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The Steelers ‘empty set’ offense, and what it may mean for the Vikings in Week 2

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Taking a look at some statistics from Week 1 and seeing if it’s predictive of what fans can expect in Week 2.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Cleveland Browns Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Can the past predict the future? There are plenty of people who will argue different sides of that philosophical discussion but, when the subject is football, sometimes past performances shine a light on what is to come.

Welcome to the ‘Stat Geek’ article.

Before anyone thinks I’m the stat geek, think again. Not that there’s anything wrong with people who love statistics, it’s simply a name I chose for this feature. Nevertheless, BTSC writer, podcast co-host and football fanatic 58Steel loves breaking down film and decided to put those statistics to good use.

In this first article of the ‘Stat Geek,’ he breaks down the Pittsburgh Steelers’ usage of the ‘empty set’ offensive formation in Week 1 against the Cleveland Browns. Then we ask whether this trend will continue in Week 2 vs. the Minnesota Vikings.

Now to the stats:

  • Steelers ran 14 plays from an empty set, including 11 times during the first half.
  • The plays accounted for 12 pass attempts, nine completions for 110 yards, five first downs, 1 TD, 1 sack (-8 yards) and 1 holding penalty.
  • For the plays the Steelers ran without Bell on the field, there were nine plays accounting for nine pass attempts, eight completions for 108 yards and five first downs. Antonio Brown accounted for five of those catches for 99 yards.

So:

  • Plays from empty set: 14 plays, 104 yards, 7.43 yards/play. First down every 2.8 plays. TD every 14 plays
  • Plays from empty WITHOUT BELL: nine plays, 108 yards. 12.0 yards/play. first down every 1.8 plays
  • Remaining 43 plays not run from empty set: 186 yards. 4.33 yards/play. First down every 3.9 plays. TD every 43 plays

When looking at the numbers, you can see the empty set worked. Fans might have hated it, but it worked. Sure, there weren’t as many plays run in the empty set compared to other offensive sets, but the Steelers averaged over 3-yards more per play when they spread the defense out.

I think it’s safe to say Le’Veon Bell won’t be on the sideline for nine plays on Sunday. If he is, I’d be stunned. But I don’t think his presence on the field will hinder their use of the spread/empty sets.

The question now is, was this a one-week thing or is this actually how the Steelers plan to attack almost every defense they face? The Vikings defense certainly is an entirely different beast than the Browns. They’ll likely bring a different approach which could dictate what the Steelers will do offensively. But Ben Roethlisberger spoke at length about how the empty sets won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.

So, are the empty sets the new normal in Pittsburgh? What’s your take?