Fantasy: Defensive Personnel Packages – Part 1

| April 11, 2012

At Pro Football Focus, it’s information overload.

So much unique data is charted by our fantastic game analysts that I have to pick and choose what I can share with the world. Today, I’m kicking off a series of articles in which I’ll share some of that data.

In the broadest terms, the topic I’ll be diving into is defensive personnel packages. I’ve already shared offensive formations on a few occasions (especially on Twitter), but today I’m going to switch to the other side of the line of scrimmage. Topics will include a general look at which packages teams rely on, an examination of how often offenses see certain packages, and a breakdown of how well running backs fare against certain packages.

I’ll be getting started with a general team-by-team look at defensive personnel decisions from the 2011 season. I’ll also break down some trends from the last few seasons and take a look at how often each team deviates from a base 3-4 or 4-3 defense.

So, to kick off, let me explain what I mean by ‘package’. A defensive package will include three numbers totaling 11. It will be in the #-#-# format, which will show the number of defensive linemen, linebackers, and defensive backs on the field, respectively. For example, the most well-known package is the 4-3-4, which includes 4 lineman, 3 linebackers, and 4 defensive backs. Note that if, for example, a safety were to line up right next to the defensive end (basically in a linebacker’s position), he’d count as a defensive back for this exercise. That might seem odd, but what we’re focusing on here is personnel, not necessarily formation.

Popular Packages

The best way to dive into what will be a lengthy study is to gain some perspective. Which formations are the most popular? How are they trending over the last few seasons? Everyone knows the 4-3 and 3-4, but are they really the preferred formation for most teams? We can answer all of those questions with a quick look at our data from the last four seasons.

2008 2009 2010 2011 Total Snaps
Pkg Snaps % Snaps % Snaps % Snaps %
4-3-4 13315 40% 11359 34% 10013 29% 10021 29% 44708
4-2-5 7231 22% 6592 19% 6090 18% 7083 20% 26996
3-4-4 4716 14% 6085 18% 6548 19% 5500 16% 22849
2-4-5 1446 4% 2764 8% 3254 10% 3539 10% 11003
3-3-5 1805 5% 1965 6% 2023 6% 2998 9% 8791
2-3-6 1368 4% 1559 5% 1978 6% 1729 5% 6634
4-1-6 1272 4% 823 2% 1034 3% 1063 3% 4192
3-2-6 985 3% 842 2% 921 3% 1067 3% 3815

To make it easier on your eyes, I removed any formation that was used fewer than 2,000 times total over the last four years. If that seems excessive, note that the removed formations account for only 5% of all defensive snaps since 2008.

That leaves us with eight formations, sorted by total usage since 2008. Far and away the most popular package is the 4-3-4, but notice the progressive decline. After being utilized on 40% of all plays back in 2008, the figure fell to 34% in 2009 and to 29% in 2010 and 2011. This is certainly related to the league-wide passing explosion, which is good news for cornerbacks and bad news for run-stopping linebackers.

The second-most popular formation is the standard nickel package, with four lineman, two linebackers, and five defensive backs. Usage is actually down overall from 2008, but after trending down two years in a row, its back up to 20% in 2011. Next up, we see the base 3-4-4 package staying relatively consistent, but it did follow a similar pattern to the aforementioned 4-2-5. The 3-4-4 is at an obvious disadvantage to the 4-3-4 because the latter is the more popular base defense. We’ll break that down further later on when we check to see how often teams stick to their base defense.

None of the other listed packages were used more than 10% of the time over the last four seasons. We do see an increase in the 2-4-5 and 3-3-5 nickel packages, but the three dime packages shown have stayed pretty consistent.

Deviation from the Base

I’ll look at this on a team-by-team basis a bit later on, but I wanted to quickly take a look at how the usage of the base 4-3/3-4 defense has changed over the last four seasons. We can certainly make a good guess considering our earlier findings, but it can’t hurt to put it down on paper.

