Personnel report: Which teams mix it up

The San Francisco 49ers used 33 combinations of players at wide receiver, running back and tight end Sunday.

That was the word from Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com, and I was hooked.

Coach Jim Harbaugh and staff were known for changing up their personnel frequently at Stanford, and the volume only figured to increase at the NFL level. But 33 combinations in 64 plays? That seemed high.

2011 NFL Personnel Combinations

The 49ers stood out during their 20-10 victory over Cleveland for completing passes totaling 35 yards to left tackle Joe Staley and nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga.

As the chart shows, the 49ers rank among the NFL leaders in combinations used at the skill positions. They've used 109 through Week 8, seventh-most in the league, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Injuries sometimes play into these totals as much as creative scheming. The St. Louis Rams would probably prefer to rank lower than fifth on this list, but they've scrambled to address injuries at running back, wide receiver and tight end. Adding Brandon Lloyd by trade changed up the combinations once again.

Some of the teams ranking near the bottom aren't lacking for offense, notably Philadelphia, Carolina and Buffalo. I'm not surprised to see Indianapolis with the fewest combinations used. The Colts have for years used fewer personnel combinations and formations by design, and they've done so quite effectively until losing Peyton Manning.

More is not always better, but a deep rotation of skill players can challenge a defense to account for the variations.

Injuries at wide receiver have affected the 49ers' counts.

Losing Josh Morgan to a season-ending injury and welcoming back Braylon Edwards changed-up the rotation. Morgan was one of the wide receivers for five of the eight groupings San Francisco has used most frequently this season, including the top three. Kyle Williams was one of the receivers for the group ranking fourth in frequency, but with Edwards returning, Williams played sparingly last week. And so the permutations expand.

The 49ers have spread their eight rushing touchdowns across seven groupings, most designed for power in short-yardage situations. Tackle Alex Boone has come onto the field for five of those seven groupings. Fullback Bruce Miller appeared in four. Sopoaga has appeared in two of them. Tight end Justin Peelle appeared in one.

It's obvious the 49ers' offensive staff relishes power football and wants to build an identity around it. That was the expectation back in January, when ESPN's Brock Huard called Harbaugh's hiring a "home run" and said the coach "likes the power run game, be physical, hit you in the mouth."