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Running On Empty: How the Steelers use empty formations to supplement their rushing attack

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Analyzing how the Pittsburgh Steelers utilize ‘empty’ formations on offense, and how it impacts the running game.

NFL: New England Patriots at Pittsburgh Steelers Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

Those of you who remember the music of Jackson Browne are probably familiar with his 1977 hit “Running On Empty.” For those too young to have heard it in its heyday, you might recognize it as the theme song for the epic running montage in the movie “Forrest Gump.” And for those of you who don’t know “Forrest Gump,” shame on you. It’s an American cinema classic. Watch it, you commies.

I like “Running On Empty,” It’s a catchy tune. You know what I like better? Creative offensive football. It is with all due respect to Mr. Browne, then, that I mention his song not as an homage to his music career but as a prelude to writing about Randy Fichtner’s use of Empty formations to augment the Steelers run game.

Fichtner displayed a knack for intriguing play designs in his first season as offensive coordinator in Pittsburgh. He split Vance McDonald wide to get him matched up against corners. He ran a misdirection concept that saw the QB toss the ball to a running back in one direction only to have him pivot and counter back the opposite way. And, in a truly inspired series of plays, he devised quick passes out of Empty sets that functioned as de facto run plays to supplement the Steelers rushing attack. Running on Empty, indeed.

As discussed recently in our Offensive Glossary, Empty is a formation, not a personnel grouping. It can be utilized with any combination of players on the field - from five receivers to two back, two tight end (22) sets. “Empty” simply means there is no back in the backfield. All five eligible receivers are assembled at the line of scrimmage in some fashion.

The conventional thinking behind the use of Empty is that, with five receivers in the pattern, the odds are pretty good one will come open and the quarterback will find him. Empty comes with risks, of course. With no back to help with pass protection, there is greater pressure on offensive linemen, especially when defenses bring the blitz. Restrictions on contacting receivers, however, have reduced the ability of defensive backs to play physically, leading to softer coverage and clean releases. Combined with how rarely pro quarterbacks run the football, Empty is used overwhelmingly as a passing formation in the NFL.

Empty can be a great run set, however. Teams at the lower levels of football run from it frequently. With athletic quarterbacks throughout high school and college, Empty is a popular run set because it removes defenders from the box and generally allows the offense to get a hat on a hat inside. Quarterback counter, power, trap, inside zone and any combination of these mixed with jet motion are common ways offenses exploit defensive alignments to Empty. With five receivers in the formation, each of whom must be accounted for, and one safety over top, a defense has just five players to defend the box. This allows the offense to go six-on-five inside if they utilize the quarterback as a runner.

The problem with this at the pro level is that teams routinely invest eight and nine figure contracts in their quarterbacks. This discourages coaches from spreading the field with receivers and running Q-Power no matter how lightly a defense loads the box. The moment a franchise QB gets concussed running the ball in the B-gap is likely the moment his coach gets fired. Is it possible, though, to reap the benefits of running from Empty without actually running the ball? Fichtner seems to think so. And he finds interesting ways to do it.

In lieu of handing the ball to a back, Fichtner uses quick screens and short throws as a substitute for traditional runs. Technically, the Steelers are still throwing the football. Realistically, they’re simulating a run.

To understand what I’m getting at, you have to revise your definition of a run play. In a recent thread on whether offenses can attain balance in their play-calling, Drop The Hammer questioned what constitutes a runs versus a pass in contemporary football. Here’s what he said:

It’s a good question. I don’t have an exact answer but I’m fairly certain that the spirit of what Fichtner does with his screen and quick game out of Empty is more run than pass oriented.

Take our week 16 game in New Orleans last season. With James Conner injured, Jaylen Samuels coming off of a heavy workload the week before against New England and journeyman Stevan Ridley the next option at tailback, Fichtner needed ways to supplement the run game against an aggressive Saints defense that would tee off on Roethlisberger if he abandoned it. To do this, Fichtner got creative with his use of Empty.

On the Steelers second drive of the game, he used a true five receiver personnel group consisting of Antonio Brown, Juju Smith-Schuster, James Washington, Ryan Switzer and Eli Rogers. Fichtner ran seven consecutive “pass” plays out of various Empty formations with this group (on one play, Switzer motioned into the backfield and Roethlisberger threw him a swing pass). The Steelers completed six throws for 20 yards and Roethlisberger scrambled once for a gain of five. The longest pass on the drive traveled six yards in the air and three of the throws were caught either at or behind the line of scrimmage. The Steelers averaged 3.6 yards per play out of their seven plays from Empty, which is slightly below the league average for a typical rushing attempt.

Here is one of the longer completions on that drive. Roethlisberger is actually looking to throw immediately to his right to Switzer, who runs about a two-yard slide pattern into the boundary. Notice how Antonio Brown, who is stacked together with Switzer in the formation, isn’t even running a route. He’s blocking the corner because he knows the ball is coming out right away. Roethlisberger winds up pulling the ball back and throwing to Juju, who breaks his route off a whopping four yards down the field. The play goes into the books as a pass but conceptually it’s designed as a perimeter run to Switzer.

