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The return of ‘12 personnel’ should be a major boost for Cam Newton and Patriots offense

The acquisition of tight ends Jonnu Smith (above) and Hunter Henry should transform the Patriots offense.Wade Payne/Associated Press

The number 12 will always be sacrosanct in Foxborough and may never be worn on a jersey there again. It is also the number that Bill Belichick hopes will get the most out of Cam Newton and bring the Patriots back to Super Bowl contention.

That’s 12 as in “12 personnel,” what the football world calls an offensive formation with one running back and two tight ends (and two receivers).

The Patriots figure to use a lot of it in 2021 after signing the top two tight ends in free agency to major contracts — four years and $50 million for Jonnu Smith, and three years and $37.5 million for Hunter Henry.


The Patriots thrived with a two-tight-end offense from 2010-12 with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, finishing first, third, and first in the NFL in points.

After using 12 personnel on just 2 percent of snaps in 2020 (lowest in the NFL), and finishing 27th in scoring, Belichick is refocusing the offense around two tight ends.

“I think a lot of teams want to use 12 personnel, because 12 personnel gives you options to kind of dictate the flow of the game,” said former NFL safety Matt Bowen, who now breaks down coaches’ film for ESPN. “You’re telling the defense, ‘Look, we can do everything out of 12,’ especially with the guys the Patriots just got.”

Belichick’s embrace of this is yet another way in which he goes against the grain. In 2020, about 60 percent of the NFL’s offensive snaps came in 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers). The 12 personnel was used about 20 percent of the time, with Tennessee and Philadelphia leading the league at 35 percent (via Sharp Football Stats).

Hunter Henry figures to provide a boost for the Patriots' offense in 2021.Ashley Landis/Associated Press

“Defenses are more prepared to defend against 11 personnel, but 12 gives you more options based on the versatility of the tight end position,” said one AFC East scout.


Two main reasons coaches like 12 personnel so much: It gives the defense a tough decision to make with its own personnel, and it helps the quarterback decipher the defense before the snap.

“You’re trying to get as much information to the QB before the snap of the ball as possible,” said Greg Cosell, the film guru for NFL Films. “If you’re going to line up in 12 personnel, I’m sure Bill feels like defenses will be relatively predictable, and therefore you can define schemes offensively where you know what you’re going to get.”

While most teams would like to run 12 personnel, they usually don’t have two versatile, Pro Bowl-caliber tight ends to pull it off. Most tight ends are better at either run blocking or receiving, and their presence on the field is often a “tell” for the defense.

But not so with Smith and Henry, who can do a little bit of everything. As receivers, Smith and Henry have different skill sets that complement each other well. Smith can take a short crossing route and outrun a defensive back, while Henry is more of a vertical, middle-of-the-field receiver.

But Smith and Hunter are both proficient run blockers, as well. The Patriots can pound their way down the field with the power run game, or go five-wide and spread the defense out. Their use of play-action passing and run-pass option plays could be devastating this year.


The Patriots tried to create a two-tight-end offense last year with rookies Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene, but neither could get on the field much. So the Patriots took out their checkbook and bought two high-end players who are ready to produce.

The versatility of Smith and Henry should help Newton, or whoever is playing quarterback, a lot.

First, the defense has a tough decision: Do they defend Smith and Henry with linebackers or safeties? Generally speaking, if the defense goes big, the Patriots can counter with speed in the passing game. If the defense goes small, the Patriots can pound the ball right at them.

“If you have a physical safety that can play their power run game but struggles in coverage, the Patriots are going to take advantage of that,” Bowen said. “If you’ve got a nickel corner who’s got electric feet and can check Jonnu Smith in space but isn’t physical, they’ll run the ball right at them. It’s as simple as that.

“That’s why I think every team in the NFL would love to have the ability to run 12 personnel a lot, because it does give an offense so many options and schematical advantages.”

Second, 12 personnel will help Newton read the defense before the snap. Smith, especially, will be the “indicator” because he’s such a physical mismatch. If Smith is aligned on the boundary and a cornerback is across from him, Newton will know the defense is probably in zone coverage. If a linebacker or safety follows him, the defense is probably in man coverage.


Cam Newton has reason to smile -- he'll have more options in the passing game in 2021 than he did in 2020.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

“You’re trying to give Cam as much information as you can before the snap,” said Cosell. “That’s the whole plan here. 12 personnel really defines the pass game for you, and Cam, quite honestly, he needs that.”

Bowen expects to see the Patriots run one formation a decent amount: three receivers to one side of the field, and Smith alone on the other. The way this formation is defended should tell Newton everything.

This was the same formation the Patriots used on Gronkowski’s 22-yard touchdown catch over Seahawks linebacker K.J. Wright in Super Bowl XLIX. Had Richard Sherman lined up across from Gronk, Tom Brady would have known the Seahawks were in zone defense, and would have thrown to someone else. Instead, Wright, who is not comfortable covering receivers in space, followed Gronk to the boundary.

“When we broke the huddle and Sherman came over to the other side of the field and Wright walked out on [Gronkowski], I think everybody on our sideline knew where the ball was going to go,” offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said in the 2015 documentary “Do Your Job.”

On a key play in Super Bowl XLIX, tight end Rob Gronkowski (bottom) is lined up alone on one side, opposite Seahawks linebacker K.J. Wright, while three Patriots receivers — and cornerback Richard Sherman — are on the other. Gronkowski caught a 22-yard touchdown pass on the play.boston globe

Belichick is well aware of Newton’s limitations as a passer. But using 12 personnel and upgrading the talent should, in theory, get more out of him.

“If Cam is the QB, these two tight ends are really going to help him,” Bowen said. “You can run heavy play-action, more higher-percentage throws, you can define throws, and now you have players who can win in the middle of the field. They just got a lot more talented.”


Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com.