The recent Extra Point post “Where have all of the NFL points gone?” outlined how the 2022 NFL season has had the fewest points scored per game through Week 3 since 2010. The primary driver for this change is the severe reduction in passing efficiency. According to data provided by the nflverse team (Ben, Seb, Tan, Lee, and John) there was an approximately 180-point cumulative drop from Week 3 in 2021.
The main hypothesis for the decrease in aerial fireworks is the increasing prevalence of “two high” safety systems designed to take away the deep pass and force offenses to chip their way down the field. These systems were popularized by Vic Fangio during his time as the defensive coordinator of the Chicago Bears from 2015–18 and the head coach of the Denver Broncos from 2019–21 and his disciples have spread across the league. As a response to the increased potency and frequency of passing, teams play an increasing amount of nickel defense (five defensive backs) at the expense of base defense (four defensive backs). As seen in the figure below, the ratio of nickel to base has increased from close to even to now greater than 2.5x, with teams in nickel more than 65% of all defensive snaps through Week 3. While just calling a defense “nickel” doesn’t do justice to the complexities of NFL defenses, we can still use the label in terms of high-level strict personnel.
Teams have been able to replace a defensive lineman or linebacker with a defensive back because offensive teams are playing more “11” personnel sets (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) at the expense of heavier formations — and pretty much everything else. Since 2010, the prevalence of three or more WR formations has increased from 55% of all offensive snaps to 65%. The trend is primarily due to the explosion of “11” personnel groupings as seen below. The most extreme example of this was when the Los Angeles Rams played 100% of their offensive snaps in "11” personnel in their Super Bowl LVI victory.
However, and this is the fun part, the traditional roster position listed on the roster used to determine personnel groupings does not always align with how a player is actually used. The Rams have used WR Ben Skowronek in a traditional I-form fullback, including 19 (effective) snaps in their Week 2 31-27 win against the Atlanta Falcons.
This example merely scratches the surface on the personnel trends over the last decade. We will explore this concept in upcoming posts. Our next installment will dive into league-wide trends in positional versatility on both sides of the ball.
Contributed by Andrew Patton