As NFL offenses continue to evolve and spread out, teams have increasingly gone to empty sets more often. The percentage of dropbacks from empty has increased across the league each year over the past five seasons, with 11.88% of dropbacks in 2016 to 14.25% during the 2020 regular season, according to Sports Info Solutions.
Rate Of Dropbacks In Empty, 2016-2020
This won’t be a trend that just stays behind in the regular season. Eight of the top-13 teams in the rate of dropbacks from empty will be in the playoffs and seven of them will play on Wild Card Weekend (the Green Bay Packers, 11th, are the exception).
Rate Of Dropbacks In Empty, 2020 Playoff Teams
How these teams handle their empty packages could be a significant factor in how Wild Card Weekend plays out because there has been a wide range of outcomes throughout the season.
No team ran a higher percentage of plays from empty than the Los Angeles Rams at 26.8%. Throughout the Sean McVay era, the Rams have used empty heavily on the plus-side of the field and have continued to up the usage in their own territory.
But for as much as McVay and the Rams have evolved much of the offense as defenses around the league started to figure it out, LA’s empty sets now fall into that problem. The Rams were 15th in positive play rate (the percentage of plays that produce positive Expected Points Added) from empty this season and 21st in EPA per dropback.
Part of this stems from how Jared Goff was able to be baited into negative plays. Four of Goff’s 13 interceptions on the season came from empty and a number of rushed throws came when the defense forced pressure.
In Week 8, the Miami Dolphins potentially set a blueprint for forcing Goff off his rhythm by sending a heavy blitz when the Rams went into empty. That shortened the time Goff could stay in the pocket and allowed corners to be aggressive on quick routes. The Dolphins also dropped unexpected defensive linemen into the middle of the field to take away the most likely throwing lanes for hot routes and that led to an interception by Christian Wilkins.
Even without the blitz, defenses were able to get the illusion of pressure and sit back and jump on routes they expected to break. That happened against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers when Goff started to feel interior pressure and released a pass to Robert Woods that safety Jordan Whitehead was able to break in on the ball for the pick.
Woods and the middle of the field was a good bet for the defense. Woods was the most targeted player in the league from empty sets per SIS. Goff threw 53.8% of his attempts from empty to the middle of the field and was significantly more successful with a 72.1% completion percentage and 8.1 yards per attempt compared to a 69.7% completion percentage and 6.6 yards per attempt to the outside.
In his lone start this season, John Wolford went 10-of-15 from empty. He had one bad interception to start the game, but had more success throwing to the outside. Eight of his throws went outside and he averaged 11.9 yards per attempt, thanks to a 27-yard pass to Woods on a slot wheel from trips and a 39-yard completion to Cam Akers down the left sideline.
Against Arizona alone, Wolford had four pass attempts over 20 air yards from empty. That total was just nine for Goff all season. Those Goff passes also rarely connect, a 33.3% on-target rate and 22.2% completion percentage per SIS. Wolford had as many deep completions (two) as Goff had all season. On top of Wolford’s rushing ability, that’s another tendency breaker for the Rams should he have to start this weekend.
The Ravens are another team that has played often from empty but doesn’t have the production behind it. Baltimore is seventh in empty dropback rate but just 30th in EPA per dropback. The Ravens fall into a similar hole as the Rams. There is one clear option in Mark Andrews (24 targets compared to 13 for Marquise Brown) and there have been few explosive plays from the alignment. Andrews has 204 yards on his 24 targets, but Brown has just 44 yards on his seven catches and 13 targets. SIS has charged him with three drops and there’s been a weakness in his game as a short middle of the field receiver.
Lamar Jackson also hasn’t been able to hit the deep ball from empty, which is something the Ravens did well enough in 2019. Last year, Jackson had 12 attempts over 20 air yards from empty and completed seven of them for 219 yards, three touchdowns, and one interception. This year, Jackson has just seven such attempts with two completions (though five throws charted as on-target) for just 62 yards.
Some teams have used empty to open up room for a quarterback run game, but that’s hasn’t been a heavy part of Baltimore’s strategy. Even when Jackson has run from empty, it hasn’t been as successful as it was last season. Jackson has just 12 attempts for 67 yards from empty this season, well below his 170 yards on 16 carries last season.
This year, the Pittsburgh Steelers have relied heavily on empty to make things easier for Ben Roethlisberger. Without much of a running game, the Steelers have used empty to spread the defense out to create more space for receivers working the short area of the field with the added benefit of allowing Roethlisberger to get a better read on the defense before the snap.
Pittsburgh has used empty at the second-highest rate behind the Rams and they average 0.07 EPA per dropback, which ranks 12th. So much of that production came in the red zone. Roethlisberger had a league-high 28 empty attempts in the red zone and that resulted in 10 touchdowns against two interceptions and just one sack. The red zone was really the only place the Steelers looked like an above-average offense, 14th in points per trip and 11th in touchdowns per trip. As the Steelers used empty to create space with spread looks, Roethlisberger had more room to throw. That helped make up for a non-existent running game in an area of the field where running is typically more valuable.
The Steelers are created some of their biggest plays on offense from empty. Roethlisberger had nine touchdown passes of 20 or more air yards in 2020 and four of them came from empty.
Pittsburgh also used empty to protect Roethlisberger from the opposing pass rush. Roethlisberger already had one of the lowest sack rates in the league and that dropped to just 1.9% on his dropbacks from empty. Without a play-action game, the Steelers had few other options to slow down the pass rush and getting Roethlisberger in shotgun with five receiving options ended up the best route of the bunch.
The Washington Football Team has done the same for Alex Smith, though even Washington’s quick passing game has not been as effective as Pittsburgh’s.
Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccanneers have nearly perfected the use of empty in the red zone. Roethlisberger was the only quarterback with more red zone empty attempts than Brady and no player had a higher touchdown rate on red zone empty attempts than Brady’s 36.4%. That also came with no interceptions.
Like Pittsburgh. Tampa Bay uses these empty alignments to create space for their playmakers and stress the defense in a condensed part of the field, as they did for this 13-yard touchdown pass to Chris Godwin against the Rams.
They also have the skill position talent to take advantage of one-on-one matchups, like they did for this Cameron Brate touchdown against the Carolina Panthers.
At its best, the Buccaneers combine the two, as they did on a 12-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Brown in Week 16 against the Detriot Lions. Brate’s vertical route as a stand-up inline tight end held the single-high safety which Brown’s false step to the outside created an opening for the break inside and a big enough window for Brady to hit.
The Titans, Bills, and Packers are all among the top-10 in EPA per dropback from empty (the Titans and Packers are Nos. 1 and 2), but don’t rely on it as often as the other teams in the playoffs.
There are a number of ways teams can use empty sets and we’ll see a ton of them throughout the playoffs.