NFC West: personnel

Personnel report: How the 49ers adjusted

December, 31, 2011
12/31/11
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Happy New Year's Eve. I took our sons fishing this morning and have plans for the evening as well, but while no one was looking, I sneaked a peek at some of the San Francisco 49ers' offensive tendencies.

A quick report ...

Tight end Delanie Walker played about one quarter before breaking his jaw against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 16.

The chart shows the 49ers' offensive personnel use against Seattle before and after Walker's injury. The team ran 18 plays with Walker and 49 without him, not counting kneel downs. One game represents a small sample size, but a few things stood out:
  • The 49ers went away from their familiar "12" personnel featuring one back and two tight ends. Walker has been a mainstay in this grouping. The team has used this grouping more than any other this season.
  • Without Walker, the 49ers were more likely to use "11" and "21" personnel. They would replace Walker either with a wide receiver (11) or a running back (21).
  • Walker's absence had little bearing on the 49ers' use of the heavier "22" personnel grouping. This makes sense because Walker's replacement, Justin Peelle, fits well in this run-oriented, power grouping. But when the 49ers want more versatility, they take him off the field. The 49ers have used "22" personnel nearly 30 percent of the time on first down, slightly more than they have used "12" personnel.

How the 49ers use their personnel against St. Louis in Week 17 might not reflect the approach they plan to take into the playoffs. We will probably see more two-back and three-receiver groupings regardless.

Enjoy the rest of 2011. See you next year.
The knock on Beanie Wells coming out of Ohio State was that he too often shied away from contact.

[+] EnlargeBeanie Wells
AP Photo/Paul ConnorsBeanie Wells carried the ball 27 times for 138 yards and three touchdowns against the Giants.
"Wells is a big back, but he does not have great toughness," Steve Muench of Scouts Inc. said after the Arizona Cardinals made Wells the 31st player chosen in the 2009 draft. "There's a clip you'll see against Michigan where he is 20 yards downfield and one-on-one against a back and he steps out of bounds. Not encouraging."

Wells put to rest some of those concerns for stretches during his rookie season, but a disappointing 2010 season revived perceptions. Now that Wells is back to running over defenders and providing a physical presence to the Cardinals' ground game, what should we make of the apparent inconsistencies?

"I don’t think anything has changed," Wells told the Doug & Wolf Show on Sports 620 KTAR in Phoenix. "If you go back to last year at the end of last year, it was one of those years where I had the knee injury all year. It kind of lingered. Right now, I think you guys are just seeing a healthy me. I think it is more comparable to how I ran my rookie year to how I am running now. I feel similar."

That makes sense. Wells did suffer a preseason knee injury in 2010, undergoing surgery.

There's no question Wells is running with greater authority and welcoming contact so far this season. He has missed one game to injury, reinforcing concerns about his durability, but he carried 27 times for 138 yards and three touchdowns against the New York Giants in his first game back. Those were career-high numbers.

The chart, based on date provided by Hank Gargiulo of ESPN Stats & Information, shows Wells' rushing yardage by down and the Cardinals' offensive personnel. He has gained 70.7 percent of his yardage on first down and 65.2 percent of that first-down yardage from two-receiver personnel, which covers most base offense in the NFL. Wells is, in other words, giving the Cardinals old-fashioned production on the ground.

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Too conservative? Looking at three-WR use

September, 24, 2011
9/24/11
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The first two questions Jim Harbaugh faced after practice Friday suggested his San Francisco 49ers weren't using three-receiver personnel groupings enough.

San Francisco hasn't exceeded 209 yards in a game through the first two weeks, leading to questions about the need to "open up" the offense or become more aggressive.

With an assist from Hank Gargiulo of ESPN Stats & Information, I've constructed a chart putting the 49ers' personnel use in perspective. It shows the percentage of plays NFC West teams have used three or more wide receivers, by down.

Game situations sometimes dictate to what degree teams use additional wide receivers. Teams playing from behind will use more wide receivers than teams protecting a lead. The 49ers held double-digit fourth-quarter leads in both their first two games. But in looking at the 49ers' percentages for the first three quarters, the differences were minimal.

Every team in the division except Arizona has played without an injured receiver who started or was a primary contributor. The 49ers have sometimes played without two, Braylon Edwards and Michael Crabtree. They also have two tight ends with uncommon speed, allowing them to better approximate three-receiver personnel without three true wide receivers on the field.

