If not for the Steelers Defense generating 4 key turnovers and a touchdown of its own against the Ravens, Pittsburgh’s offense would not have done enough to pull off the victory. That said, Ben Roethlisberger and the offense were able to take advantage of the opportunities they were provided, largely due to their successful usage of empty formations.
The Steelers had nothing going on offense through the first 2 quarters, generating just 64 total yards. In the second half, however, Steelers Offensive Coordinator Randy Fichtner took a different approach. After only using empty formations on 3 of 21 snaps (14.3%) in the first half, Fichtner became more aggressive, using them on 20 of 32 snaps (62.5%) for the rest of the game.
The contrast in results was eye opening. Out of empty sets, Ben Roethlisberger was 18-20 for 162 yards and 2 touchdowns. The Steelers were also able to draw two important pass interference penalties totaling 40 yards. When Pittsburgh did not utilize empty formations, Big Ben was just 3-12 for 20 yards (with one PI for 15 yards).
Why is an empty formation so effective for an offense? There are multiple reasons, many of which were on display for Pittsburgh against Baltimore. One reason is that it spreads out the defense, making it harder to disguise coverages and pressure schemes. This makes it easier for the quarterback to understand what he is seeing.
Another significant benefit is that it gives the quarterback more options than the conventional 1-back sets. It combines the benefits of 2×2 and 3×1 formations. For instance, out of 2×2 sets, the offense can run route combinations to both sides against more evenly distributed defensive looks, and the quarterback can take the best combination to beat the coverage. 3×1 sets provide the ability to attack with 3-man route combinations to one side, which are often difficult to defend. Both of these benefits exist to the offense in empty 3×2 formations.
In addition, when defenses play zone against 3×1 formations, they will often push coverage to the 3-receiver side and lock up on the backside if they have a good man-coverage cornerback. Against empty 3×2 formations, defenses can’t do that so easily.
The Steelers’ go-ahead touchdown in the 4th quarter provides a great example of many of the advantages a 3×2 empty formation can provide. Here, the Steelers had a WR screen called on the 3-receiver side to Roethlisberger’s left and a flat-7 (flat-corner) combination to his right.
The Ravens were spread out and clearly aligned in a cover-2 look. After confirming post-snap that they would stay that way, Roethlisberger chose the flat-7, a great cover-2 beater.
The 3×2 formation forced the Ravens to have to honor route combinations to both sides. The Ravens actually ended up rushing 3 and dropping defenders out in the middle with a focus on the 3-receiver side. Unfortunately for them, the tight end stayed in. They ultimately dedicated the bulk of their coverage (5 defenders) to the side that had 1 receiver running a route. That left the backside to be played straight up. Ben clearly understood what he was seeing and which defender would be put in conflict on the backside (the cornerback). He moved him to the flat with a little shoulder-roll/pumpfake to create an opening for the corner route. Then he delivered a seed.
As you could see on this touchdown, empty formations can keep defenses honest and enable the offense to dictate coverage. They can force defenses into pushing coverage to one side, but then have the bulk of their routes go to the other side. It’s very often a numbers game, as so much of football is.
We’ve seen the Steelers attack in many more ways out of empty throughout the season, with vertical routes from the inside putting defenders in precarious positions. This has led to some big plays. Against the Ravens, the approach served more as a catalyst to move the chains and capitalize in the red zone. Given the playmakers they now have at receiver, I expect we’ll continue to see the Steelers have lots of success utilizing this empty approach.
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