off-tackle run and allows for the back-side inside LB to trail the play in order to clean up on any cut-back runs.
  • (2) the off-tackle cut-back run, particularly off a zone blocking scheme, where the line all moves in one direction trying to leverage the defenders and push them in that direction, which invariably will give the RB some cutback lanes.
  • (3) quick toss sweep plays, because so many defenders can get trapped on the inside.
  • (4) A gap dive, where the play-side G leverages the B gap DT and pushed him wide of the center, while the center tries to influence the NT one way to drive him in whatever direction the NT takes.

All of this said, what’s equally appealing about 12 personnel is how it opens up your passing game on play-action, RPOs and regular pass plays.

  • Most teams will want to play 2 safeties so that each can help on the wide receiver to his side and help bracket the TE to his side on TE seam routes. Having good pass catching threats at TE tends to keep the safety to that TE’s side occupied, thus it leaves the WR to that side in a one-on-one matchup with the CB. Imagine then, what DCs are going to feel when they are leaving DeAndre Hopkins and Marquise Brown in one-on-one coverage.
  • Many defenses will try to run zone coverages versus 12 personnel, but, man, that takes very skillful, athletic linebackers and tremendous communication to pull off.
  • What winds up happening is that the secondary tends to play with added cushion in an effort to keep everything in front of them, thus, they are often conceding short to intermediate passes for 7-12 yard gains.

12 Personnel with “H” and “Y” Off

One of the awesome wrinkles that comes with running 12 personnel is how creative the OC can get with the TEs as to how and where they line them up off the ball. Lining them off the ball allows them to run in motion, to where they can overload one side and force the defense to react. The OC has the choice of lining one of both of the TEs off the ball, as long as the WR to the TE side knows he has to line up on the ball from his spot. When the TEs are lined up on the ball the WRs have to line up off the ball in order to remain eligible receivers.

Here is an excellent clinic from Coach Mac (@coachmac8740) as to how playing the TEs off the ball opens up so many more options in the run and passing game. (Fast forward to the 2 minute mark to get past his sponsor promos):

Having two “Y” type of TEs (who can flex) in Zach Ertz and Trey McBride would make it is easy for Kliff to get creative with where he lines them up in 12 personnel. What Kliff can pretty much count on is one of the two TEs being defended by the strong safety (who may be smaller) and the other TE then being matched up with a linebacker (who may not be quick enough to establish leverage in pass coverage).

In the running game, sending one of the TEs in motion will tell Kyler Murray and Colt McCoy what the coverage is. If a defender chases —- it’s man coverage. No chase, typically means zone coverage. Then the TE in motion will be in excellent position to make “BAM” or “TRAP” blocks in the offense’s overload to one side.

Added Pass Protection in 12 Personnel:

The advantage of 12 personnel is that it gives the QB added pass protection when one or both of the TEs stays in to pass block. Plus, because of how wide the 7 man front is, the edge defenders now have to line up farther away from the QB than normal, thus extending the amount of time it typically might take to get to the QB.

The Ace of the Formation

If Kyler Murray lines up under center in 12 personnel, just imagine how daunting that would be for DCs and their defenses. Kyler is a skillful ballhandler, At his size, off the direct snap, he is going to be very difficult for the defense to locate, especially off of play action drop backs, waggles and bootlegs.

Here in Week 1 last year versus the Titans, Kliff lined the offense up in 14 personnel (adding J.J. Watt and Leki Fotu as blocking TEs) with Kyler under center and look at the bootleg:

Cardinals’ TEs:

Zach Ertz

Here’s a TE seam pass to Zach Ertz out of 12 personnel:

This became a bread and butter play, even in 11 personnel. Imagine having this option to both sides of the formation and what pressure that can put on the defense.

More Zach Ertz: (At the .51 second mark, play action to from Colt McCoy to Zach Ertz out of 13 personnel (Y and H off, both to right)

Stephen Anderson

Here is a great play action TD in 23 personnel from Justin Herbert to Stephen Anderson:

Envision how well Stephen Anderson fits as a versatile TE, H-Back, FB:

Maxx Williams

Zone busting and Getting the Ball out Quick to Maxx Williams:

More Maxx!

Trey McBride

Play action bootleg galore TD to Trey McBride:

Trey McBride Highlights:

Hey, with these 4 dudes, heck, Kliff might roll out some 14 personnel!