Seattle has trailed by nine or more points on 82 of its 111 offensive snaps.

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A potentially embarrassing confession: I spent a good chunk of my Sunday night taking a closer look at the Arizona Cardinals' forgettable, regrettable 19-12 defeat at Carolina in Week 15 last season.

The seemingly dreary experience beat just about anything this NFL offseason has offered up since the draft.

Watching football is fun. Watching bad football is more fun than watching a lockout.

Enduring this particular matchup made sense for me because it was the one Arizona game I hadn't yet charted from last season. The takeaway: While fixing the quarterback situation would do more for the Cardinals than any other single move the team could make this offseason, watching Arizona against Carolina served as a reminder that the team's problems do not end with the man behind center.

Beanie Wells, Early Doucet, Stephen Spach, Tim Hightower and Steve Breaston dropped passes in that game. The Arizona defense watched Jimmy Clausen post a career-best 107.6 rating while ending a seven-game losing streak as a starter to open his career (he is 1-9).

More consistency at quarterback should be enough for Arizona to contend again within an NFC West that remains in transition. The Cardinals will naturally exhale in relief when they finally do acquire a veteran quarterback this offseason. They aren't likely to find another Kurt Warner, however, and that means the supporting cast must carry more of the load.

Skelton will return, presumably in the No. 2 role. He showed enough athleticism and playmaking ability to factor into the longer-term equation. The comeback he led against Dallas in particular helps his cause. In general, Skelton was not ready to function when forced into obvious passing situations.

The chart breaks down Skelton's 2010 production by down and personnel group, based on information I track for NFC West teams.

Skelton completed 75 percent of his passes with a 119.8 rating when the Cardinals used pass-oriented personnel (four receivers) on a run-oriented down (first). He averaged only 2.7 yards per attempt with a 54.7 rating when Arizona used the same personnel on third down, when opponents knew the Cardinals would pass.

The Cardinals' new look on offense will go beyond quarterback in 2011. Using early draft choices for running back Ryan Williams and tight end Rob Housler was telling. The Cardinals know they need more than quarterback help on offense.

First down: 49ers QB comparison

January, 29, 2010
1/29/10
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The 49ers were 3-3 when Shaun Hill started at quarterback and 5-5 when Alex Smith was the starter.

Each man took vastly different routes to similar results.

I charted every 49ers offensive snap for personnel and situation last season and was pleased to find all the stats balanced against official league totals.

There's a lot of information to sort through. I'll start by comparing how each quarterback fared on first-down passes across primary personnel groups. These stats include all but three pass attempts (thrown from personnel with three tight ends).

The charts show how much Smith must improve while operating from the base offense with two backs and one tight end. This is the offense best suited to running back Frank Gore, who likes running behind fullback Moran Norris. Hill was much more efficient from this personnel group on first down.

The 49ers adapted to Smith by using more personnel groups featuring second tight end Delanie Walker instead of Norris. Smith's first-down numbers from this group also could stand to improve.

I'll break out stats for other downs in future posts.

In-depth look at the 49ers' offense

December, 21, 2009
12/21/09
10:21
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Mike Singletary is genuine and I think that's one of the main reasons players respond well to him. They know he's not trying to fool anyone.

That genuineness is one of the things I appreciate about his news conferences. Singletary isn't always expansive on sensitive subjects, but he seems honest. His latest session -- the 49ers have the video here -- begins with detailed assessments for each of the team's three interceptions during its 27-13 defeat at Philadelphia in Week 15.

Tight end Vernon Davis was primarily responsible for the first one. The Eagles tricked quarterback Alex Smith on the second one, using tactics the Titans also employed. Smith made a poor decision on the third one.

More broadly, Singletary said the 49ers came into the game wanting to run the ball quite a bit, but the plan changed when they fell behind, 20-3. The explanation makes sense, but the 49ers' personnel choices early in the game baffled me some. The 49ers went two-plus quarters before running one snap from the Frank Gore-friendly base offense featuring fullback Moran Norris, two receivers and one tight end.

The 49ers did not turn to their base offense in a meaningful way until after Smith's 12-yard scoring pass to Josh Morgan closed the deficit to 20-13. Gore immediately busted a 37-yard run, followed by a 6-yard run, from this grouping. Smith failed to complete a pass in his only three attempts from base personnel, but it's not like he was consistently effective from any of the other groups, either.


Is Rams' offense too conservative?

