Six Questions to ask when analyzing opponent empty Formations

Spread formations are all the rage these days, especially in the NFL and college football, and of course, the ultimate spread formation is still lining up with a QB in the gun and five eligible receivers split out wide.

If you’re in charge of breaking down the offense of your next opponent, it can be tough enough to get all of their different plays and formations and different wrinkles tagged in a way that lets you create an effective tendency report. What happens when you face a team that runs empty formations, or even several different types of empty formations?


Hopefully the questions below will help you with some of these issues, and will get you thinking about ways to break down and analyze opponents in the future.

1. Why are they getting into an empty set?

Some teams may decide to get into empty for a certain week because they think it will give them an advantage over whatever defense they’re facing that game. Other teams may get into empty as a change up in a crucial situation, like a big 3rd or 4th down in a game, or a two-point conversion. They may get into empty to run their wildcat package or some other kind of gadget play. Try to figure out why the offense is doing what they’re doing.

2. What type of empty team are they?

Are they a typical empty team with a couple of quick pass concepts and the occasional QB draw? Or do they have the ability to do other things out of empty, like run their base run and pass schemes using some motion? What about jet sweeps and WR tunnel screens? Some teams will use motion to get into a formation where they can sprint out and block the edge sufficiently, and a lot of teams aren’t prepared for it. It’s impossible to prepare for everything, but getting an idea of what kind of empty team your opponent wants to be can help you to anticipate adjustments and wrinkles that they haven’t shown on film yet.

3. How often do they line up in an empty set?

If you’re breaking down the last four games and you end up counting a total of four or five times that an offense has lined up in an empty set, it’s probably not something you need to spend a whole lot of time preparing for compared with other portions of the offense. On the other hand, if they’ve run it four to five times every game, that’s another story all together. Is it part of their base offense, or is it gadget play they pull out of their sleeve when they don’t have any other way to move the ball?


4. How many different types of empty sets do they have?

Do they run the same formation every time, or are there different empty formations? What personnel do they run it out of? Is it the same every time? Do they have the ability to motion and/or shift to different formations out of their empty sets? Do they tip off their intentions with receiver splits, alignments, or other specific details from each formation? If they run multiple empty sets, what are the formational strengths of each one?

5. How do they prefer to end up in empty sets?

Do they just line up in it? Do they motion to it? Do they shift to it? Lining up in a single back formation and then motioning to empty means that you will likely have less time to make an empty check if you’ve put one in the game plan that week. On the other hand, if a team likes to line up in a lot of empty sets without motioning or shifting, they could just be scouting how you line up the first few times, and getting ready to come back to hit where they think your weak spot is. There’s also the newer style of offenses that love to look over to the sideline to check to something else. Those coaches figure that the less they motion, the clearer picture of the defense they’re going to get, and the less likely it is that they’re going to see something unexpected.

6. How are you tagging the empty sets you see?

One of the biggest mistakes coaches make when breaking down offenses is to tag all empty sets the same. Just because there are no men in the backfield on all these different formations, does not mean that they all have the same purpose. For example, look at the illustration below:

EMPTY - 11The first formation at the top of the illustration looks pretty standard as far as empty sets go. The offense is in 11 personnel, and they can do a lot out of this set. A lot of teams just have a limited empty package, and will run different passing concepts on each side, like “stick” to the tight end side, and a bubble or slant/flat combo to the two receiver side.

Now look at the formation at the bottom. The offense is in 12 personnel with the Y and the H both just off the line of scrimmage sitting next to the tackles. The QB can now slide the protection whichever way he wants, and can even keep both blockers in if he feels like there is a ton of pressure coming his way.

Of course, this is all conjecture, since each team will have its own unique package of plays out of their empty sets, but it’s important to recognize that not all empty sets are created equal. Some formations have advantages that others don’t, and it would be a mistake to treat them the same.


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