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Opinion: Bills’ offensive concerns aren’t due to personnel groupings

12 personnel has been effective for Buffalo

Las Vegas Raiders v Buffalo Bills Photo by Kevin Sabitus/Getty Images

Let’s start off my remembering that the Buffalo Bills’ offense has been good this year.

Buffalo ranks third in the NFL in offensive EPA/play (SumerSports), third in points per game (, and second in success rate (NFLFastR). With that being established, there has absolutely been meat left on the bone for quarterback Josh Allen, offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey, and company over the last two weeks specifically. What exactly is the cause of this has been a story line for Bills Mafia ever since the team squeaked out a close victory over former Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll’s New York Giants on Sunday Night Football.

It’s been suggested that Buffalo’s usage of 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends, two wide receivers) more prominently in 2023 vs. 2022 could be a root cause of some missed opportunities on offense and that the Bills might be better served with the 11 personnel-heavy attack (one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers) we saw from them in years past.

The data tells a different story.

The Bills, out of 11 personnel in 2023, have a 0.15 EPA/pass and a 0.13 EPA per rush, per SumerSports.

Out of 12 personnel, the Bills have a 0.26 EPA/pass and a -0.28 EPA/rush.

The idea that passing the ball would be more effective out of a heavier formation and rushing the ball would be more effective out of a lighter personnel grouping might feel counterintuitive at first glance, but this phenomenon is not unique to the Buffalo Bills or even to 2023. Former Bills head coach Chan Gailey ran an effective rushing attack primarily through 11 and 10 personnel, spreading the field out to open interior rush lanes downhill for C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson. Last year, the Kansas City Chiefs countered the departure of Tyreek Hill by playing a lot of 12 and 13 personnel, ending up with a league-MVP quarterback in the process and one of the best years of Patrick Mahomes’ career.

Heavier personnel correlates with heavier boxes, which simultaneously lowers rushing success and increases the chance for explosive plays in the passing game. Lighter personnel correlates with lighter boxes, which increases rushing success and lowers the chance of explosive passing plays. Heavier offensive personnel also correlates with higher rates of base defenses in a primarily nickel-based league, and adding an additional linebacker to the defense also increases your chances of bigger passing plays because it’s unlikely that the nickel defender (usually a corner or safety), which the defense swapped out for that third linebacker, is somehow a lesser coverage player.

We see this with our own Buffalo Bills. Taron Johnson wasn’t just one of the best players on the field against the New York Giants; he’s been a key to a lot of their defensive success in recent years because his skill set prevents offensive personnel groupings dictating scheme. If the opposing offense wants to bring out 11 personnel, the Bills will match with nickel and Taron Johnson. If the offense wants to bring out 12 personnel...

...the Bills will match with nickel and Taron Johnson.

Offenses want to dictate defenses into lighter personnel so they can run the ball and heavier personnel so they can pass the ball. Due to the presence of Taron Johnson, the Bills cannot be dictated to because Johnson can cover like a nickel defender and play the run like a linebacker.

So what seemed counterintuitive at first glace suddenly makes a lot more sense when framed in this way.

If the passing game is the most important part of an offense (and it is), then playing more of the personnel grouping that allows you to be the most effective passing the ball would be a good thing. Being able to mix and match personnel groupings to accomplish a specific goal is a good thing and the Bills should never lock themselves into one personnel grouping on the offensive side of the ball, but I think we can safely say that any lulls that have happened, however frustrating they may be, aren’t due to the Bills’ usage of 12 personnel.

...and that’s the way the cookie crumbles. I’m Bruce Nolan with Buffalo Rumblings. You can find me on Twitter and Instagram @BruceExclusive and look for new episodes of “The Bruce Exclusive” every Thursday on the Buffalo Rumblings podcast network!