There’s no question about it, the spread revolutionized football. We know it changed offense, but it has now completely changed defense too. Because defenses have adjusted in-kind, the spread is no longer a cheat-code to produce offense. It’s just another type of offense. With defenses becoming comfortable in nickel and dime, and comfortable playing with 2-high safeties, it’s important for offenses to find a way to punish that. The best way to do that is by playing heavy and running the ball of course, but in order to create conflict and continue to reap the pass-catching benefits of the spread, you have to be able to do that without taking pass-catching bodies off the field. Additionally, to actually create that conflict, you have to run much of your offense without substituting.
That’s where 12 personnel comes in. “12” personnel is shorthand used to denote the presence of 1 RB and 2 TE on the field. If you follow me on Twitter, you’ve seen that I’ve been (incessantly to anyone who will listen) predicting the rise of 12 as the post-spread wave of offensive football for around a year or so. This past year with Georgia, we saw this burst into full view, but they weren’t alone.
It's important, for the purposes of understanding personnel conflict, to understand how and when defenses decide what package to put on the field. To give them a fair chance, defenses are allowed to substitute in response to offensive substitution. So, for instance, if they see the offense come out in heavy personnel, someone on the sideline will yell “base” and the base defense (only 4 DB) will go on. What a flexible TE allows you to do, is both spread and heavy things from the same personnel grouping. As a result, the defense has to choose between being too small (nickel) or too slow (base) to deal with who you have out there.
As I said earlier, Georgia wasn’t alone in building such an offense, though they were the most extreme. Utah has actually been doing this for a couple of years now, the Chiefs moved away from the spread this year and more toward 12 and 13 personnel to deal with how they were being defended, the Bills drafted a flex TE to replace the slot position, the Packers drafted 2 TEs with premium picks in the same draft, and the Seahawks were able to run their full offense out of 12 personnel.
Every offense has an X (WR), H (RB), Y (TE), and Z (WR) on the field most of the time. What position the remaining player is, the F, determines your personnel grouping (except in special situations like 22, 13, or 23 personnel). If the F is a fullback, you’re in 21, if he’s a true slot, you’re in 11, if he’s a TE, you’re in 12.
Role of the Y
In the modern 12 personnel, the job of the Y is as it always has been, to live as an in-line blocker and secondary receiving option. Only now, this is done while the 2nd TE, the F, moves around the field. Your Y has to be able to physically handle a big defensive end in a tight space. Think Darnell Washington or Jason Witten.
The F of the future isn’t just a slot like he was in the spread era, or a FB like he was in the 2-back era, but a positionless flex player. Think Dalton Kincaid, Brock Bowers, Travis Kelce, or Darren Waller. The new F is a guy who is gifted at playing in space and catching the ball, but is big enough to be asked to help on combo blocks and most importantly, dig out small nickels 1 on 1 in tight.
This divergence is beginning to crystallize. The Bills, for instance, drafted the aforementioned Kincaid to pair with Dawson Knox. The idea, as they’ve stated openly, is to move Kincaid around the field while Knox lines up attached to the formation. The result is similar to 11 personnel, but more flexible than true 11 because the F is still a bigger body and can be asked to block a bit more than a small WR, creating what Bills GM Brandon Beane has dubbed “11.5 personnel.” That blocking assignment is minimal but critical in forcing defenses to honor the run.
If the defense decides they fear the run and answer your 12 personnel package with base, a SAM linebacker instead of a nickel, then that guy will have to cover your F in space. If they decide they fear him as a receiver and answer with nickel, that nickel will have to outmuscle your F in tight.
The ultimate result is the ability to play heavy football when the defense is light, and play spread football when the defense is heavy, a permanent mismatch.
How does this pertain to LSU? Well, if you haven’t noticed, LSU is gathering TEs like infinity stones. Between players like Mason Taylor, Mac Markway, Ka’Morreun Pimpton, and more, LSU is building flexibility and depth at TE. Additionally, LSU coaches have talked about Markway’s size and ability to live in-line and block, implying that another TE, like the athletically gifted Taylor, could move around and create this kind of dynamic. So what could that look like for LSU and others going forward?
