For today's NFL offenses, three is a magic number.
As quarterbacks throw more passes and point totals continue to rise, teams are keeping fullbacks and blocking tight ends on the sideline and using three wide receivers on more than half of their offensive plays.
Even the Ravens, who for years ran a Stone Age offense, have embraced the evolution and last season often used a trio of wide-outs to spread the field for quarterback Joe Flacco.
"I think today's game sets up well for that kind of stuff, which is playing at a high pace and letting those [wide receivers] get open on some guys," Flacco said. "I think that will be a big part of who we are. I hope it is, and I think that we have the guys to do it."
Three-wide-receiver sets were by far the most commonly used personnel grouping in the NFL last season. Even the Ravens used them on nearly half of their snaps. By putting an extra wide receiver on the field, the Ravens can stretch defenses and take full advantage of Flacco's strong arm. They are still trying to determine which three wide-outs are their best combination, but the three-receiver sets are here to stay in Baltimore and in the NFL as a whole.
"It puts a lot of pressure on defenses," wide receivers coach Jim Hostler said. "The ball goes up and down the field more when the ball is completed. So [if] you want to put that kind of pressure on the defense, you're going to have to play with three guys and sometimes four guys. Spread people out, utilize the whole field, remove some of the physicality out of the defense and put in a little more spacing and skill. You have to have that."
The rest of the NFL agrees. According to Football Outsiders, which tracks the ways teams use their personnel, the use of the 11 personnel grouping — the number indicating one running back and one tight end — has surged over the past decade and continued to increase, from 48percent of the plays in 2010 to 51 percent in 2012. The grouping, which features three wide receivers, was used more than the next three most-popular personnel groups combined.
"It's really dramatic," Football Outsiders editor-in-chief Aaron Schatz said of the trend. "Teams are using more shotgun. They're using more receivers. They're spreading out the field more. And they're throwing more passes and using the short passing game instead of the running game at some times. It's more efficient."
The addition of Jacoby Jones as the third wide receiver behind Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith (Maryland) emboldened the Ravens to use their 11 personnel on 43 percent of their snaps last season, up from 25 percent in 2011. Still, 22 teams used three-receiver sets more often.
"In the NFL now, you have to look at it as [teams having] three starting wide receivers," Schatz said.
That's why the training-camp competition to replace Anquan Boldin has been so significant, especially after injuries to tight ends Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson, which could lessen the team's desire to use a second tight end. Smith and Jones hold the top two spots on the depth chart, but the battle to replace Boldin in the slot is far from decided.
Deonte Thompson brought speed to the slot before suffering a foot injury, and Tandon Doss is a bigger, more well-rounded receiver. But neither young player seized the opportunity early in camp, so the Ravens signed veteran Brandon Stokley, who has spent much of his career as the third receiver in the slot. In the team's second preseason game, Stokley was the one who got snaps in the slot with Flacco and the first-team offense. And in recent practices, rookies Aaron Mellette and Marlon Brown have gotten first-team work, too.
Despite the uncertainty at wide receiver, Flacco expects the 11 personnel to remain a staple of the offense.
While the Ravens averaged 5.7 yards per play with their 11 personnel during the 2012 regular season, which was actually slightly less than when they used two receivers with either two backs or two tight ends, Flacco appeared to be most comfortable when the Ravens put him in the shotgun, used three wide receivers and picked up the pace by forgoing a huddle.
Flacco's postseason performance was proof, as eight of his record-tying 11 touchdown passes — including the so-called "Miracle at Mile High" — came when the Ravens were in their 11 grouping.
"I think a lot of quarterbacks like the three-wide," NFL Films senior producer Greg Cosell said. "It's for the most part a passing look, but the other nice thing about it is it still provides a solid running game because you still have a tight end. ... They had success with it last year toward the end of the season."
Many of the offenses the Ravens will face this season also thrived in the 11 personnel, including the Denver Broncos, New England Patriots, Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions. The Broncos, who will host the Ravens in the season opener Sept. 5, could be especially dangerous with quarterback Peyton Manning throwing to what may be the NFL's top trio of wide-outs in Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and former Patriot Wes Welker.
"I think there was a feeling for years that the best way to generate [big plays] was with three wide receivers on the field, the goal being that your third wide-out was going to be better than the other team's third cornerback," Cosell said. "Teams treated their nickel cornerback as a sub. But now, they're really almost full-time players."
Corey Graham and Jimmy Smith are competing to start at cornerback along with Lardarius Webb, but all three will play a significant number of snaps in the nickel package.
Last season, the Ravens used five or more defensive backs on 49 percent of their snaps. They actually fared better against 11 personnel than they did against two-receiver sets, allowing 4.9 yards per play against 11 personnel.
"The biggest thing is you have to try to match speed with speed. You can't sit in there with a big group," defensive coordinator Dean Pees said of the challenge of slowing down spread offenses. "You have to try to match up the best you can personnel-wise to what they have. ... The good thing is if you really look at our playoff [run] last year between Indianapolis, Denver and New England. Who does that better? I think that we've kind of learned a little bit."
And that's a good thing, as the trend is sure to continue as long as three-receiver sets continue to make magic.
"Until defenses figure out a way to" limit their effectiveness, Schatz said, "these percentages are going to continue to grow."
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