The entire drive was essentially run plays from non-run formations. By “running” out of Empty, Fichtner sought to reduce the burden on Samuels, neutralize the Saints pass rush and get the ball to the Steelers receivers quickly in space so they could run after the catch. Say what you want about the results (3.6 yards per play isn’t exactly staggering) but the intent and design were well-conceived. The drive gained enough yards to produce a successful field goal. And it forced the Saints to tighten up when the Steelers emptied the backfield, creating big-play opportunities later in the game.

Case in point: in the second quarter, the Steelers had a 3rd and 2 from their own 11 yard line. They aligned in an Empty set with a compressed Bunch formation to the right of Roethlisberger. This was an ideal set from which to run some sort of quick throw with two receivers in the bunch either picking or blocking defenders while the third worked a flat or underneath route.

This is, in fact, exactly what they do. Watch how Vance McDonald and Jaylen Samuels essentially block the defenders lined up over them while Switzer slides in behind them for what would be an easy throw and a first down (more on this concept momentarily).

Because of all of the short throws from Empty in the earlier series, however, look at how New Orleans adjusted their coverage. The Saints put ten defenders within five yards of the line of scrimmage and pressed Brown (top of the screen). Their alignment provided an opportunity to throw deep. Roethlisberger promptly accepted.

Throwing deep balls in short yardage situations is a point of contention around BTSC. It is certainly not the safe or high percentage play. But there are only so many opportunities to get true one-on-one coverage against a receiver like Brown and Fichtner had worked diligently to set this one up. He wasn’t going to waste it, and the results paid dividends.

Short yardage situations were some of Fichtner favorite scenarios to use de facto run plays out of Empty. Below we see another 3rd and 2, this one against San Diego. Fichtner brings 12 personnel onto the field (1 back and 2 tight ends) in what would typically indicate a run but he aligns them in an Empty set. Both tight ends are to the top of the formation with Juju while Samuels is in the slot to the bottom with Brown. The Bunch formation forces the Chargers to stagger their defenders, thereby creating space at the line of scrimmage. Watch what the Steelers do:

This is virtually the same concept they ran above on the deep ball to Brown. Call it a pass if you’d like. Technically, you’re correct. But with both tight ends blocking smaller defenders at the point of attack and Roethlisberger flipping the ball just a few yards to Juju, it’s as close to a perimeter run as you can get. Fichtner ran these concepts in short yardage from all areas of the field, including the one below on the goal line against Cleveland. Plays like these are now part of his short yardage repertoire.

Two questions arise when considering these plays. First, how are they legal? The one above works because the ball is thrown behind the line of scrimmage, allowing receivers to block immediately. But in the previous GIF against the Chargers, and in the one showing the deep ball to Brown, the receivers in the bunch are all clearly blocking on a downfield throw. This is the gray area where plays like these exist.

Watch the San Diego GIF again. McDonald doesn’t make contact with a defender until after Juju catches the football, so his block is fine. What about James, though? He contacts the defensive back almost immediately after his release. On replay, it’s clearly an intent to block. What does it look like live, however? As the play is happening, does it look like James is blocking or simply trying to run through a jam by the defender within five yards of the line of scrimmage? James doesn’t throw his hands up to block. Rather, he wisely keeps them at his side and lets the defender bring his first. Since defenders can contact receivers in that five yard area, how does a referee discern between a block and a jam in real time? It is exceptionally difficult to do so. Fichtner relies on that difficulty in mapping these concepts.

The second question is more philosophical. Why, in short yardage, would Fichtner throw the ball rather than run it? And why, if he is going to throw, would he empty the backfield so that everyone knows it’s a pass rather than using play-action off of a run formation to provide some deception?

The simple answer is this: in the NFL, it’s hard to make two yards running the football in short yardage situations. The league rate for converting 3rd and 2 is lower than you might expect: about 54%, according to Princeton Analytics. This is likely because, until recently, offenses tended to attack these plays with heavy personnel. Defenses matched with heavy personnel of their own and the game became a grudge match between the hashes. Reducing the amount of field on which the game is played is usually more beneficial to the defense (less area to defend). Even two yards is difficult to make when the game is played in a tightly-packed box.

As for play-action, faking the ball to the running back and dumping it to the tight end or fullback in the flat is so 1990. It’s the same reason a screen pass on 3rd and long rarely succeeds anymore. These plays have been run so many times in each situation that even bad high school defenses are prepared for them. To catch a defense unprepared, you have to hit them with something new. Like a throw-to-run concept from Empty.

Football purists may cringe at these concepts but they are consistent with how the game is evolving. Football is being played in space these days and the passing game is king. Brute force still has its place, of course. But it has been overtaken by speed, pace and spacing. Randy Fichtner’s schemes are compatible with these trends, and the addition of players like Donte Moncrief and Diontae Johnson at receiver (each of whom is dangerous in space) coupled with the failure to add an old-school blocking tight end likely signal we will see more of them in 2019.

Count me among those who see this as a good thing. What about you?