NFL News & Analysis

Lamar Jackson is deviating from empty formation norms — and succeeding

This article was supposed to be a study on Drew Brees and Tom Brady. A puff piece about how precise the two quarterbacks are. An excuse for me to wax poetic about footwork and ball placement and all the ways we praise the older generation of quarterbacks. But then I watched Lamar Jackson, and everything changed. It’s not very brave of me to say the 2019 NFL MVP is really good, but I’m going to anyway. Lamar Jackson is really, really good. He also might be changing the way NFL offenses play in empty formations.

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Let’s start from the beginning. A trend you may have noticed when watching football is how many “empty” formations teams are getting into on offense. As the spread revolution finds new avenues to express itself, removing the running back from his comfy position next to the quarterback looks to be one of the final frontiers to cross.

I recently wrote about the rise of trips formations in the NFL. The formation was used on only 25% of passing plays in 2006 compared to 43% of the time last season. The fullback has left the field, often replaced by a slot receiver. In a way, trips with speed on the field helped kill the Tampa 2 defense played throughout the 2000s.

Trips Formation

The next step is to move that last remaining bastion of “WHEN FOOTBALL WAS PLAYED BY REAL MEN” into another receiver position.

Empty Formation

As the usage of trips formations has increased, so has that of empty 3×2 formations:

Increase of Empty Formations | 2006-2019

One of the main reasons teams have shifted to this is because the defense has a harder time playing with disguise against a more spread-out offense. There are fewer people milling around the same area. Offenses force these defenses to show their hand quicker pre-snap. While the offense doesn’t have the sixth or seventh man in protection to aid the offensive line, it might be easier for the quarterback to figure out who is blitzing and then throw hot off him or just change the protection to suit what he’s seeing.

There were 12,832 pass plays out of 3×2 formations over the past five seasons, and teams blitzed on only 22% of those snaps. Out of every other passing formation, the blitz rate has been 30%. Offenses have an idea that the defense will check and play coverage when a team goes empty.

Furthermore, 80% of all 3×2 snaps are played against four defensive linemen, 82% of the snaps are played without a safety rotation, and 55% of the empty snaps come against a one-high coverage (Cover 3 or Cover 1) while the rest come against the two-high packages like Cover 2 and quarters. There is a high probability that an offense will be presented with one of these two looks if it lines up in empty:

One-High Coverage

Or this one:

Two-High Coverage

What you get pre-snap is what you get post-snap.

Offenses are still not going to take many chances throwing downfield in empty formations. Although the offense isn’t getting blitzed, if a defensive lineman leaks through, there is no second-level blocker — such as a running back — to pick him up. Offenses tend to throw quicker. Here is the yearly difference between average time to throw on 3×2 sets versus non-3×2 sets:

Year Avg. Time to Throw, Empty Avg. Time to Throw, Non-Empty
2019 2.57 2.79
2018 2.49 2.74
2017 2.46 2.73
2016 2.49 2.67
2015 2.40 2.69

The best quick-game throwers of the past five seasons are Tom Brady and Drew Brees, and this plays out in 3×2 formations as well. The 2016 New England Patriots were the best 3×2 team from an EPA/play perspective over the past five seasons with at least 50 snaps. The 2015 and 2018 New Orleans Saints teams slot into the top six, too.

While there is conceptual overlap between what the Saints and Patriots run, there is a notable difference where they try to attack with their most common play. With all the space between individual defenders that 3×2 formations create, short option routes become imperative when throwing. The difference between the two teams is where they line up the option runner. For the Saints, it’s to the two-receiver side. For the Patriots, it’s to the three-receiver side.

Weakside Option

The read for the quarterback is simple. If the Mike linebacker works to the three-receiver side, there is room on the backside for the option route. If the Mike stays backside, the quarterback can throw the stick concept. With Brees’ accuracy, he can usually fit the ball into the option route even if the Mike doesn’t really move much.

The option runner has three choices. If the defense plays off, he sits down in the zone after a few steps:

If the defender on top of him shades him with outside leverage, the option runner breaks in on a slant (this is where the big plays hit):

Finally, if the defender shades the option runner with inside leverage, he runs a speed out (this is the most common path):

Here is a compilation I made of the Saints running this:

Strongside Option

For the Patriots, they surround their option runner with clear-out seam routes and let the receiver work one-on-one against a Mike linebacker. Julian Edelman has been their main option runner since Wes Welker departed. The idea is similar to the weakside option route, but the receiver has to work on an angle at departure to meet the linebacker.

He can sit:

He can break out if he’s matched inside:

Or he can keep coming inside if he's able to shake the linebacker:

Again, here is a compilation of the Patriots running this concept:

The Future

This piece was supposed to end sometime around here. Teams get a pre-snap understanding when they go empty. They throw it short. They throw it to option runners. That’s it. However, to my surprise, right behind the 2016 Patriots in EPA/play were the 2019 Baltimore Ravens.

Eschewing the idea that you must throw short in empty, Lamar Jackson’s average depth of target was 11.8, ranking fourth-highest over the past five seasons. The Ravens were able to throw the ball deeper downfield because Jackson’s legs act as the offense's short target. The old pocket passers need an option if they are blitzed. These weakside and strongside option routes are perfect against the blitz. See the blitz, throw it, get 7 yards and move on with your life. The Ravens are able to beat the blitz and any other rushers with Jackson’s movement skills.

This ability allowed the Ravens to run a rare pass concept: the elusive five verts concept.

Five Verts

Four verts is a great play against Cover 3. If you have three deep defenders, send four verticals routes deep. Defenses counter by playing Cover 4/quarters. This is the punch-counterpunch that teams live in week to week. Four verts allows an offense to have a checkdown component. Even the Saints run four verts in empty, but it's often to still just throw a shallow route. This is wired in coaches' brains. Every concept must have a checkdown.

When the Ravens run their five verts concept, they can squash the coverage meant to delete four verts.

When the two safeties split to cover the No. 2 receivers on either side of the ball, the No. 3 receiver runs right through them down the pipe into the void in the middle of the field.

Its beauty speaks for itself. The Mike linebacker would often pick up the “pipe runner” in man coverage, but Jackson was stunning in his ability to fit the ball around that player and away from the safeties.

It’s really just not fair. Against zone, the Ravens will just send more guys deep than the defense has. If a defense plays man and the defenders turn their backs, Lamar just takes off.

Both of those scrambles are on the five verts play.

Between Lamar Jackson in Baltimore and Patrick Mahomes in Kansas City, their abilities to extend plays is changing the way the “empty” game is played. We will no doubt continue to see a rise in the use of this 3×2 formation in the years to come. As more teams line up in this formation, we may even see an increase of designed runs from the formation. Last year, only the Pittsburgh Steelers attempted double-digit runs from empty (10). The future of football might involve bringing big bodies on the field to take downfield play-action shots while also spreading the defense thin to the extreme and playing in those spaces created.

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