IN SPACE (vs base)
Utah used the athletic Brant Kuithe as their F before he got hurt (and Dalton Kincaid took over the role). Because Utah is so good at running the football, Florida’s gameplan was to match 12 with base and stop the run, with the result being a linebacker charged with covering Kuithe in space. A great way to exploit this kind of matchup issue is to pepper the TE for volume in the shallow and intermediate windows on change-of-direction routes like choice routes, juke routes, digs, or this bunch-trail route, which are hard for non-coverage bodies to match.
You can also exploit that matchup to threaten more vertically, as linebackers are not usually equipped to carry talented receivers man-man down the field, especially not on double moves like this stick nod.
No DC wants a linebacker to carry this man-to-man on somebody who can get open and play in-space. Matching these kinds of pass-catchers with linebackers is a recipe for punishment.
IN TIGHT (vs nickel)
So it seems the answer is simple, just play nickel to match the pass-catching F with a man-covering DB right? Well, no. That happened to Georgia rather frequently last year, as DCs couldn’t stomach the idea of covering Brock Bowers with a linebacker (rightfully so, see above).
When they would get nickel to 12, Georgia would tighten up into these 3x1 bunches and run DUO, which is possibly football’s most popular run play at the moment, and a necessary staple in a 12 personnel offense. The idea of DUO is to create extra gaps at the point of attack, get a bunch of double teams inside, and have the bunch players dig people out for the bounce (if/when the RB’s read takes him there). When teams were in nickel, the task became beating Brock Bowers in tight, at the point of attack, with a 200 or-so pound coverage body. The poor kid obviously won’t stand a chance, but the alternative is covering him in space with a linebacker. Georgia’s run game honestly mostly boiled down to taking advantage of this, and they were highly effective.
Even F TEs who aren’t good blockers, like Utah’s Dalton Kincaid here, can still be reasonably asked to physically overwhelm a smaller coverage defender in a tight space.
Having 2 TEs attached to the formation also creates a lot of 1-high vs 2-high conflict for the defense. If you play 2 high, you only have 7 defenders to account for 8 gaps, which will often get you gashed on the ground. Here the Seahawks hit DUO for a big gain with nobody to account for the D gap.
The problem, for defenses, with getting into 1-high to account for all the gaps, is that it opens up play-action shot plays like this post-over combo from Michigan, among others. It puts the post safety in a lot of conflict and creates 1 on 1s on the outside. This is where the wide receivers really come into the equation. It is MORE important to have true alpha receivers in a 12 personnel offense, not less, because you need people who can get themselves open and make these 1 on 1s a losing proposition for the defense. If they can’t do that, there’s no real conflict here.
The emergence of a separate F TE also means that 13 personnel is the new 12, or to paraphrase Brandon Beane, 12.5.
Traditionally, 13 personnel is used as a short-yardage grouping because of how heavy it is. You only have 1 WR and 3 heavy tight-ends, so you’re built to run the ball. Once again, DUO is a favorite in 13.
With that in mind, 13 is really good to throw play-action out of because you still do have pass-catching bodies on the field. The Seahawks, a big user of 12 and 13 a year ago, align all 3 TEs to the same side, creating 4 extra gaps on that side of the formation. As a result, they force the CB into the run fit, as he has to account for the newly created E gap, and can suck him up with the play-fake. This presents like DUO with the middle TE climbing to his block, only for him to continue on a corner.
Against 13, the defense genuinely no longer has a choice about whether or not they get heavy, they have to. The result, you can basically get your most athletic TE on a LB whenever you want.
The Chiefs took full advantage of the multiplicity afforded to them by having an F TE that is basically a big WR. Their 13 personnel looks weren’t just condensed, short-yardage formations, they could spread you out too.
In short, this is where I see offensive football going. I think this will be taken to more and more extremes, with teams even basing in 12 personnel, like Georgia did this past year, across the game in the coming years. Given the way they are recruiting and developing TEs, LSU is well positioned for the 12olution. I for one, welcome our 6’5, 250-pound overlords.