How the Texans got their groove back in 12-personnel

Last season, the Texans ran the ball a ton out of 12 personnel (one back, two wideouts, two tight ends) — they ran from that set almost as often as they did from their more common 11 personnel (one back, three wideouts, one tight end) sets despite passing from 11 personnel about twice as often.

Houston was empirically better by a long shot in 2018 passing out of 12-personnel. Watson’s sack rate dropped from 10.7% to 9.9%, his air yards per attempt went from 7.5 to 9.5. His completion rate went from 65.7% to 73.9%. While that hasn’t been the case entirely in 2019, that is based on an extremely small sample of plays because the Texans have only run 38 total plays out of 12 in 2019. Last week was a huge boost because, for the first time all season, Houston had two tight ends with over 50 percent of the snaps:

Last season the Texans ran 57% 11 personnel and 35% 12 personnel. This year, they’re at 74% 11 personnel and 16% 12 personnel. Some of that probably is about having faith in Laremy Tunsil at left tackle, and some of that is probably about having traded for Kenny Stills and wanting to use him often. Obviously, without Stills, there was less incentive to play 11 personnel.

12 personnel on its own cannot be blamed for the Falcons having a shoddy defense that was coached roughly as well as Jon Arbuckle deals with Garfield. But, one thing that has become more and more clear to me watching NFL teams for the last few years is that teams generate play-action shots off of 12 personnel much more easily than they do out of 11. 11 personnel is where you go to get quick passes.

Will Fuller’s second touchdown was out of play-action in 12 personnel, and the entire Atlanta defense decided they would rather cover DeAndre Hopkins:

Now, yes, that looks easy. No, that won’t happen on every play. But — you know who is more likely to mess up in pass coverage between a linebacker and a defensive back? A linebacker. You know who is more likely to bite on a run fake? A linebacker. The personnel has a huge impact on how defenses react to play-action. The more linebackers you put on the field, the more space you can create.

This is an area that was mostly unutilized last year by the Texans. Partially it’s because Will Fuller wasn’t healthy all season. When Fuller was healthy, in Weeks 1-8, the Texans averaged 8.5 yards per play-action dropback, and that’s counting two sacks, out of 12 personnel. You’ll probably most memorably recall what happened when the Texans got two touchdowns out of the set against the Dolphins:

The Texans did fine on these dropbacks afterwards, but they didn’t have the deep threat Fuller provided to make the play work as well as it should. Their longest play the rest of the season was 28 yards, and most of the air yards were closer to the 14-20 yard range.

At the same time, the Texans have somehow shook Carlos Hyde off the scrapheap and found a player who can get through arm tackles and tight inside creases while maintaining burst, which is something they didn’t really have last season. Houston’s early looks with Hyde have mostly been in 11-personnel, but I think he translates well to 12-personnel. If you are able to get teams scared of him as a consistent chain-mover in 12-personnel, suddenly the linebackers are even more liable to getting sucked in. Particularly if the Texans are able to disguise their plays with the satellite action/zone reads they used the last couple of weeks. That is a lot of different things for a defense to worry about before they think about where Fuller and Hopkins are headed. Jordan Akins’ emergence as a pass catcher and Darren Fells’ pass blocking also bolster the unit from where things were last season with Ryan Griffin.

This isn’t an argument that the Texans should sit Stills, or that Stills and Duke Johnson shouldn’t be a big part of the game plan still. I just think that 12 personnel has the potential to be so effective that it needs to be more carved into the 2019 offense than it has been so far.

That’s my major takeaway from watching Atlanta get owned by it for four quarters, anyway.

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