Using more double tight end formations (12 personnel) isn’t a new idea in the NFL. It’s been tried with mixed success over the last dozen years or so as a counter to the rising trend of using more 11 (3WR) personnel since the Patriots first started using it back in 2011 with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. The general idea behind it is that as modern defensive personnel have gotten smaller, using formations with larger bodies will create mismatches the offense can exploit to its advantage. The use of 12 personnel can also put opposing defenses off balance, as it can be used effectively in both the run and pass. In that sense, it pairs well with play-action in the pass game as the formation invites the idea of a run play with an extra blocker at the offense’s disposal. Those advantages made 12 personnel the most efficient passing formation in the NFL last season, despite it not being used all that often.
The main obstacle with 12 personnel is having two good tight ends to use with it. Most teams don’t have one really good tight end, let alone two. Indeed, the Vikings were not that successful in 12 personnel last season, in large part because neither Hockenson or Mundt were particularly effective as blockers, and Mundt more limited as a receiver as well, so many of the advantages of running 12 personnel were lost. But this season, having TJ Hockenson available all season, and the addition of top blocking tight end Josh Oliver, who may have some untapped potential as a receiver, could give the Vikings an effective duo from which to run more 12 personnel formations, and do so with greater success.
Advantages of 12 Personnel
Along with the advantages of greater size versus generally smaller linebackers in modern NFL defenses, and the off-balance factor for defenses, 12 personnel offer a number of advantages for offenses with good players available at both tight end spots.
The obvious first advantage of 12 personnel in the run game is that it creates an extra gap for defenses to defend up front compared to 11 personnel (3WR) sets, shown below. That leaves the opposing defense with a choice. Add an eighth defender in box to defend all eight gaps or leave one open in favor of pass defense. Normally the defense will add a player to the box to defend the run, but not always.
Below, in the Vikings’ first preseason game against Seattle, the Seahawks ran a two high safety shell leaving seven guys to defend eight gaps. On the lower part of the screen a CB is in press against #5 Reagor, while the top CB is playing off coverage against #3 Addison. The Seahawks have a base 3-4 alignment with 2 inside linebackers. The Vikings run a pitch to Ty Chandler, with Josh Oliver blocking the edge rusher- which gets in the way of the pursuing linebacker- while Johnny Mundt blocks the strong safety downfield. It wasn’t textbook execution, but the Vikings had the numbers advantage that led to a nine-yard gain. This illustrates the advantage offenses have with 2TE sets when the defense doesn’t bring an additional man into the box to defend the run.
And even when opposing defenses do put eight men in the box, as was the case later in the Seattle game, having a tight end that can block well helps gain a few more yards, as illustrated below:
Having the extra blocker can also help open up run play options. In addition to the mid-zone runs the Vikings have employed in the past (and which a good blocking TE will help at the point of attack), an additional TE can help with other runs like counter gap scheme runs, traps, and so forth that makes the Vikings’ run game more unpredictable for the defense.
12 personnel can also be effective in the passing game as well. Having effective blocking tight ends (something the Vikings didn’t have last year) can cause opposing defenses to not only play base defense, but also play single high safety coverages, typically either Cover 1 or Cover 3. Knowing that and reading keys to see if it’s a zone or man coverage outside, can give the offense an advantage in the passing game and employ the appropriate coverage beater route patterns.
For the Vikings, this could mean running a play action sail concept with Justin Jefferson running a deep crossing route, TJ Hockenson running an intermediate crossing route from the same side, Jordan Addison running a go route on the opposite side, and Josh Oliver chipping the edge rusher before running to the flat vacated by Addison, leaving the running back in to block. There are other options like four verticals, with both WRs running go routes and the TEs both running seam routes, and others and variations besides.
12 personnel can also help make play-action passes, including bootlegs off of play-action, more successful- both of which Kirk Cousins ranked high in last season. The added threat of run presented by 12 personnel can give linebackers an extra reason to think run on a play-action pass, which in turn can make them just a little bit more late to get to their assignment in coverage.
Additionally, the offense can also keep both TEs in to block, which can lead to some easier situations for pass protection. In the clips below, the offensive line does a full shift while Josh Oliver crosses the formation to help block the edge rusher in combination with Johnny Mundt. Not ideal execution, but in both cases the protection call gave Nick Mullens enough time to deliver the ball with some slower developing routes, one to Jordan Addison and the other a late check-down to Ty Chandler.
Can dictate defensive formations/coverages/tempo
Employing two good tight ends in 12 personnel can also help the offense dictate coverages and formations to the defense. As mentioned above, that can mean dictating a single-high safety coverage and base defense, but can also effect positioning in some cases as well. For example, taking an edge rusher out of their preferred alignment.
Additionally, with run/pass flexibility provided by 12 personnel, an offense can choose to dictate tempo- employing up tempo at times to prevent personnel changes on defense and/or catching the defense off-guard and/or taxing older/less conditioned players by denying them the breathing time in-between plays.
