The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Carolina Panthers just finished playing each other twice in the span of 14 days, with Tampa Bay winning both contests, 32-6 in Charlotte in Week 16 and 41-17 in Tampa in Week 18. Whether or not the close proximity of those two games was the impetus, the Buccaneers significantly changed up their offensive strategy for the rematch.
In their road win two weeks ago, the Buccaneers offense used what it called "11" personnel on 27.4% of its plays. That was an extraordinarily low number for Bruce Arians' attack; on the season as a whole the Bucs have lined up with 11 personnel on 66.5% of their offensive snaps, and this was one of just two games that they did so less than 50% of the time. The Buccaneers used 11 personnel 46.7% of the time in their Week Two win over Atlanta.
Now, you may recall that the Buccaneers' trip to Charlotte in Week 16 came immediately after the carnage of their Week 15 loss to the New Orleans Saints. In the span of about 10 plays on offense, the Buccaneers lost wide receivers Chris Godwin and Mike Evans and running back Leonard Fournette to injuries. At the time, those three represented roughly 60% of the team's output in terms of catches, yards and touchdowns.
The term "11 personnel" refers to an offensive package that puts one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers on the field together. In this terminology, the first digit always refers to the number of running backs on the field and the second to the number of tight ends on the field. Since each play has five eligible skill-position players for the quarterback to get the ball to, the number of receivers implied by that terminology is five minus whatever the two digits add up to. So "21" personnel would mean two backs, one tight and two receivers; "12" would mean one back, two tight ends and two receivers. Et cetera.
Obviously, with Godwin out for the remainder of the season and both Fournette and Evans unavailable in Week 16, some adjustments on offense were necessary. Some of that came by way of much larger contributions from the likes of Cyril Grayson, Ronald Jones and Ke'Shawn Vaughn. And some of that came in the form of veering away from the team's usual offensive grouping tendencies. For instance, the Bucs went with 12 personnel on 43.5% of their snaps and also used a sixth offensive lineman (Josh Wells) on 11 plays. Tight end O.J. Howard saw his highest snap count since Rob Gronkowski returned from injury in Week 11. All three of Tampa Bay's touchdowns came out of these heavier personnel groupings.
The fact that this approach worked – the Bucs finished with 391 yards and 32 points – coupled with the departure of Antonio Brown (but the return of Mike Evans) in the interim, one might have expected the Bucs to use a similar approach when they faced the Panthers again this past Sunday. They very much did not do that. The Bucs may be without Godwin and Brown the rest of the way and they lost Grayson earlier in Sunday's game, but that didn't stop them from relying on, and greatly succeeding out of, 11 personnel.
The snap counts tell some of the story. Tyler Johnson, Mike Evans and Breshad Perriman all played at least 62% of the Bucs' offensive snaps and another 28 reps went to Grayson, Scotty Miller and Jaelon Darden. Next Gen Stats fill out the rest of the picture.
According to NGS, the Buccaneers were in 11 personnel on offense on 71.7% of their snaps Sunday. This does not included four plays in which the Bucs had three wideouts on the field along with two tight ends and no running backs. That's the sixth-highest percentage of 11 personnel snaps the Bucs have used in a game all season.
Most importantly, that personnel grouping produced great results, including 316 of the team's 409 yards and four of its five touchdowns. The Buccaneers averaged 7.35 yards per play with 11 personnel on the field, which was their fifth-best mark in any game this season. In that category, the Buccaneers' two games against the Panthers were actually quite similar; though they didn't use much 11 personnel in Week 16, they did average 8.24 yards per play out of it, their second-best mark of the season.
Moreover, the Buccaneers succeeded more frequently out of that grouping than they have in almost any other game this season. A "successful play" in Next Gen parlance is one that produces one of these outcomes: produces four or more yards on first down; produces half of the yards needed to move the chains on second down; or produced a first down on third down. The Buccaneers' success rate out of 11 personnel against Carolina was 67%. That's Tampa Bay's second-best mark in that category all season (the Bucs hit 69% in a Week Five blowout of the Dolphins) and quite a bit better than its full-season success rate in 11 personnel of 67%.
The decision to take this approach may have been promoted by the Panthers' injury woes in the secondary. Carolina was without its top four cornerbacks to start the game and also lost standout safety Jeremy Chinn to a practice-field ankle injury the day before the game. Brady primarily attacked this depleted secondary with passes to Rob Gronkowski and Mike Evans, who saw more single coverage than they usually do. Those two combined for 13 catches, 226 yards and two touchdowns.
The Buccaneers have had to come up with a lot of late-season reinvention on offense due to their rash of injuries, and they ended up using two very different approaches in two wins over the Panthers. Both worked. That sort of offensive versatility could be key to the Bucs surviving in the upcoming playoffs.