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How 12 personnel can keep the Saints unpredictable and on top of the NFL

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The addition of Adam Trautman, Emmanuel Sanders, and others can open help open up Saints offense even further. Here’s how.

New Orleans Saints v Tennessee Titans Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

On Wednesday, Saints tight end coach and assistant head coach Dan Campbell spoke with New Orleans media. The expected hot topic was third-round draft selection Adam Trautman and how the former Dayton Flyer can contribute right away. According to Campbell, he may be able to do so by helping to open up the offense from a widely underutilized personnel grouping: 12 personnel.

When looking at personnel groups like 12, 11, 21, etc. The first digit of the number represents the number of running backs while the second represents the tight ends. So in 12 personnel, we are referring to an offensive set with one running back and two tight ends. Like so:

With both tight ends Jared Cook and Josh Hill circled in gold on the left side of the screen and the lone back, Alvin Kamara, circled in white at the bottom, the Saints are in 12 personnel.

12 personnel has taken on less popularity across the league as of late with teams usually opting to spend most of their time in 11 personnel, which allows them to carry three wide receivers in the formation. That coincides with the expansion over the last decade of the slot wide receiver role. This is true for the Saints as well, however, they see a great amount of success from 12 when they do run it.

In terms of league average, New Orleans falls just two percentage points shy. Coach Payton called 12 personnel 18% of the time. Per Sharp Football Stats, the top five teams in this grouping were Philadelphia (52%), Minnesota (35%), Houston (33%), Tennessee (29%), and Kansas City (29%). In most cases this has to do with the talent at the tight end position or the presence of both a reliable blocker and an athletic pass-catching in the tight end room.

For New Orleans, a lot of the two tight end sets came with some pairing of Josh Hill, Jared Cook, and Taysom Hill would be folded into the mix as well. This season, the Saints drafted Dayton tight end Adam Trautman, who should see his fair share of snaps his rookie year. The coaching staff has been openly excited about how Trautman can contribute in the offense with Jeff Ireland calling him an “immediate contributor” and more recently Dan Campbell talking about his value in 12 personnel specifically.

[Trautman’s] able to do the dirty work that Josh Hill does, but yet he’s got receiving ability kind of like (Jared) Cook. He is somewhere in between those guys. If you’ve got a guy like that then you can (go into) 12 with (Trautman) and (Jared) Cook, you can go 12 with (Trautman) and Josh (Hill), you can still go 12 (with others). It opens your packages up and what you’re able to do offensively, so yeah, we think he can help, we’re hopeful he can help us play a little bit more in 12 personnel.”

Of the five teams list above who deployed 12 personnel the most, all five were playoff teams 2019. The Saints, though outside of the top ten in 12 personnel percentage, found a lot of success when they ran it.

According to Sharp Football Stats, New Orleans had balance and efficiency from this grouping. The Saints achieved a run/pass split of 44%/56% with a run success rate of 63% while averaging 5.7 yards per carry and a pass success rate of 60% including 12 touchdowns and only one interception. That was the second best pass success rate and third best in the run. However, they ranked at the top of the NFL with a 61% overall success rate from 12 personnel.

This translates in their win-loss record as well. In the eight games New Orleans utilized 12 personnel on 20% or more of their snaps, they went 7-1. Conversely, when they leaned too heavily on the league’s most popular grouping 11 personnel, they struggled going 3-4 including the wildcard loss. Now does this mean that 12 personnel translates immediately to wins? Absolutely not. However, it does show that diversity in the offense can.

The Saints have wide receivers like Michael Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders who can run their expansive route trees from just about anywhere on the field. Add in their multi-functional running backs Alvin Kamara, Latavius Murray, and possibly Ty Montgomery this season. Throw in a beefed up group of a do-it-all tight ends in Jared Cook, Josh Hill, Adam Trautman and likely still Taysom Hill. Now run a combination of 11, 12, and probably 21 personnel, rotating these players into multiple roles in both the run and pass games. This team has the personnel to be versatile and flexible while remaining diverse in the looks you show opposing defenses.

Remaining “multiple” as head coach Sean Payton often says about the players, goes for the team’s gameplan as well.

Run Game

Because the Saints’ weapons are so versatile, they can use two-tight end sets to force defenses into mismatches and ill-suited personnel.

Here, the Saints use 12 personnel on a big run play. Because of the receiving threat of Taysom Hill, the Titans counter with a nickel set. That means five defensive backs (circled in white) are on the field with only two linebackers. That is a lighter defensive box to run against. New Orleans capitalized off of forcing this look, as well as some excellent zone run execution, and broke off a 40-yard scamper by Alvin Kamara.

Another example of the successful use of the two-tight end looks came in the 34-7 thrashing of the Indianapolis Colts. A big record-breaking day for Brees also sheds some light on how the Saints can hope to tee up upcoming opponents for big plays.

Early in the second quarter, the Saints ran a power run play from the right hash that resulted in a one-yard loss due to, you guessed it, interior penetration. Colts defensive tackle Denico Autry (#96) was lined up in the B-gap between Warford and Ramczyk. Warford heads up to the second level, with Ramczyk having to slide to his left. Autry takes advantage of that moment, start inside and then swims over Ramczyk’s right shoulder to secure the tackle in the backfield. This becomes important later.

You will notice as well that Will Clapp is in as a sixth offensive lineman, another example of the versatility that can be used in 12 personnel or what some would call Jumbo 12/612.

Passing Game

Here’s where the previous play pays off, later in the third quarter. By now, the Saints had lost Larry Warford due to injury, so instead of using Will Clapp as the sixth offensive lineman, he is lined up at right guard while Patrick Omameh is the extra guy. Otherwise, same formation but different execution and result.

This time, Clapp and Ramczyk double-team the defensive tackle (now Saint Margus Hunt) instead of Clapp heading up to the second level as Warford did. The Saints go play action, and Taysom Hill flies behind Pierre Desir (#35) who gets held up by the run fake. Hill catches the pass and does the rest. But this look from the Saints both telegraphed run and had been used for a run play earlier. The down and distance helped as well being second and two, a situation that matches a run pattern for New Orleans. In 2019, Sean Payton called run 63% of the time from 12 personnel on second down with less than three yards-to-go. Here’s the full play:

This notion of remaining diverse and versatile on offense is nothing new for New Orleans. But in 2020, they’ll add a veteran pass-catcher like Emmanuel Sanders, an experienced Swiss Army Knife like Ty Montgomery, and a young dual-threat tight end like Adam Trautman to develop. The possibilities continue to expand for the offense. Trautman caught 70 passes for 916 yards and 14 touchdowns his senior year and has the tools to continue to develop as a blocker with his size at six-foot-five and 255 pounds at the Combine. Even if he does not rack up a ton of production on the box score, his presence can be a large contribution immediately.

Getting him and the many other versatile weapons this team has to offer involved in the 12 personnel sets will allow them to thrive even further in taking advantage of defenses. If they can execute with the talent they look to have on paper, the Saints can return to a top offense in 2020.


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