On a humid late Sunday morning in Nashville, Tennessee, Titans GM Jon Robinson pulled off the most significant trade he’s ever made as an NFL GM.
Julio Jones, a five time All-Pro selection, a seven time Pro Bowl selection, a current superstar, and one of the best wide receivers of this generation, is now a member of the Tennessee Titans. Compensation was little for a player of Jones’ magnitude — only a 2022 second round pick, a 2023 fourth round pick — but at this point in time, Robinson and the rest of the front office aren’t worried one bit about a bit of lost draft capital.
Attention has now been shifted towards the immediate future, with continued AFC South excellence and a potential Super Bowl run now drilled into the heads of everyone within the organization. This team has been propelled into the conversation of the AFC’s elite, and will now be expected to contend with the heavy hitters in Kansas City, Buffalo, Baltimore, and Cleveland. Is this team ready to be connected to a group that consists of so much talent, consistency, and championship pedigree?
Who knows. That conversation is extensive and will have to be saved for another day. For now, we can set the what ifs and useless discussion aside for the gritty football talk I’m sure most of you have at least some interest in.
We’re talking X’s and O’s here, specifically personnel frequencies.
As you know, the Titans have been the epitome of bully ball, physicality, and straight up toughness ever since Jon Robinson arrived as the GM in 2016. He’s preached the importance of being physical, running the football, and winning the battle at the line of scrimmage time and time again. That message translated on the field, as the team really upped the frequency of multiple tight end sets, alluding to the “Exotic Smashmouth” mantra that gained so much popularity in the greater Nashville area.
And it has worked, with the organization finishing with winning records in every season since Robinson started his tenure in Tennessee. We’ve seen the run game — spearheaded by Demarco Murray before Derrick Henry ever became the bell-cow — blossom into a legitimate season long threat that’s carried its momentum into the postseason whenever the opportunity has risen. We’ve seen the play action passing game become the staple of this Titans passing offense, with both Marcus Mariota and Ryan Tannehill showcasing their best football while executing this basic, yet dangerous concept.
By all means, the shift towards a bully ball mindset has absolutely given this franchise a new chance at life after a middling few years of football in which mediocrity tanked this franchise’s nationwide popularity.
But with the addition of Julio Jones, could those multiple tight end sets — which included 12, 13, 21, and even 22 personnel — be on the cusp of a potential downward trend?
Let me explain my reasoning.
The Run Game Could Stand to See Lighter Boxes in 11 Personnel
One of the many things you strive for in your run game is to have much success as possible in the trench battle. That’s basic logic of course since your big boys up front are tasked with the grueling job of moving defensive linemen and creating holes for their running backs to dash through.
Again, basic logic here.
But another idea offensive coordinators try to bring to fruition is limiting the number of players that load the box, while lessening the amount of blocking assignments for your offensive line. With the way 11 personnel runs, the idea of easing the box count seems easy on paper considering the three wide receivers on the field and the amount of cornerback resources defenses would logically have to use to counter the extra pass catching personnel.
But with the Titans, their reliance on the run game and less than stellar group of pass catchers have allowed defenses to stack the box with an extra linebacker or defensive lineman without worrying about the threat of an extra receiver on the field. That’s one of the reasons why now former Titans OC Arthur Smith tried to diversify his playcalling whenever he decided to roll out his 11 personnel group.
It’s also why I think Smith relied a lot more on multiple tight end sets in 2020 compared to 2019. In 2019 the team rolled out 11 personnel for exactly 50% of their total offensive snaps, much more than the 38% in 2020.
Now some other factors can be attributed to the decrease in 11 personnel snaps, one being the ground game being pretty efficient whenever 12 personnel was thrown onto the field, and another being the high efficiency whenever multiple tight ends were on the field. But after watching this team for the past two seasons, I believe roster deficiencies and a lack of faith in personnel contributed to the decrease as well.
With Julio Jones now in the fold, this offense can start pushing the idea of a more diverse approach whenever they decide to roll with 11 personnel on the field.
