Attacking Empty – A Case Study (Indiana vs Tennessee 2020)

MQ takes a look at the Vols defense versus Indiana’s Empty sets from this years Gator Bowl.

Having a detailed plan of attack for Empty is something all defensive coordinators need to carry when going into a game versus a Spread team. An Empty formation stresses the defense in many ways by placing three WRs to one side and aligning two the other direction. This 3×2 set “zeros” the box, meaning it forces the defense to cover down to every wide WR. Regardless, if the defense leaves a linebacker(s) in the box, the offense has created an advantageous situation where the defense must run blitz or “max” coverage to overwhelm the offensive front.

Most defenses will carry three types of schemes versus Empty: Cold, Warm, and Hot pressures. In a “Cold” pressure the defense will use line stunts to create one-on-ones for the defensive line while dropping eight (or seven if a four-down) into coverage. This type of thought process maxes out the coverage ability and bets on the front to win with games. “Warm” pressures create man blocking upfront with five-man pressures. By sending five defenders the DC has guaranteed the offensive line must account for every defender.

The man-blocking creates one-on-ones for the defenders. Win one of those and the defense can get to the QB. Coverage wise, the defense can either run man to the pressure and zone away or run single-high coverages with no “Rat” or hole player in the middle (This is Cover 0 in Saban). Finally, “Hot” pressures sound exactly like their name, the defense is sending the maximum number of defenders, creating a man free somewhere along the line. Blitz coverage (or man) is ran behind it with the assumption that the ball is coming out HOT!

When defending a team the runs a good amount of Empty, a DC must understand what the offense is trying to do out of the formation conceptually, but more importantly, how are they protecting with the offensive line. Max pressure will almost always trigger slide protection. Offenses can slide either way, usually to the best pass rusher. This ensures that the one player is free off the edge (below). By knowing this, the secondary can tighten up and trigger on short routes. Any long developing route will lead to pressure. Pressing in this situation is probably not the best because the offense can hit a quick-strike Fade route with no help deep. Better play off-man or Bail (look like press then work deep).

Hot Pressure (Slide)

Coverage is determined by the routes favored by the OC. If the offense uses a vertical passing game or likes to run the ball with the QB, it is best to have a two-high shell. The split-field look allows the defense to “cap” (cover deep) the WRs closest to the box. Split-field coverage also allows the defense to inhibit running QB’s by allowing a Safety to replace an overhang in case of a QB run. Split-field defenses that base from a four-down must turn from zone-match to man-match versus Empty because there is no “Rat” in the middle. The overhangs on either side of the box must carry crossers.

When offenses use crossing routes from Empty, the defense can spin to single-high and flood the middle of the field (MOF) with defenders. This closes the MOF from vertical routes and constricts the space under ten yards. By doing this, defenders can cut-off crossers and limit access to the MOF. Either single-high or split-field is a great way to defend Empty, a DC just needs to know how the OC is using this formation to attack his defense.

Manipulating the Protection

Though Empty stresses the defense with five vertical threats, it leaves the offense open to attack. Understanding how to manipulate the protection is key to attacking Spread formations, regardless if they are aligned in Empty or single-back looks. Simulated pressures and “safer” five-man pressures have become the most common way of attacking Empty. Simulated pressures show blitz only to drop out defenders and rushing four defenders. Five-man pressures are safer than max pressures because the defense can still hold zone principles away from the pressure side.

One way DCs stress the box and manipulate the protection is by using five-man fronts as shown below. This particular front is an extension of the Tite Front that has become the norm in many areas of the country in regards to defending the Spread. This particular front uses Bear Front principles and places a defender on each offensive lineman. Thus creating man protection. Add in stunts, drop-outs, and blitzes from depth, and the defense can play with the protection and overwhelm the offensive line, regardless of protection (Slide or Man).

Create Man Blocking.png

In the previous image, a Bear Mug Front was shown. This is similar to a four-downs Double “A” pressure look where the two ILBs step up into the “A” gaps. This adds a sixth man into the box and forces the offense into slide protection. Most offenses have rules for where they slide. Once a DC figures this out, he can then manipulate it and create Sims and five-man pressures to maximize the rush and coverage. The goal of attacking Empty is to create a two-on-one advantage to create a free hitter while maximizing coverage since all the WRs are out of the box. MQ reviews the 2020 Gator Bowl and how Tennessee attacked Indiana’s Empty package. The three best are discussed below.

