A Closer Look at New OC Shane Waldron: Personnel and Formation

| May 7th, 2024

In addition to adding 5 new starters on offense this offseason, the Bears fired offensive coordinator Luke Getsy and replaced him with Shane Waldron, who spent the previous 3 years holding the same position in Seattle.

In order to better understand what Chicago’s offense might look like in 2024, I’ve been digging into data about Waldron’s offenses at his last stop. I looked at down and distance play calling tendencies yesterday, and today want to explore personnel and formation trends.

Today’s data comes from Sumer Sports, which only has information for 2022 and 2023, so nothing from Waldron’s 1st season in Seattle will be included.

Personnel Groupings

Let’s start by looking at common personnel groupings, which looks solely at the listed position of players on the field and not where they are lined up. These groupings are commonly listed by 2 numbers, where the 1st is the number of running backs and the 2nd is the number of tight ends. Since teams play 5 skill position players at a time, the number of wide receivers is then implied. The 2 most common groupings are 11 (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) and 12 (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR).

The table below shows how frequently the Seahawks and Bears used and passed out of each grouping on 1st-2nd down in 2023, along with their ranks compared to the rest of the NFL. Values in the top 25% are highlighted in green, while those in the bottom 25% are red. Seattle’s data from 2022 is included as well for comparison.

(side note: if the table gets cut off, click on it to view the full table in a new screen)

A few thoughts:

  • The first thing I notice is that the usage shifted significantly from 2022 to 2023 for Seattle, to more 3 WR sets and fewer 2 TE sets. This makes sense considering Seattle upgraded their 3rd WR spot from Marquise Goodwin (38% snaps played) to 1st round pick Jackson Smith-Njigba (64% snaps played) from 2022 to 2023.
    • Considering the Bears just spent a top 10 pick on Rome Odunze to give them a strong WR trio, I imagine we’ll see something more aligned with the 2023 data, though an injury to any of the top 3 could lead to more 2022-like usage.
    • It’s also worth noting that Seattle consistently passed at a higher rate than league average out of 11 personnel, so we should expect 3 WR sets on early downs to be very pass-heavy.
  • Even with more 3 WR looks in 2023 taking away from 12 personnel plays, Seattle still utilized 12 personnel more frequently than league average. It’s pretty clear the Bears plan to continue that trend considering they invested heavily in Gerald Everett as their TE2 in free agency.
    • I do find it interesting that Seattle passed less out of 12 looks in 2023 than 2022, down around the league average. My read there is that Waldron used 12 to pass when he needed to run more 12 in 2022, but preferred to pass more out of 11 when he had the personnel to do so.
  • 11 and 12 personnel accounted for about 80% of NFL snaps last year, but there are some interesting notes on Seattle in the less frequently used personnel groupings that didn’t make the table.
    • The Seahawks didn’t run a single snap on 1st or 2nd down with 4 WRs on the field in 2022 or 2023. Don’t expect to see those looks very often in Chicago.
    • Seattle didn’t keep a fullback on the roster while Waldron was there, and only had 2 RB on the field for 2% of 1st-2nd down plays over the last 2 years, compared to about 15-20% for Chicago.
      • Instead of a fullback, Waldron preferred to use a 3rd TE, as Seattle ran 3 TE sets about 12% of the time in 2022 and 2023, roughly 3x the NFL average (and 3x as often as Chicago).
      • This makes me wonder what Waldron’s plans are for fullback Khari Blasingame. Will Waldron shift to using a FB instead of a 3rd TE? Or is Blasingame, who could be cut with no dead money, unlikely to make the roster in Chicago?
        • It is worth noting that Chicago does not have a high-quality TE3 on the roster, as the depth guys are  journeyman veteran Stephen Carlson and UDFA Brendan Bates.

Now let’s look at the same data for 3rd and 4th down, as shown in the table below.

A few thoughts:

  • Generally, 11 personnel is much more common in these downs, which makes sense considering teams generally throw the ball on 3rd and anything 3 and longer (as we saw yesterday).
  • We saw the same trend as early downs from 2022 to 2023, with more 11 personnel at the expense of 12 due to improved WR depth, as well as more passing in 11 and less passing in 12.
    • Again, I anticipate we will see the 2023 trends translate to Chicago fairly well, since the Bears have a comparably strong WR trio, but it’s good to see Waldron’s ability to shift what he does in response to his personnel.
  • Another shift we see due to personnel comes with 4 WR on the field. Seattle never did this in 2022, when they only had 2 good WR, but utilized it for 5% of 3rd/4th downs in 2023 after improving their WR depth.
    • Chicago did not even have a single snap with 4 WR on the field in 2022 or 2023, so these occasional 3rd/4th down 4 WR sets will be a change from the past few years.
  • Seattle ran very few 3 TE sets in late downs (4% in 2022, only 1%), and almost never had 2 RB on the field at the same time (1% in 2022, never in 2023). So the jumbo sets we see sometimes on early downs never really show up on 3rd or 4th, save for maybe the occasional 3 TE look in a short yardage situation.