2008 2009 2010 2011
Pkg Snaps % Snaps % Snaps % Snaps % Total
4-3-4 13315 40% 11359 34% 10013 29% 10021 29% 44708
3-4-4 4716 14% 6085 18% 6548 19% 5500 16% 22849
Base D 18031 54% 17444 52% 16561 48% 15521 45% 67557

The key row here is ‘Base D’, which is simply a total of the first two rows. Here we see the change in the use of base defenses over the last four seasons. A base defense was in place on 54% of all plays back in 2008, but that figure fell to 52% in 2009, 48% in 2010, and 45% in 2011 – a drop of nine percentage points over four years. The aforementioned steep drop in usage of the base 4-3 is the big reason for the drop, but it’s been mostly due to an increase in nickel packages, and not necessarily a move by more teams to the 3-4.

Team Data

Now that we know which packages are utilized the most, we can break it down by team. To avoid information overload here, I’ll stick only to 2011 data for this exercise. I also included a few extra formations, so that we get the best breakdown for each team. Any formation used by a team more than 3% of the time is shown and 97% of all NFL snaps are shown. The packages – shown horizontally here – are sorted by how many defensive backs are on the field. The first three columns show base secondaries, the second trio is nickel, the next four are dime, and the final one is the rare 7-back formation, which is only shown because of heavy use by one team (more on that later).

Pkg 3-4-4 4-3-4 5-2-4 2-4-5 3-3-5 4-2-5 1-4-6 2-3-6 3-2-6 4-1-6 1-3-7 Other
ARZ 49% 0% 0% 45% 0% 0% 0% 2% 0% 0% 0% 3%
ATL 0% 44% 0% 0% 6% 49% 0% 0% 0% 0% 0% 1%
BLT 6% 36% 0% 8% 21% 22% 0% 1% 1% 0% 0% 5%
BUF 2% 26% 7% 1% 9% 3% 0% 5% 21% 21% 0% 5%
CAR 0% 51% 1% 0% 0% 38% 0% 0% 0% 8% 0% 2%
CHI 0% 47% 0% 0% 0% 53% 0% 0% 0% 0% 0% 0%
CIN 0% 51% 0% 0% 0% 46% 0% 0% 1% 1% 0% 1%
CLV 0% 54% 0% 0% 11% 29% 0% 0% 1% 2% 0% 3%
DAL 34% 1% 0% 18% 3% 0% 8% 29% 0% 0% 1% 7%
DEN 0% 38% 0% 0% 44% 5% 0% 6% 3% 0% 0% 4%
DET 0% 48% 0% 0% 0% 45% 0% 0% 0% 0% 0% 7%
GB 27% 0% 0% 62% 0% 0% 2% 5% 0% 0% 0% 5%
HST 57% 0% 0% 2% 0% 0% 0% 38% 0% 0% 0% 4%
IND 0% 61% 0% 0% 1% 36% 0% 0% 0% 0% 0% 1%
JAX 0% 45% 1% 0% 1% 34% 0% 0% 4% 12% 0% 4%
KC 55% 0% 0% 9% 0% 0% 1% 32% 0% 0% 1% 3%
MIA 30% 0% 0% 29% 27% 0% 5% 6% 0% 0% 0% 3%
MIN 0% 42% 0% 0% 0% 54% 0% 0% 0% 3% 0% 1%
NE 12% 29% 0% 3% 33% 12% 0% 2% 5% 1% 0% 3%
NO 4% 44% 0% 0% 36% 10% 0% 0% 2% 2% 0% 3%
NYG 0% 22% 0% 0% 22% 46% 0% 0% 5% 3% 0% 3%
NYJ 37% 0% 0% 3% 19% 0% 6% 7% 4% 0% 16% 7%
OAK 0% 37% 3% 1% 18% 4% 0% 1% 30% 4% 0% 3%
PHI 0% 41% 0% 0% 0% 46% 0% 0% 0% 10% 0% 3%
PIT 58% 0% 0% 26% 0% 0% 0% 15% 0% 0% 0% 1%
SD 50% 0% 0% 37% 6% 0% 0% 3% 0% 0% 0% 3%
SEA 0% 56% 0% 0% 0% 35% 0% 0% 4% 1% 0% 4%
SF 45% 0% 0% 42% 0% 0% 0% 11% 0% 0% 0% 1%
SL 0% 56% 0% 0% 0% 15% 0% 0% 0% 27% 0% 2%
TB 0% 52% 0% 0% 3% 29% 0% 0% 9% 6% 0% 2%
TEN 0% 44% 0% 0% 0% 42% 0% 0% 11% 1% 0% 2%
WAS 53% 0% 0% 44% 0% 0% 1% 1% 0% 0% 0% 2%
NFL 16% 29% 0% 10% 9% 20% 1% 5% 3% 3% 1% 3%

