12 Personnel [noun]: an offensive formation consisting of one running back (1), two tight ends (2) and two receivers (2) that make up the five skill positions on the field.
It's not as prevalent as perhaps 11 currently is, or 21 used to be, but according to Buccaneers Head Coach Bruce Arians – it is now Tampa Bay's base offense. And actually has been.
"It's been our base offense, probably, for 15 years," said Arians. "It's where we always start. As we progress, whether we use two or three [tight ends], we have quality people there. We also have really quality receivers, so it's all about finding the right mismatches."
To look at why this is, especially now, is to look at the personnel available. Already a solid position group for the past few years, the tight end group that starred guys like O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate got an extra boost with the signing of Rob Gronkowski.
He just had to come out of retirement first.
Gronkowski's impact is two-fold. First, he's one of the greatest tight ends to ever play the game, which translates to the obvious benefit. He may have gone into retirement practically hobbling after years in a near-constant state of injury – but he went out on top. And now, he's healthy.
But another thing Gronk's arrival does is give the Bucs a true dual-threat player. Gronkowski is more than his flashy yardage totals and gaudy touchdowns stats. He's an asset in the run-game because of his blocking ability.
See, what makes tight ends so special as a whole is their varied skill set. Because you don't know whether they're acting as a receiver or a run-blocker, you as an opposing defense have to guess how to play them. Brate explained it well this week.
Essentially, a defense has to decide whether to stay in its base package or convert into a variation of its sub-package like nickel or dime. Base usually means there's a linebacker on the tight end, giving the defender a better shot at getting past the tight end in the run game because he's a bigger body. But a bigger body is often slower. So, what if the tight end splits out into a route? Then you've got a linebacker in coverage and unless he's Lavonte David (more with him later), the tight end is winning that matchup practically every time.
"That's a tight end's dream right there," laughed Brate.
Ok, so what if you see the tight end aligned out wide? You think he's a receiver, right? So, you shift into a subpackage that puts a defensive back on him, likely nickel (five DBs on the field) or dime (six). The defensive back may be fast, but his size is likely not up to par with a 6'5-6'6 tight end. Ipso Facto, you're either risking the tight end being able to wrestle the ball away or catch it above the defender – or – even if it is a run play, you have a larger tight end blocking a smaller DB.
"It's challenging because it creates mismatches," said David, speaking from the inside linebacker point of view. "Some people say linebackers are not athletic enough to cover tight ends and then DBs are too small to cover tight ends, but it just creates mismatch issues."
A.k.a. a lot of stress on the defense.
"Being able to be consistent in both the run and pass out of 12 personnel is advantageous really because of that one spot and putting pressure on a defense that way," said Brate.
What better player then to put out there than Gronk? Coupled with Brate… coupled with oh yeah, O.J. Howard.
Not to mention what this does for the receivers.
That's the thing. With 12 personnel, while you're taking another receiver off the field compared to an 11 personnel set that throws three wideouts into the mix, the mismatches tight ends cause create major opportunities for your two receivers on the field. In the Bucs' case, they have arguably the best wide receiver tandem in the league with Mike Evans and Chris Godwin.
So back to those scenarios, this time looking at the receivers. Say the defense stays in its base package, meaning you've likely got two corners and two safeties at your disposal in the secondary. If they're in the traditional strong and free roles, the strong safety is more of a box safety there to help defend the run and a tight end when facing a 12 personnel set. Therefore, you're likely to get a lot of single-high looks in the safety department, leaving a looming decision in the hands of that one solitary player deep in the middle of the field. They can't help both corners at once, right?
Now make him figure out which guy he's going to leave on an island: the defender covering Evans or the one covering Godwin? In my best bad guy from Taken voice: good luck.
"Having those guys on the outside, it really does open stuff up over the middle," said Brate. "It's been a blessing to be able to play with Mike for so many years because if you don't put a safety over top of Mike, he's going to kill almost every corner. Mike is special in that regard and the more playmakers you have on offense, the better it's going to be, the more matchup problems you're going to create. I know the coaches are going to get creative with it and I'm excited with how everything's progressing."
The baseline for the current offense and tight end utilization is probably more than you think, too. Yes, Brate was used sparingly last season as he continued to recover from hip surgery he had in the spring of 2019 and Howard didn't have the scoring production he was used to seeing. However, Howard still played 69% of the team's offensive snaps – and that was with missing four games. The Bucs were in a multiple tight end set last year 27% of the time. Heck, Arians even said he 'loves' 13 personnel.
"We have a package if you don't know how to stop it, it can hurt you."
Now, with an arsenal that includes Gronkowski in what has become perhaps Tampa Bay's strongest unit, the possibilities are endless …and advantageous.