Formational Alignment

Now let’s shift gears to examine formational alignment, which details where the skill position players line up while ignoring their designated position. There are 4 alignments that are most common:

  • 2×2: 2 players to one side of the field, 2 to the other side, and 1 in the backfield.
  • 2×1: 2 players to one side of the field, 1 to the other side, and 2 in the backfield.
  • 3×1: 3 players to one side of the field, 1 to the other side, and 1 in the backfield.
  • 3×2: 3 players to one side of the field, 2 to the other side, and an empty backfield.

The table below shows how frequently Seattle and Chicago used and passed out of each alignment on 1st and 2nd down in 2023, along with their ranks compared to the rest of the NFL. Values in the top 25% are highlighted in green, while those in the bottom 25% are red. Seattle’s data from 2022 is included as well for comparison.

A few thoughts:

  • 3×2 data is not included here because of a very small sample size; the NFL average is only around 5% on early downs. That will get included on late downs below.
    • It is worth noting, however, that Seattle ran those sets on 8-9% of early down plays in both 2022 and 2023, appreciably higher than the NFL average and more than double Chicago’s rate of 4% in 2023. So we should expect to see more empty sets on early downs in Chicago this year.
  • Waldron consistently uses 2×2 sets, which are the most common NFL alignment on early downs, among the lowest rates in the NFL. It is still the most common alignment he uses, but he does it less often than most other teams.
    • NFL teams generally like to pass out of 2×2 sets, and Waldron is no exception there, throwing at around NFL average rates.
  • Seattle was around NFL average in 3×1 sets for both usage rate and pass rate in his two seasons. We should expect to see those looks at fairly similar rates to what Chicago had last year, but with higher rates of passes from them.
  • 2×1 sets, which have 2 players in the backfield, were used at similarly above-average rates in both Seattle and Chicago last year. Chicago primarily accomplished these through having a fullback, while Seattle – who carried no fullback and almost never played 2 RB together – did them with a TE lined up in the backfield.
    • This is where I wonder again about Khari Blasingame. Does Waldron envision using him like he did a move TE in Seattle? Or is Blasingame going to be cut?
    • One thing that’s worth noting is that Seattle consistently passed out of these sets at a much higher rate than NFL average. I am unsure if Blasingame, who has less than 100 career receiving yards on 5.2 yards/target across 4 NFL seasons, offers enough in the passing game to be successful in this role.
    • For context, Will Dissly was Seattle’s 3rd TE last year, and in 35% of offensive snaps he saw 22 targets and had 172 receiving yards, both of which outstrip what Blasingame has done over his entire career.

Now let’s look at the same data for 3rd and 4th down, with the 3×2 empty backfield set added in, since it makes up over 12% of NFL plays on later downs.

A few thoughts:

  • The NFL as a whole shifts more to 3×1 sets as the dominant formation here, and Waldron follows suit at around NFL average rates.
  • Seattle was very pass happy on later downs in all of these sets in 2023, though 2022 was more around average, so that seems to fluctuate from year to year.
  • One clear difference from what Chicago ran last year comes in the 3×2 empty sets. Seattle consistently ran less of them than NFL average (which is weird considering they ran more of them than average on early downs), but still a good bit more than Chicago. We should expect to see more of these on 3rd and 4th down going forward.
  • Seattle ran a high rate of 2×1 sets, with 2 players in the backfield, on late downs in 2023. These are usually for runs in short yardage situations, but Seattle passed out of them the most in the NFL.
    • This matches what we saw on early downs – where Waldron liked to pass in alignments that made the defense think a run was coming.
    • Unlike on early downs, both the high volume and high pass rate were only evident in 2023, not 2022, so I’m not sure if this was a fluke or is something Waldron is growing into as a way to catch defenses off guard.

Lessons learned

My biggest takeaway from digging into this data is that we’ve seen Shane Waldron adapt to changing personnel in different years by changing some of what he does. Seattle only had 2 quality WR in 2022, but that increased to 3 in 2023, and they responded by putting more WRs on the field and throwing the ball more often. That’s encouraging to see.

A few other takeaways:

  • Seattle used a 3rd TE instead of a fullback, and likes to pass more than expected out of sets with 2 players in the backfield. Khari Blasingame has never been involved in the passing game much, which makes me wonder if he might be a surprise training camp cut should the Bears find a move TE they trust as their TE3.
  • Waldron showed an increasing propensity to pass out of alignments that made the defense expect run in 2023. I am curious if that was a fluke or a sign of things to come.

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