Play calling flexibility/can also create unfamiliar formations for defenses
Overall, 12 personnel creates run/pass play flexibility for the offense, as the tight ends can be used for multiple purposes. The Vikings have potent weapons at wide receiver as well, Justin Jefferson in particular, which makes it more difficult for defenses to focus on defeating the dual tight end threat, which could open things up for the biggest weapon in the Vikings’ arsenal.
Lastly, the Vikings can also pair double tight end sets with a third tight end or fullback, creating 13 personnel or 22 personnel, which are more unusual formations for which defenses may have fewer play calls and which defenders may be less familiar. That can also provide an advantage to the offense as well.
Disadvantages of Using 12 Personnel
Like any play, scheme, formation, or personnel grouping, there are advantages and disadvantages. Some more of a concern for the Vikings than others. Here are a few.
Unbalanced Skill Sets Among Tight Ends
For the Vikings, using TJ Hockenson and Josh Oliver in double tight end sets creates an unbalanced skill set among them. Hockenson is clearly a better receiver than blocker, while Oliver is a better blocker than receiver at this point- although he has perhaps some untapped potential with the latter.
That being the case, defenses can key on Oliver as the blocking tight end: whichever side he lines up or motions to is the way the run play is going. The Vikings will need to be conscious of this issue and keep defenses honest by running away from Oliver enough to keep them guessing. Those run plays may not be as successful, but still necessary otherwise keying on Oliver will help erase any run game advantage Oliver brings to the table.
Less Dynamic Playmakers
Using more 12 personnel than 11 personnel substitutes a wide receiver for a tight end. Usually tight ends are less dynamic playmakers than wide receivers, with less yards-after-catch ability. It may be true that a good pass catching tight end in Hockenson can help take some of the focus off of Jefferson, and a good blocking tight end in Oliver can help relieve some pressure on Cousins, making it easier for him to target Jefferson (or Addison), but there can be a drop-off in big-play ability that comes with substituting KJ Osborn for Josh Oliver. I don’t think it’s as big an issue with the Vikings as it may be for another team, however. Still, it can be seen as a disadvantage depending on the players involved.
Can Be Overused
As good a fit and effective as 12 personnel can be, it can also be overused. Pretty much any offensive concept can eventually be mastered or mitigated by an NFL defense if they face it enough. Watching tape of Josh Oliver and the Ravens last year, for example, I could easily see how the use of 12, 22, and 13 personnel became overused and eventually less effective. In the Ravens case, those formations were used because they didn’t have the talent at the wide receiver position, while they did have two good tight ends and a good fullback. Nevertheless, those combinations often brought diminishing returns.
I doubt this is a disadvantage in the Vikings case, however, as they have the talent at wide receiver and a quarterback that can deliver the ball to them. If anything, using more 12 personnel will help the Vikings from overusing 11 personnel, which you could argue was the case at times last season.
A Note on Josh Oliver
Oliver was drafted as a receiving tight end for the Ravens but developed into a top blocking tight end behind Mark Andrews. He was a very good player for the Ravens, often asked to do the unheralded grunt work of a blocking tight end- which he did very well. I’ve watched a lot of tape now on Oliver last season, and I’m not sure I ever saw him clearly lose a blocking assignment. He may not have moved guys off the ball every time, but he’d at least stand them up and hold his block so his guy didn’t make the play. Didn’t matter if it was a linebacker, defensive end, or defensive back, he made his blocks and wasn’t short on physicality.
But the Ravens have Mark Andrews and fullback Patrick Ricard who often played the tight end position, and a couple other younger tight ends coming up as well. It’s easy to see how the Ravens felt Oliver was superfluous and didn’t want to spend their extremely limited salary cap on him. But that’s not to say he wasn’t a good player- or that the Ravens felt he wasn’t a good player. The truth is he was underused with the Ravens, both in the number of snaps and his role in the offense.
Oliver is pigeon-holed as a blocking tight end because he’s among the best blocking tight ends in the league, but that’s not to say he isn’t a good receiver. In terms of speed and athletic ability, he isn’t that different than Hockenson- a little fast long speed in fact.
But watching Oliver’s tape last season, it’s clear he wasn’t the primary or even secondary target anytime he ran a route. That’s likely to be the case in Minnesota as well. But that’s not to say he wasn’t open a lot in Baltimore- he was- but he simply wasn’t targeted much. He was almost without exception only targeted as the last checkdown option. But he was open a lot more than that, and frankly should’ve been targeted more but wasn’t. He’s had only two drops his entire career so it’s not like he’s unreliable in that respect either. In fact he’s got big hands and long arms for a big catch radius with he demonstrates on his highlight reel last year. The truth is he was just lost among other options and the depth chart in Baltimore, but certainly has the talent for a bigger role with the Vikings. It’s unclear how things will unfold for him with the Vikings, but he could prove to be a valuable role player for the Vikings.
The Vikings ran 12 personnel on 8% of their offensive snaps last season. How often will they run it this season?
This poll is closed
5% or less
20% or more