December, 9, 2009
12/09/09
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Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo answered 18 consecutive questions about his offense Monday.

The one thing he could not realistically say: Look, we simply lack the talent and continuity needed to field a consistently successful offense.

Spagnuolo and offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur played conservatively during a 17-9 defeat to the Bears in Week 13. They ran the ball on third-and-long to make sure Josh Brown would still have a shot at a field goal while trailing 17-6. They ran only one snap with four wide receivers, instead often going with a two-receiver attack featuring tight end Billy Bajema as the fullback (starter Mike Karney was unavailable).

The Rams are on pace to score 185 points, which would be among the lowest totals since the NFL adopted a 16-game schedule in 1978. Why not open up the offense and see what happens? Well, here is why: The Rams don't have the right players for such an approach.

"We're going to go to five wideouts," Spagnuolo joked.

The Rams have averaged 1.9 yards per pass attempt this season with Steven Jackson and four wide receivers on the field together (download full 2009 report here). They were at their best against the Bears when they were most conservative, averaging 11.3 yards per carry on three rushes from personnel groups featuring three tight ends and only one wide receiver.

The offense has gone from limited and improving to injured and deteriorating over the last few weeks. Jackson is obviously not 100 percent. He gutted out 113 yards on 28 carries against the Bears, but there were at least 11 snaps when Jackson did not play at all. Karney's absence hurt. Left tackle Alex Barron sometimes had problems in protection. Quarterback Kyle Boller provided about what a backup might be expected to provide, particularly in a new system without enough weapons.
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Arizona running backs have broken their seven longest runs of the season since Week 9.

The Cardinals, known for spreading the field with three or four wide receivers, had two tight ends on the field for five of those seven long-gainers.

Coincidence? Hardly.

As the Cardinals demonstrated Sunday night while beating the Vikings, they can be a physical running team with tight ends Anthony Becht and Ben Patrick clearing the way (download this season-to-date personnel report for details).

"It just gives us a different look," running back Tim Hightower said Monday. "We're trying to run out of different personnel and try to find something we can be more consistent out of mixing run and the pass. I think that is what two tight ends has given us."

Becht and Patrick seemed largely invisible in the Cardinals' locker room Sunday night while reporters swarmed Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and other big-name stars.

"Both of those guys did very well blocking defensive ends the whole game," Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt said. "We had a play where we hit Larry on a big play-action pass, which is directly attributable to us being able to run out of that set."

According to Whisenhunt, the Vikings played the Cardinals differently than they played other teams, bringing a safety nearer the line of scrimmage to stop the run against that grouping. Arizona averaged 8.3 yards per carry on 10 rushes from its "Detroit" personnel grouping with one back, two receivers and two tight ends.

Personnel report: Seahawks' identity

December, 1, 2009
12/01/09
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The Seahawks are searching for an identity on offense heading into Week 13.

Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck and receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh still do not seem to have an intuitive feel for one another. Third receiver Deion Branch clearly has talent, but I'm wondering how well he fits this offense. Justin Forsett has run effectively some of the time, but the ground game has produced at historically low level more than once this season. The offensive line's identity, hampered by injuries early in the season, remains undefined. Tight end John Carlson enjoyed a strong blocking game against the Rams, but his overall production hasn't meshed with the dominance he showed during offseason camps.

I've watched and charted every one of Seahawks' plays this season. Hasselbeck has shown impressive toughness and leadership. Left guard Rob Sims makes some strong blocks. Fullback Justin Griffith has stood out as a lead blocker. Nate Burleson has probably exceeded expectations following knee rehabilitation.

Where is this offense headed? Perhaps we'll get a better idea over the final five games.

In the meantime, I'll make available for download a personnel report featuring information on every snap this season, with summary sheets showing situational production against the Rams and against all opponents.

Personnel report: One more look at 49ers

November, 30, 2009
11/30/09
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The 49ers' approach on offense has stood as a primary NFC West storyline in recent weeks.

After touching on some of the issues Monday morning, I'll make available for download a full personnel report.

This file breaks down every play the 49ers have run this season, with charts summarizing their production across situations. Curious to see how the team has attacked various down-and-distance situations? It's all there for you to sort and analyze.

I'll offer similar files for the other NFC West teams once I finish them.