This won’t come as a surprise, but notice that 4-3-4 base teams tend to go to the 4-2-5 nickel defense and 3-2-6 or 4-1-6 dime defenses, whereas the 3-4-4 base teams lean towards the 2-4-5 in nickel and 2-3-6 in dime. Although teams are moving away from the base defenses we’re used to, they’re not completely tossing them away when they bring an extra defensive back onto the field.

Instead of breaking down this massive chart, which should really only be used as a reference tool to check out your favorite team, I’ll use manipulations of the chart to find tendencies. We’ll start by…

Playing the Base

Rk Pkg 4-3-4 3-4-4 Base D
1 IND 61% 0% 61%
2 PIT 0% 58% 58%
3 HST 0% 57% 57%
4 SL 56% 0% 56%
5 SEA 56% 0% 56%
6 KC 0% 55% 55%
7 CLV 54% 0% 54%
26 NYJ 0% 37% 37%
27 OAK 37% 0% 37%
28 DAL 1% 34% 35%
29 MIA 0% 30% 30%
30 BUF 26% 2% 28%
31 GB 0% 27% 27%
32 NYG 22% 0% 22%

What you see here is the teams that stick to a base defense the most and the least. To save space, I’m only showing the top and bottom seven teams here, but you can do the math from the earlier chart if you’re interested in the results for all 32 teams.

The Colts stand out here, having run the base 4-3-4 on 61% of their snaps in 2011. It’s worth noting, however, that the new coaching regime, led by former Ravens’ offensive coordinator Chuck Pagano, has shifted this unit to a 3-4-4. We see parity among the top seven, with the 4-3 showing up four times and the 3-4 on three occasions.

The Superbowl champion Giants are at the bottom of our list, having stuck to their 4-3 base on only 22% of their snaps. Interestingly, we see four 3-4 defenses in the bottom seven. If we look at a list of all 32 teams, there are 11 teams who would call the 3-4 their base (if they had to pick between 4-3 and 3-4). Of those 11 teams, seven show up in either the top or bottom seven.

Of the 32 NFL teams, 27 run only the 4-3-3 or 3-4-4. There were five teams who used both formations, at least, 1% of the time. Those teams were led by the Patriots, who ran the 4-3-4 29% of the time and the 3-4-4 12% of the time. The other teams in this category are the Ravens (6%), Saints (4%), Bills (2%), and Cowboys (1%).

Nickel

Rk Pkg <4 Base Nickel Dime 7+
1 NYG 3% 22% 68% 7% 0%
2 GB 4% 27% 62% 7% 0%
3 MIA 3% 30% 56% 11% 0%
4 ATL 1% 44% 55% 0% 0%
5 MIN 1% 42% 54% 3% 0%
6 CHI 0% 47% 53% 0% 0%
7 BLT 4% 42% 52% 2% 0%
26 NYJ 6% 37% 23% 17% 17%
27 OAK 1% 39% 22% 36% 2%
28 DAL 2% 38% 22% 36% 2%
29 SL 1% 56% 15% 27% 0%
30 BUF 5% 35% 12% 47% 0%
31 KC 3% 55% 9% 33% 1%
32 HST 4% 57% 2% 38% 1%

Next up, I’m looking at the teams who went to the nickel defense the most and least often. Leading the way, not coincidentally, is the Giants, The champs went with the nickel 68% of the time, which is significantly higher than the use of their “base” 4-3 (22%). In fact, the Giants had, at least, five cornerbacks on the field 75% of the time, which also led the NFL.