The three wideouts that the Titans preferred to run out for their three wide receiver sets in both 2019 and 2020 were A.J. Brown, Corey Davis, and Adam Humphries. Brown was stellar, but the inconsistencies and injury issues for both Davis and Humphries, as well as the lack of depth behind the top three on the wide receiver depth chart, limited Arthur Smith’s selection of play calls whenever their package of 11 personnel was put on the field.
That led to a rather dull feeling whenever three wide receivers were on the field.
With Julio now on the team, the Titans’ three wide receiver packages have the potential to explode in the passing game. Therefore forcing defenses to lighten up the weight in the box to stifle the run game, while also throwing more defensive backs onto the field — or in other words pancake city for offensive linemen — to account for the increase of efficiency in the passing attack whenever 11 personnel is out on the field.
It’ll all boil down to playcalling tendencies however, which brings me to my next point.
Todd Downing’s History of Favoring 11 Personnel Could Be Magnified with Julio’s Arrival
It isn’t wise to wildly throw out the claim that an addition via trade will automatically increase the frequency of a specific personnel grouping without cold, hard facts.
But what if I told you that there were some cold, hard facts out there that could contribute to the main idea this article has been preaching from the start? It all starts with new Titans offensive coordinator Todd Downing and his past tendencies as an offensive coordinator previously with the then Oakland, now Las Vegas Raiders
In 2017, Downing was the man in charge of the Raiders’ offense. I could throw out miscellaneous numbers that were a cause of a factor here and there that wouldn’t be helpful to the idea I’m discussing today. I mean I could, but it’d be a big waste of your time.
And I don’t want to do that.
The one number that sticks out to me the most when looking over this 2017 Raiders offense is 71. According to Pro Football Focus, that number represented the percentage of the Raiders’ offensive snaps that involved the use of 11 personnel in 2017, good for fourth in the entire league.
That’s a big deal.
It’s obvious from Downing’s previous stop as an OC that he values the usage of 11 personnel, a favorite of his that could carry over to the 2021 Titans offense. Now it’s entirely possible that Downing constructs this offense by piggybacking the concepts Arthur Smith used the previous two seasons while he was at the helm as offensive coordinator.
But if we’re going by history — and history is the only piece of evidence we can use as an indicator — then we can somewhat conclude that Downing will put his own personal stamp on this offense by the way of an increase in 11 personnel frequency once the season kicks off.
If that does indeed occur, then it’ll be very interesting to see how Downing takes advantage of the three wide receiver packages that could be at his disposal. The likes of A.J. Brown, Julio Jones, and Josh Reynolds all being on the field at the same time should really give defenses some trouble, which could in part give Downing every reason in the world to run with those packages more often, and shimmy away from the early down smashmouth run game norms that dominated the Titans’ 11 personnel package.
Abandoning 11 Personnel for Heavier Sets Could Be Too Difficult to Do
I said earlier that Downing could opt to piggyback the concepts Arthur Smith leaned on when he led the offense in 2019 and 2020, as well as keep the multiple tight end sets philosophy that’s been a staple of this offense for such a long time now.
That’s a fine thing to do. I’m sure you’ve heard of the old saying “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. Why stop abusing what has given you so much versatility on the offensive side of the ball in both the run game and passing game? It sounds insane, right?
I’d agree with you…….if this team hadn’t traded for Julio Jones.
Let me be frank here, I’m not calling for a complete dismissal of the 12, 21, and 22 personnel that’s pretty much become a familiar sight over the last four to five years. What I’m saying is, now that you have much more talent in your wide receiver core — an issue I believe prevented the Titans from being more creative with 11 personnel — wouldn’t it be wise to finally give this specific personnel grouping a shot to turn into a dependable one for this offense?
Why go with multiple tight ends (where the depth isn’t all that great) when you can get creative in 11 personnel with your wide receiver core that underwent a massive facelift this off-season? Combine that with the explosive potential you could have in the run game if you diversify your playcalling, and you could be looking at a new wrinkle being added to this already dangerous looking offense.
It’s an enticing proposition.
Whatever Todd Downing does with this offense, I think he’d be wise in expanding this unit’s potential in 11 personnel. Not doing so would be a big, big waste in my opinion.
And with the window this team is currently in, there’s no time to waste any potential contributions or leave any rock left unturned.
*Personnel frequency numbers from sharpfootballstats.com and pff.com*