Attacking Empty

Many times in Empty, the offense will choose to run Slide protection. As shown above, Slide is a zone concept where all the O-linemen steps in a direction. The QB must understand which way the protection is headed so he knows where the open spot in protection is located. The QB has to understand in slide protection, the deficiency is on the edge. Most “hot” routes or blitz optioned routes are located near the box so the QB can dump the ball off quickly because an edge rusher has immediate access to the QB.

Defensive coaches need to find out if the offense sets the protection to a certain direction, the pass strength, or by numbers. To design pressures that will hit home, it is important to understand how the offense sets its pass protection. One way to manipulate the slide protection is to create overload fronts that force the offense to slide in one direction. The clip below illustrates how an overloaded front can be paired with a simulated pressure to create numbers for the defense.

Tennesse uses a variety of packages on 3rd Down, getting the best coverage and rush players on the field at the same time. Above, there are two DEs and three LBs paired with six DBs. The front is a simple overload alignment. In an overload alignment, the defense puts more guys to one side than there are linemen. In this particular alignment, there are four defenders on one side of the Center. This forces the offense to slide the protection this way. Defensively this opens the offense up to simulated pressures or a 1-on-1 with their best rusher to the away side. If a defender has a dominant pass rusher, then overload fronts can be a quick way to attack a weak tackle.

The pressure above uses the front to get Indiana to slide the protection to the three WR side. Tennesse drops the Mac and $-backer (Will) while inserting the boundary CB and Safety as rushers. The inserting DBs are coming from non-traditional rushing spots and away from the slide. If the Hoosiers were to run a slide with a “locked” tackle the defense still has a two-on-one advantage. The crashing DE pins the tackle and two defenders are free off the edge (below). Away from the pressure, the edge rusher must create a wall and force the QB back to the blitzers. Don’t overlook the fact that not all rushers need to make it to the QB. Some are just there to occupy the O-lines eyes. Below, three D-linemen occupy five.

[INDvTEN] 01-2 5-man Trap 2 (X Wheaties)

The Vols paired a Trap 2 concept behind their five-man pressure. The drop out by the $-backer kills the quick snag and the to the boundary, the Di sits in and reads the QB’s eyes Mike flashes to the Slant window to the boundary. The key is to kill anything breaking inside. The rush compromises the pass protection and negates a deep throw. The QB steps up and the result is a sack.

Simulated pressures are designed to manipulate protections to get a free hitter on the QB. The key to these pressures is that the coverage aspect is the same as if the defense was playing a base defense. The defense shows a blitz with players near the line of scrimmage (LOS), only to drop out, insert, and keep a seven-man distribution. Simulated pressures mean just that, simulate a blitz only to creat pressure by overloading an offensive player.

The Vols start the down with five defenders on the LOS. This forces man blocking by the Hoosiers O-line. The addition of the Ni gives the illusion of a max blitz. It is a max pressure look because the offense can only have five eligible WRs, the defense has an extra man because of the QB. This extra man is who the QB must watch to throw “hot.” Below, the Hoosiers stay with man blocking and no one picks up the Ni looping into the “B” gap. #57 doesn’t even see the Ni knife in.

To the naked eye, this might look like slide protection with a locked tackle. This is really man blocking. The guard tracks the DE inside, even when the Mike and Will drop out. The pre-snap alignment put Indiana in man blocking. The Ni comes down to the LOS late. There is no communication (maybe they thought he’d drop out). The result is a free hitter on the QB, yet the Vols only rushed four. This is a simple way to attack an Empty formation without selling out on the blitz.

The Field DE rushes upfield to take the tackle with him. If the OT slides down (Ni pick-up), the DE will rush to the up-field shoulder of the QB. Regardless, the defense has a man advantage. The looping 3 tech. occupies the interior lineman and the boundary DE sets the edge. The end result is the guard taking the 3 tech., the tackle kicking for the field DE and no one home for the Ni. By placing five men on the LOS pre-snap, the Vols dictated the protection, then attacked the tackle with a two-on-one.