In the basement, we see the Texans, who ran the nickel on just 2% of their defensive snaps. Very much like most of their counterparts at the bottom of this list, teams that don’t run much nickel do so because they switch from base straight to dime. The Chiefs are the only other team in the league who ran the nickel on under 10% of their snaps.

Dime

Rk Pkg <4 Base Nickel Dime 7+
1 BUF 5% 35% 12% 47% 0%
2 HST 4% 57% 2% 38% 1%
3 DAL 2% 38% 22% 36% 2%
4 OAK 1% 39% 22% 36% 2%
5 KC 3% 55% 9% 33% 1%
6 SL 1% 56% 15% 27% 0%
7 NYJ 6% 37% 23% 17% 17%
26 BLT 4% 42% 52% 2% 0%
27 CIN 1% 51% 46% 2% 0%
28 WAS 2% 53% 44% 2% 0%
29 ATL 1% 44% 55% 0.3% 0%
30 CHI 0% 47% 53% 0.1% 0%
31 DET 7% 48% 45% 0.1% 0%
32 IND 1% 61% 38% 0.0% 0%

We see a lot of the same teams on the nickel and dime charts, but that doesn’t mean this one is unnecessary. Note that only five NFL teams use the dime on more than one-third of their snaps. We see a huge drop-off after the league-leading Bills, who ran the dime on almost half their plays. We see another big drop after the sixth-“ranked” Rams, but the rest of the drop-off is fairly consistent. The Colts were the only team to not run the dime in 2011, but the Falcons, Bears, and Lions were close.

Interestingly, nine of the top 11 teams on this list missed the playoffs in 2011 (exceptions: Houston, Pittsburgh). Going even further, of the top 16 teams on the list, only four made the playoffs. The Patriots, Giants, Packers, and Saints (arguably the four most successful teams/offenses in 2011) ranked 17th, 18th, 19th, and 22nd, respectively. Something to chew on.

The Jets

Easily the biggest outlier across the entire league is the Jets heavy usage of seven or more defensive backs. They go with seven backs on 17% of their plays, which is 15 percentage points higher than the next closest team. In fact, of the 250 snaps where seven or more defensive backs were on the field across the entire NFL in 2011, the Jets were responsible for 169 (68%). Although they used the 2-2-7 on a half dozen snaps, the Jets’ favorite seven-defensive-back formation was the 1-3-7. Only four teams had six or more defensive backs on the field more than the Jets in 2011.

Interestingly, the Jets weren’t afraid to go low at defensive back either. Only the Lions (7%) went with fewer than four defensive backs more than the Jets (6%).

Nickel: The new “base” defense?

Not yet…but it could be soon.

The NFL will always be a league of fads and trends. Remember the fullback? Yeah, me neither. Now the two-tight end set and using, at least, one of those tight ends as a wide receiver is the cool thing to do. At the same time, we’re also seeing the forward pass utilized like we never have before. And, although, passing is sure to drop off a bit at some point, the odds are that it hasn’t reached its peak yet. There’s no question that the pass game is a much more effective way of moving the ball down the field and, until defenses figure out a way to slow it down, the quarterbacks will continue to chuck it all day long.

And that’s why the nickel has seen such a spike over the last few years. The base four defensive back alignment has dropped from 54% to 45% since 2008, while the nickel is up to 40%, from 31% four years ago. The dime has, interestingly, stayed about the same, but it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if that jumped up a little bit higher in 2012.

Pkg 2008 2009 2010 2011
<4 3% 3% 3% 3%
Base 54% 52% 49% 45%
Nickel 31% 34% 34% 40%
Dime 11% 10% 13% 12%
7+ 0% 1% 1% 1%

Check back soon for additional analysis, including a look at quarterback and running back production vs. each defensive package.

Follow Mike Clay on Twitter @MikeClayNFL

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