The Empty Backfield Set: Analysis of Risks & Rewards

"Damn Bruce Arians and his #$%&%$# empty backfield sets!"

"%#$!  Ben sacked again out of that empty backfield set!  Why the hell is BA always using that formation!  He's going to get Ben killed!"

Although a member only since October, I've been a reader of BTSC for about a year and a half, and if I had a dollar for every time someone expressed the above-mentioned sentiments during live game threads or in other posts, I'll probably be watching games on a much larger TV screen. 

As readers of my first two posts know by now, I'm a numbers person, and I've been compiling an Excel database of every single one of our offensive plays since Game 5.  Well, the database now includes all the snaps up to and including the recent victory over the Panthers: that's 718 plays so far over the course of 11 games.  It considers the info in the NFL's Game Books; the Offensive Participation charts published on Steeler Depot; plus my own observations.

I began to wonder about the empty backfield.  Are we really using the empty backfield set "excessively?"  When we do use it, how often exactly does it end in disaster (sacks and/or other ref-sanctioned assaults on Big Ben and/or turnovers)?  Are we using it in, shall we say, inappropriate circumstances? 

Now those are questions that can be answered (or at least analyzed) with the help of a database!

How often do we use the empty backfield set, anyway?

Here's our basic data to keep in mind (again, from Games 5 to 15):

·         Of the 718 plays, 318 were runs (44%); Ben passed 368 times and was sacked 32 times, which gives us 56% for the pass plays.  Well, actually Ben passed 367 times. Randel El had one against the Bengals, which we'll mention a little further down.

·         We used the empty backfield set 64 times, which is equivalent to 9.0% of our total snaps.

·         Of these 64 plays, Ben was under center only 3 times; he operated out of the shotgun the rest of the time.

·         On 22 of the plays, we had 4 WRs in; in the remaining 42 we had 5 WRs (this includes RBs, such as Mewelde Moore, who lined up as a receiver, usually on one of the far sides of the field).

·         Ben passed 55 times; ran 5 times (for a total pick-up of 52 yards); and was sacked on 4 occasions (for a total loss of 18 yards).

·         It should probably be pointed out that 13 of those 64 empty backfield snaps came against the Jets.  And 8 of those plays came during the very last drive, when we started at our own 8 yard line and had to score a TD to win.  I'm going to go out on a limb and suppose that there aren't too many BTSC readers who will begrudge BA and Ben's use of the 5 WR set during that situation.  So one drive was responsible for 13% of the empty backfield plays that we ran during a span of eleven games.

So, let's summarize so far.  We've only used this set on 9.0% of our plays.  And the percentage would have been even smaller if it weren't for the statistical impact of one valiant, but ultimately doomed, drive against the Jets.  Ladies and gentlemen, it does not seem to me that we have been using the formation excessively.

Okay, maybe we don't use it too much after all.  But what happens when we do use it?  The results haven't been very good, right?

Of course, even if we use it only 9.0% of the time, we would have to agree that the empty backfield set is not a good formation to be using if the results are just plain bad.  But "bad" is a relative and somewhat loaded term, so It seems to me that we need to put the results in context.  Let's leave aside for the moment the 5 plays which have to be classified as running plays (all of which involved Big Ben).  That leaves us with 59 snaps (55 passes + 4 sacks) out of the empty backfield formation.  Now let's get rid of the one play in which Ben spiked the ball out of the empty backfield (it happened against the Panthers during the last minute or two of the 1st half).  So that leaves us with 58 plays.

Let's compare the results of this set to all the rest of the plays in which Ben dropped back to pass when we had at least one person in the backfield, and we'll eliminate the spikes in this case, too.  That happened in 335 cases.

(Actually, 334 cases, since on one of those pass plays in Game 8 vs the Bengals ARE82 lofted a TD bomb to Mike Wallace.  But let's leave that play in our sample, since we're evaluating the relative effectiveness of formations here.)

I figured that it would be useful to compare how many snaps we ran and obtained the following "events" or "outcomes:" completions; sacks; interceptions; 1st downs; and TDs.  We should consider yards gained, too.

 Admittedly, there is one "event" that I wish that I had kept track of (or could find detailed play-by-play statistics on): QB pressures or knock-downs of Big Ben by the defense.  Maybe someone will be able to help me there because I didn't keep or find stats on that.  It's conceivable that Ben gets hit more or pressured more in one of the two scenarios (Empty Backfield vs. All Other sets).  But that's one outcome I can't measure right now.

But anyway, here's the first table:

  Snaps Passes Compl-
Sacks INT Yards 1st
Empty 58 54 34 4 1 402 22 3
All Others 335 307 193 28 4 2.558 115 13
Totals 393 361 227 32 5 2.960 137 16

One note: recall that ARE82 threw one of those TDs in the All Others category.  (Ben had thrown for 15 so far this year.)

It's hard to compare absolute numbers;  after all, of the 393 snaps analyzed, 85% are in the All Others category.  Let's look at this in terms of percentages, shall we?

