One of the things we'll be examining periodically is the Seahawks' use of offensive personnel groups. This is something I've referenced more this season because I've been tracking it more closely. By personnel group, we're talking about the combination of running backs, receivers and tight ends used on a given play. This is the first thing I look for on every play. It's one of the first things coaches look for on every play. The number always adds up to five.
Personnel groups are hugely important because they dictate what type of defensive personnel the other team will employ. For example, the Seahawks used three- and four-receiver groups against Green Bay because they felt good about exploiting the Packers' nickel and dime cornerbacks. Those cornerbacks would not be on the field if Seattle stuck with its "regular" personnel, which consists of two backs, two receivers and a tight end. After a shaky start, Seattle did wind up exploiting the Packers' nickel defense. It was a key to winning the game.
You might hear the announcer note that one team is in a three-wide offense, but really there are only two true wide receivers on the field. A tight end or running back might be lined up where the third receiver generally lines up. Seattle does this quite a bit. Referring to personnel groups avoids any confusion. This is useful because the defense is more concerned with who is on the field than where that player lines up. Defenses care very much whether it's Mack Strong or Deion Branch lined up wide right, for example. Teams cheat when they see Seattle line up a running back wide.
For starters, I'll make available an Excel file breaking down Shaun Alexander's rushing attempts by personnel group. The file also shows his production as an intended receiver, but the focus is on his rushing attempts. We see right away that he's averaging 3.4 yards per carry with regular personnel. That number should improve down the stretch.
This is one thing I like about the blog: If you are here, we assume you've got a hunger for a level of information that goes beyond the traditional coverage. I chart this stuff because it gives me a better idea what the team is trying to accomplish, and who the team wants to get on the field, and what Seattle thinks about its opponent.
My method is pretty simple: I chart the personnel groups during the game. Afterward, I double-check the information off the video. Widely accepted personnel groups can be found here. Seattle calls these groups by the same names you'll find through the link, with a couple of exceptions. They call the five-receiver group "Badger" (not a group they use), and they do not refer to "Patriot" (although I initially thought they used this against Detroit).
Generally I'll find one or two plays that were in question, usually when Seattle goes to a personnel group it doesn't use very often. There was some confusion for me Sunday night when Will Heller replaced Mack Strong at fullback. Before the game, Heller was a tight end. During the game, he became a fullback. This became an issue when Alexander scored his touchdown. Generally Seattle goes into what football people call "Y" personnel (2RB, 3TE) down in the goal line. This consists of two backs, no receivers and three tight ends. This is what the Hawks did on this play, but Alexander was basically alone in the backfield. Heller lined up near the tight end, making it look, to an amatuer such as me, like there were four tight ends in the game. Heller was actually a fullback on the play. I called it "Y-37" in my notes to remind me that Alexander was alone in the backfield (I would call it "Y-I" if they were in I-formation, but the teams have their own lingo that goes beyond me).
Here is the breakdown for every offensive play (not counting kneel-downs, spikes of the ball, etc) Seattle has run so far this season (the Excel file and Web link explain how each of these groups is defined ... Eagle is 4WR, etc.):
"E" and "Zebra" are three-wide groups. You can see, then, that Seattle has been in three-wide nearly half the time, compared to a third of the time for its regular personnel. Nate Burleson runs with the "Zebra" group featuring Jerramy Stevens. D.J. Hackett runs with the "E" group featuring no tight end, etc.
Teams chart in much greater detail. The information here is very basic, even if it seems a little complex in the beginning. With a little effort, you'll get to a point where you immediately recognize the personnel group before the snap. I did this by printing out the personnel-group card found at the link I provided above. I kept the card handy during games for the first few weeks. You'll start to recognize the personnel before the snap and then you'll know who is on the field even if that person is not visible on your TV screen.
After a while, you might have a better idea what the team is going to do on a play. You'll recognize Eagle personnel, assume the defense is in dime and wonder if this is when Matt Hasselbeck will check to a running play so they can pound it against a defense designed to stop the pass. It becomes fun to see how Mike Holmgren shows a bunch of personnel groups early in a game, just to see how the defense reacts. He then might stick with a hot personnel group for stretches later in the game. If Antrel Rolle leaves the game Sunday with an injury and Seattle shows a lot of its two-tight offense, this might come as a surprise. I would ask about it after the game.
Holmgren went to the "E" group (2RB, 3WR) for stretches in the second half of the Green Bay game. Hackett made plays in this group. When Strong went down Sunday night, we saw quite a bit more "Zebra" (1RB,3WR,1TE) with Alexander alone in the backfield (Zebra-37 in my notes).