[INDvTEN] 02-2 Trap 2 Sim (Stride)

Tampa 2 has become a common coverage behind simulated pressures because offenses have to assume that the defense is going to bring everyone. When running simulated pressures it is important to heat the offense up every once in a while to keep the O-line honest. Trap 2 keeps defenders in the seams and flats to counter any quick throw from the QB. If something were to leak out, the deep safeties and the “pole-running” middle of the field (MOF) player can cap any vertical. The illustration above shows how the defense contained the short throws forcing the QB to eat the ball.

Tennesse uses its Even Front (or four-down with two 3 tech.’s) to get into a five-man look to create man protection. The 505 Mug Front and its cousins tend to be the favorite on 3rd Down because defenses get into their three-down package, but on-base down when teams go Empty from 11 pers., the defense needs a way to still attack the formation. On a base down (1st or 2nd), if a team rolls out a TE, the defense might keep their four-down defense on the field. Once the offense lines up in Empty, the DC can use a mugged Mike on the Center to get to a five-man line.

The clip below is a clever way to get a man free off the edge. The Even Front places a DE and DT in one-on-one positions with their respective O-linemen. The Vols Mike works down towards the Center to create the five-man look. Again, forcing man-blocking. At the snap of the ball, the D-linemen to the field run a Pirate stunt. A Pirate stunt is when the 5 tech. and 3 tech. stunt into the next gap over. Both D-linemen “pin” the O-linemen away from them. This creates a reduced edge.

One thing that defenses are doing from these five-man fronts is to loop an edge defender inside, or vice versa and send someone inside to the contain. Once the ball is snapped, other defenders “pin” linemen so they can’t track the loop while occupying their respective linemen. In the clip, the Pirate stunt brings the guard and tackle down towards the Center. No one picks up the Mike off the edge. Simple and effective.

[INDvTEN] 03-2 5-man Edge (Even RAC Pirate)

In the back-end, the defense is running Saban’s “0” coverage with a “Low-Hi” call to the two WR side. In the Saban universe, “0” means there is no Rat in the middle. In a Low-High, the Will takes the seam but will break on anything short (similar to a typical Cover 3 concept). With five defenders rushing the passer, there is no one left over to cut crossers. To the two WR side, the boundary CB and Will play a high-low concept. The Trips side can either be man-matched (think Stump/Special but no middle hole player) or straight man. The boundary Safety (BS) works to the MOF to top any vertical threat.


I was once told by a coach that the NFL was a protection league. Most of the time on defense spent game planning was build around dictating pass protections and targeting linemen who could be manipulated. Personnel was dictated by the talent on the opposing side. The NFL is a “matchup” league in many cases. Players line up opposite a determined man they are in charge of. Pressure packages are designed to defend certain personnel and to attack pass protections.

As you go further down in level, the protection schemes get less complicated. That can be an advantage for a smart defensive coach that takes the time to track protection schemes and how often the RB is used. At the high school level, it is hard to determine what teams will do consistently because, well, they are 15-16-17-year olds. Sometimes they do crazy things! That being said, a good DC can get a feel for how an OC is trying to protect in passing situations. At the collegiate level, there is a much clearer picture, which is why Sim Pressures and other types of schematic packages can be developed by studying specific protections.

Overall, it is important to understand how a team is protecting themselves, especially when they go Empty. With only five linemen in the box to protect, the defense can use tendency and protection to attack it. The popularity of Sim Pressures mirrors the growth of Fire Zones in the ’80s and ’90s (they’ve never really gone away). Creepers, or blitzes that use blitzers from depth, are another favorite way to attack Empty especially from a five-man alignment from the defense.

In each one of the examples above, Tennessee used five defenders to force man blocking or slide protection. From there, the defense attacked according to what they were going to see. Each look was different, and that is the key. Be multiple, yet simple. There is nothing “exotic” about any of the pressures diagramed. The root of each is in most defensive playbooks and the coverage is determined by the tendency of the offense. It just takes a little imagination from the defensive staff to create Sims or five-man pressures from blitzes they already carry. You are only limited by what you can teach.


© 2020 | Cody Alexander | All rights reserved.

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Author: MatchQuarters


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