Cardinals lay groundwork for big plays

November, 19, 2009
11/19/09
1:21
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Beanie WellsAP Photo/Paul ConnorsBeanie Wells is leading a Cardinals rushing attack that's growing more dangerous.
The Cardinals recorded four of their six longest offensive plays of the season against the Seahawks in Week 10. The best news for Arizona: two of them came with fewer than three wide receivers on the field, and one of them was a run.

This was a hot topic earlier in the season when the Cardinals were having problems striking downfield in the passing game. "You need to run the ball from run sets to force teams to play the run so you can take play-action shots," ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer advised.

That is what the Cardinals have done. Against Chicago in Week 9, they ran the ball eight times in their first 11 snaps with fewer than three wide receivers. Later in the game, they threw two touchdown passes from similar personnel.

Against Seattle, the Cardinals ran the ball on their first three plays with fewer than three wide receivers. They later threw a 28-yard touchdown pass to Steve Breaston from similar personnel.

The Cardinals have changed offensively in the last two weeks. They have used regular personnel -- two backs, two receivers, one tight end -- about 45 percent of the time on first down in each of those games. They had never done so more than a third of the time in any of their seven previous games this season.

Receivers Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston still attract most of the attention from opponents, and rightfully so. But the Cardinals are developing a ground game separate from their three- and four-receiver packages. The Cardinals produced their two longest runs of the season in the last two games, both by Beanie Wells and both from two-receiver personnel (one covering 29 yards, the other 26 yards). Wells has 14 runs of at least 10 yards this season. Twelve of them came with fewer than three wide receivers on the field.

Wells has also been effective in limited carries with three or more wide receivers. Establishing the ground game from run-oriented personnel is important for dictating more favorable coverages. Counting playoffs last season, the Cardinals had 17 plays longer than 40 yards. Eight came with fewer than three wide receivers on the field even though Arizona used three or more 65 percent of the time (compared to 60 percent so far this season and 42 percent Sunday).

Rams' offense definitely making strides

November, 18, 2009
11/18/09
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Marc BulgerG. Newman Lowrance/Getty Images Marc Bulger passed for 298 yards and had a passer rating of 93.5 against the Saints.

Rams quarterback Marc Bulger has regained some of his edge in recent weeks. I think he senses the team has something it did not have for quite some time -- a chance.

The Rams are improving and evolving on offense. I think they were a few dropped passes away from beating the Saints in Week 10 (I counted five drops in a 12-pass span during the second half). They have a fair chance to beat the Cardinals or Seahawks at home over the next two weeks. This team should not go winless in the division this season.

The situation at receiver is not great, but the bye week clearly helped Donnie Avery catch his breath and overcome some injuries. The Rams' early struggles at receiver following Laurent Robinson's season-ending injury had led them to embrace their "Tiger" personnel package featuring one back and two tight ends. The second tight end, Daniel Fells, gave them a sorely needed receiving option. My perception was that they almost couldn't afford to leave fullback Mike Karney on the field as much -- not because Karney was doing anything wrong, but because they needed another receiving option.

That appears to be changing now that Avery is again a positive factor. Yes, the Rams lost Keenan Burton to a season-ending injury. Yes, they were facing an injury-depleted Saints secondary Sunday. Those are all factors to weigh in deciding what to make of this offense. But the Rams have gained 796 yards in their last two games. They scored a season-high 23 points against New Orleans.

The Rams' base offense -- two backs, two receivers, one tight end -- was extremely effective against the Saints. The Rams averaged 6.1 yards per carry on 13 rushing attempts from this grouping. They also averaged 10.7 yards per attempt on seven passes (up from less than 4.5 per attempt out of this group before Week 10). They scored two touchdowns with no interceptions or sacks from this group.

Steven Jackson ran the ball seven consecutive times to end a 13-play touchdown drive in the second quarter. The Rams used two tight ends four times and base personnel three times during that span. Not many teams can get away with aligning base personnel in an offset-I formation on third-and-9. The Rams did it during the touchdown drive in question. Jackson ran for 13 yards. That is dominant football and a good sign for the Rams.