  % Compl. % Sacks % INT % 1st D. % TD YDS / Attempt YDS / Compl.
Empty 63,0% 6,9% 1,7% 37,9% 5,2% 7,44 11,82
All Others 62,9% 8,4% 1,2% 34,3% 3,9% 8,33 13,25
Totals 62,9% 8,1% 1,3% 34,9% 4,1% 8,20 13,04


Well, well, well.  Isn't this curious?  There is literally no difference in Ben's completion percentage.  He actually gets sacked slightly more often when there's someone in the backfield with him.  The interception figures are very similar (thankfully, low in both scenarios).  We actually have gotten more first downs and TDs (proportionally speaking, of course), out of the infamous empty backfield set. 

Statistically speaking, it doesn't look as if the Empty set is at a disadvantage compared to All Others.

What about the Big Play?

One area in which the non-empty backfield set seems superior is in terms of yards per attempt and yards per completion. 

  • During the 11 games analyzed, we had 5 completions of between 20 and 29 yards (all of them out of a 5 WR / 0 backfield set), but nothing greater than 29 yards.
  • We had 43 completions of 20 yards or more in the other formations, with the longest gain being the 53 yard TD bomb Ben threw to Mike Wallace in the 2nd quarter of the Miami game.

So here we do find an area in which the All Other sets have a distinct advantage over the empty set: the big play (i.e. passes of 20 yards or more).  The Empty sets produced a "big play" only 9.2% of the time, whereas All Other sets led to a big play 14.0% of the time.  That explains why the YDS / Attempt and YDS / Completion figures in the second table gave the advantage to All Others.  That could be the product of Ben having more time, which in turn gives the receivers more time to complete their routes. 

Well, doesn't Ben have to run for his life more frequently out of the Emtpy backfield sets?

He ran from the Empty backfield set on 5 occasions.  That's 7.8% of the time that we've use it (remember, there were 64 in total).  However, on one of those plays, Ben didn't run because of a breakdown in pass protection.  It happened against the Bengals (Game 13) in the second quarter, offensive play N° 27, at the Bengal 18 yard line with less than a minute to go until halftime.  Pouncey's snap was so high that Ben had to leap for it to pull it down and after coming down with the ball Ben just took off (picking up a first down).  So perhaps the "Ben-Ran-For-His-Life" percentage is really only 4/64 = 6.3% out of the Empty set.

During the All Other sets, the official stats show 29 "runs," but 10 of those were kneels and two were sneak attempts at the goal line, so Ben was only running for dear life, so to speak, 13 times (I suspect that on one of those 13 he actually had the option to run and took that option, but I'm not 100% sure).  That comes out to about 2.0% of the time in what I'll call "adjusted All Other sets", or 13 / 642 snaps.

So Ben is more prone to have to scamper to safety out of the Empty set.  The percentage is still relatively low (6.3%), but that's still three times more likely.  So now let's combine the sacks and the times that Ben has to run for safety, since those are all situations where the play breaks down, one way or another.

  • Empty: 6.3% (Ben flees) + 6.9% (Ben sacked) = 13.2%.
  • All Others: 2.0% (Ben flees) + 8.4% (Ben sacked) = 10.4%.

Placed in this context, the Empty backfield set is a bit more danger-prone... The difference is only 2.8%, so Empty is not catastrophically more dangerous compared to All Others.  But the risk is a little higher.

When have we used the Empty Backfield set? 

Lastly, let's see when we are using the Empty set in terms of down and yards to go for the 1st.  After all, if it turns out that we are using it on 2nd and 1, for example, it would be easy enough to understand why the package seems to bother so many members of our great Nation.  I mean, if that were the case, why not play it safer and pound the rock for a yard or two?

So here's our last chart, a matrix that shows both variables:

Distance for 1st Down in Yards
Down 1 to 3 4 to 6 7 to 9 10 or + Total Plays % Plays
1st 0 0 0 14 14 21,9%
2nd 0 1 4 15 20 31,3%
3rd 6 10 6 8 30 46,9%
4th 0 0 0 0 0 0,0%
Total Plays 6 11 10 37 64 100,0%
% Plays 9,4% 17,2% 15,6% 57,8% 100,0%
  • We've never tried it on 4th down.
  • We've also never tried it when there was only a yard to go.
  • Our conversion rate on those 6 instances of using the Empty set when we needed 2 to 3 yards was 50%.
  • We can see that in terms of distance it has been called the most when we have needed 10 yards or more for the first down (58%); in terms of down it's been most used on 3rd (47%).
  • And in terms of overall use, it was employed the most on 2nd down with 10 or more yards to go (15 times or 23%), followed closely by its use on 1st with 10 or more yards to go (22%).
  • One last statistical observation: of those 29 instances of using the Empty set on 1st or 2nd down with at least 10 yards to go, the majority of the time it was a 1st and 10 or a 2nd and 10 situation.

My analysis shows that when we are at least 15 yards away from the first down, regardless of situation, we are much more likely to use a set in which there is one RB in the backfield who lines up next to Ben, and either blocks or is used as a check-down target.  But that's something that we can analyze on another day.

I'm sure that I must be earning a reputation for long-windedness and I apologize if I have tried anyone's patience, but as you can see, there were a lot of variables to consider.

But I hope that after all this we all have a better understanding of the risks and rewards of that $%&# Empty backfield set that BA calls every once and a while...

Signing off.

PS: Tried to insert some screen images that I saved... couldn't figure it out.  How DO you insert images that are saved on your own desktop?  (It's probably incredibly easy and I will be embarrased by the answer, but...)

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