Which personnel package has been good for the Dallas Cowboys and which has been bad?
The Dallas Cowboys, like all NFL teams, cycle between various personnel packages throughout the game. While the 11 personnel group, which features three receivers, dominates Dallas’ snaps, other groups have had their fair share of success and failures as well.
Matchups and game situations play a big part in what personnel group the Dallas Cowboys trot out on offense. Defenses closely monitor offensive substitutions and adjust their own personnel accordingly. Offenses want to force the defense out of their comfort zone and the best way to do that is by keeping the best 11 defensive players off the field.
Does the defense have a suspect secondary? Then the offense should go with 3WRs (11 personnel). Does the defense lack stout linebackers? Then the offense could go 22 personnel (2 TEs and 2 RBs). Exploiting matchups is the name of the game and that often requires a diverse set of personnel packages capable of winning.
But how versatile have the Dallas Cowboys been? And what are their best and worst personnel packages?
Using Sharp Football Stats, we can track which personnel groups the Dallas Cowboys used and how often. Most importantly, we can determine which were successful and which were not.
To exclude extreme scenarios I’ve excluded situations the Dallas Cowboys were either 16 points ahead or 16 points behind. Anything more than a two-possession differential is going to dramatically change the game plan to either catch-up mode (extra WR sets) and clock-killing mode (TE and RB heavy looks).
Dallas Cowboys 11 Personnel
Last season the Dallas Cowboys ran 11 personnel 67 percent of the time and 54% of those plays were successful. Keep in mind, a successful play does not equal a completed pass or a positive run. It had to be a gain that statistically put the team in better position to score. For more on what constitutes success catch up here:
As one might expect, the Cowboys passed more often than they ran when they were in 11 personnel. More receivers on the field often indicate it’s a passing down and 67% of the time that’s true last year. But would it surprise you if I told you the success rate running the ball was actually higher in 11 personnel than passing the ball?
When Dallas handed the ball off in 3WR sets, they enjoyed a 59% success rate! That means 59% of the time they hand the ball off from 11 personnel, the offense puts itself in a better position to score than they were before the snap. This falls in line with league trends that show running into densely populated boxes is bad, and running from a spread is good.
The passing game was pretty darn good out of 11 personnel as well. Dak Prescott had a passer rating of 97.9, 20 touchdowns, and 8.2 yards per attempt. The running game added seven touchdowns themselves and performed at 5.8 yards per carry.
Dallas Cowboys 12 Personnel
The Dallas Cowboys played out of two tight end sets 17 percent of the time last year. 43% of those plays were passing plays and 57% were running plays. Just like how 11 personnel is prone to pass more, 12 personnel is prone to run more. But what may surprise some is the Dallas Cowboys were more efficient passing out of 12 personnel than they were running out of it.
Dallas had a passing success rate of 61% in 2TE sets and rushing success rate of just 49%. So when Dallas put their slot receiver on the bench and trotted out the extra TE blocker, they actually became less likely to have success running the ball. More to that point, the Cowboys didn’t score a single rushing TD from their 2TE set and only had a yards per carry average of 3.9.
Dallas Cowboys 21 Personnel
“21” personnel, or 2RB sets, were a distant third in frequency for the Dallas Cowboys. The total success rate in this package was just 49%, meaning it failed more often than it succeeded. As one might expect, the Cowboys ran the ball from this more often than they passed (56/44) but neither were overly fruitful.
The passing game only provided one touchdown and the running game didn’t provide any (under the circumstances listed above). The passing game’s yards per attempt dropped all the way to 5.9, and the yards per carry sat at respectable (for a run, that is) 4.4 ypc.
It’s important to point out, 2RB sets do not automatically mean a HB and a FB. Dallas had a lot of success with Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard on the field at the same time. The numbers ballooned when Zeke was the blocker or decoy and Pollard took the rock. In fact, the best running numbers of the season were achieved when Zeke and Pollard were on the field together and Pollard was the one with the ball.
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What can we learn from all of this?
We can easily see, going against the grain and doing the not-so-obvious, is the way to find success in the NFL. When showing pass, the Dallas Cowboys were more successful running the ball. When showing the run, the Cowboys were more successful passing the ball. When featuring both runners, giving the ball to the less heralded runner was the most successful.
This can most easily be explained by the defensive personnel the offense “forced” onto the field. When a defense sees 11 personnel they usually move out of base defense that has 3 LBs, and moves to nickel which features 3 CBs. In this context it makes sense that the running game has improved. The runner is going against one less LB and usually faces a defense that’s more spread out.
The same applies to 12 personnel. The defense removes their nickel CB and replaces him with a SAM LB. I don’t know about you but I like my odds throwing the ball to one of my TEs when a LB is matched up on him. Especially when you run play-action on the play.
Knowing all of this is just the first step in the process. It lets us know what worked and why. It all falls in line with what the numbers and stats have been telling us for a while. It’s what the old coaching staff fought against because it defied conventional wisdom and what the new coaching staff is said to embrace.
Tomorrow we’ll talk about one of these personnel groups more intently because it’s the one we’re least familiar with in Cowboys Nation yet it’s one specifically cited by Mike McCarthy as something the Dallas Cowboys will do more of in 2020.
It’s not just about using the right personnel group but it’s also about calling the right play out of the personnel group. Often times, the most successful play if the one the defense isn’t matched up for.