Thoughts, observations on 49ers offense

November, 11, 2009
11/11/09
8:35
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Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Thoughts and observations after taking a closer look at the 49ers' offense during a 34-27 defeat to the Titans in Week 9 (full personnel report available for download here):
  • The 49ers struck deep to tight end Vernon Davis on one of two plays Sunday when they showed I-formation from base personnel. The formation and personnel suggested a likely running play. The 49ers threw deep instead. It worked.
  • What if their formation and personnel suggested a passing play, only to have the 49ers run the ball instead? The 49ers accomplish this with second tight end Delanie Walker, who has good receiving skills. But ...
  • The 49ers have not developed a three-receiver offense outside 2-minute situations or third down. They have dropped back to pass 123 times in 134 plays with more than two wide receivers on the field, usually in obvious passing situations.
  • Why not sprinkle in a few more three-receiver groupings on early downs and outside the 2-minute offense? Rookie first-round choice Michael Crabtree has generally played well. Josh Morgan projects as a potential No. 2 receiver. Jason Hill's sudden emergence against the Titans suggests he might be ready for the No. 3 role. The issue is whether the third wide receiver offers enough value to justify removing Walker from the field.

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

CHICAGO -- The best offense in the NFC West might also be the one with the most potential for improvement over the second half of the season.

I say that because the Cardinals, though dominant offensively Sunday, are still working their way through a few things. Beanie Wells' ongoing development is one key variable. Coach Ken Whisenhunt's management of the running game and various personnel packages is another key variable.

The Seahawks, 49ers and Rams have more room for improvement. Each also faces significant challenges. The Rams are gaining ground as their offensive line comes together and Keenan Burton makes strides as a complementary receiver, but their passing game lacks talent overall. The 49ers' offensive line was worse than expected, even before Joe Staley's knee injury, stacking the odds against Shaun Hill and Alex Smith. The Seahawks' continually reshuffled line and Walter Jones' placement on injured reserve have lowered the bar.

While defense is important, the NFL is an offensive league and the Cardinals' ability to score points can easily cover for imperfections on the other side of the ball. That is why I think Arizona's continued growth on offense will strongly influence whether the NFC West produces another Super Bowl contender this season.

The Cardinals' performance during a 41-21 victory over the Bears suggests they have a chance. They scored touchdowns on their first four possessions for the first time since 1980. They scored on their first six possessions for the first time since at least the 1970 merger. They have scored more points on opening drives this season (35) than every NFL team but the Saints.

The Cardinals are starting to sprinkle in more running plays from their four-receiver offense, an important move as they try to become less predictable. They have handed off four times for 24 yards in their last 27 snaps with four receivers, up from five times in their previous 147. Wells, developing as a pass protector, is getting more chances as the lone back on pass plays (five times against the Bears and 17 times in the last four games, up from five times in the first four games). These are small signs of growth for an offense loaded with talent at the skill positions.

The chart breaks down the Cardinals' offensive production by personnel groups through eight games, with quarterback scrambles excluded from rushing plays (the term "scrambling" charitably describes what Kurt Warner does when he carries the ball, as when his 3-yard gain against the Bears looked like a sack).

A full personnel report, available for download here, lets you sort every play of the season by multiple categories. It also includes season-to-date breakdowns by situation, and more.
Cardinals Personnel Group Through Week 9
Carries Yards Per Carry Pass Attempts Yards Per Attempt TD
4WR 8 5.3 157 7.2 4
1RB-1TE 22 5.4 82 7.1 7
1RB-2TE 47 3.8 29 6.1 3
2RB-1TE 48 4.0 24 6.6 1
2RB-2TE 25 2.7 6 5.5 5
2RB-0TE 5 7.2 21 7.1 1
3TE 1 1.0 0 0.0 1
Totals 156 4.1 319 7.0 22

What Raye and the 49ers were thinking

November, 4, 2009
11/04/09
7:52
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Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

What in the world was 49ers offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye thinking Sunday and what does it mean for the team's immediate future on offense?

I have a much better idea after watching the 49ers-Colts game a couple times and charting offensive personnel. Ten observations:
  • The 49ers were cruising along early in the game, spreading the field with two wide receivers and two tight ends with good receiving skills (Vernon Davis, Delanie Walker). They used this group 11 times in their first 13 plays before suddenly getting conservative.
  • That 13th play wasn't so lucky. Alex Smith's pass bounced off Michael Crabtree's hand. Bob Sanders intercepted for the Colts. Two plays earlier, Crabtree dropped a pass. The 49ers were affirming Raye's fears about the passing game not being ready for prime time. Raye suddenly changed his thinking, replacing Walker with fullback Moran Norris for five of the next eight plays.
  • Raye and coach Mike Singletary knew what they were up against. Colts quarterback Peyton Manning maximizes possessions like no quarterback in the league. Giving extra possessions to Manning is a great way to lose a game. Going conservative minimizes turnovers.

(Read full post)

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