Strategy Minicamps
How to beat your opponent with 11 living, breathing chess pieces

Play of the Day: Empty Double Slants

by Mike Tanier

The no-huddle offense prevents the defense from making substitutions and limits its ability to execute complex blitzes and coverage schemes. The empty backfield formation spreads the defense horizontally and makes it hard for defenders to disguise blitzes or coverage responsibilities. Used together, the no huddle and the empty backfield can force the defense to call conservative schemes, making it easy for a good quarterback to pick the coverage apart. This play, taken from the Colts-Titans game in Week 13, is designed to use no-huddle and empty backfield tactics to attack the defense in a non-traditional situation: third-and-short.

The best way to convert third-and-short is to run the ball, so it seems like a bad idea to take away the run threat by clearing out the backfield. This particular play, which we'll call Empty Double Slants, is designed for use in short-yardage situations between the opponent's 50 and 30-yard lines. In other words, this is a third down play for use in four-down territory. The defense must respect the possibility that the quarterback will throw a deep pass, then go for it or settle for a field goal on fourth down if the pass fails. In fact, there is a deep pass option on Empty Double Slants, but the real goal of the play is to convert a third down with an 8-10 yard completion.

Figure 1: Empty Double Slants

The situation: First quarter, no score, the Colts face third-and-1 from the Titans 43-yard line. The Colts are driving, and they have lined up without a huddle on several consecutive plays. After a two-yard run on second down, Peyton Manning waves his troops into an empty backfield formation and drops into the shotgun (Figure 1). The Colts have two running backs, two receivers, and a tight end on the field -- an unusual personnel grouping for the Colts, who rarely use two-back formations. As shown, running backs Joseph Addai and Dominic Rhodes are split left, Marvin Harrison is in the right slot with Reggie Wayne wide right, and Bryan Fletcher (subbing for injured Dallas Clark) is the tight end.

Faced with a third-and-short situation and a two-back personnel grouping, the Titans stay with their base 4-3 personnel. The Titans must adjust at the line to the empty backfield look, so the linebackers quickly fan out as shown in the figure. This gives Manning an incredibly easy pre-snap read: this appears to be a Tampa-2 coverage. Notice that middle linebacker Peter Sirmon aligns two yards further back than the other linebackers. He's the "alley" defender in the Tampa 2, and he will backpedal to cover any receiver who threatens the middle of the field.

Harrison is the primary target on this play, and all of the action takes place on the right side. Harrison and Wayne run hard slants: two steps out, plant, drive hard inside. Fletcher runs the seamer, clearing Sirmon out and threatening the safety. After taking the shotgun snap, Manning looks left, reading Sirmon and the deep safety to that side. Manning is freezing the underneath coverage; if he looks to Harrison too soon, the defender in his zone (David Thornton, a former Colts linebacker and Tampa-2 maestro) will ride Harrison through the slant and break up the pass. With Manning looking elsewhere, Thornton breaks off his coverage of Harrison and picks up Wayne. Manning turns and throws to Harrison the moment Thornton breaks his coverage.

This play should have yielded six or seven easy yards and a first down. Unfortunately, Harrison bobbled the ball, which popped into the air and landed in Sirmon's arms for an interception. Conceptually, though, the play is sound, and we aren't removing it from the playbook because of one fluke turnover.

Empty double slants is a versatile play, and the quarterback has several options if the inside slant isn't open. Against a blitz, either the outside slant (Wayne's route) or the sideline pattern to the left side (Rhodes' route) should be open. If the defense only has one or two safeties deep, the seam route to the tight end could yield a touchdown.

An offensive coordinator can get carried away with spread formations in short-yardage situations: run them too often, and defenders will start jamming receivers or jumping routes. Used as an occasional wrinkle, a no-huddle, empty-backfield pass on third-and-short will yield easy completions and yards while giving opponents one more game-planning headache.


32 comments, Last at 10 Jul 2007, 11:54pm

1 Re: Play of the Day: Empty Double Slants

Why do the NFL mandate that defense gets to match personnel with O?

It seems that the offense should be allowed to 'substitute and go' instead of having to wait for the D.

Was there some incident in a past suerbowl that caused tis?? maybe the K-gun Bills were involved?

2 Re: Play of the Day: Empty Double Slants

Great article, love these columns.

Funny how of all the amazing plays Harrison has done in his career that the one he bobbles lands him on here.

Question- Will you be breaking down defensive plays as well?

3 Re: Play of the Day: Empty Double Slants

Great article, although I'm not sold on the play. It looks like its setting Marvin Harrison up to get killed by the Mike, should he catch the pass. My elementary analysis would lead me to believe that, pending the TE is able to draw the safety away deep, maybe the better completion is to Wayne (wide right), since it looks like he will exploit the zone and should be able to slip behind the Sam into the secondary.

Is it me, or would it have been better to have Addai (wide left) run Harrison's route, line up Harrison wide right, and Wayne wide left. I just think it would make better use of their skill set. If I'm the weak side safety I'd be more scared of Wayne breaking loose behind me than Addai. This really doesn't affect the soundness of the play itself, just nit-picking the personnel.

4 Re: Play of the Day: Empty Double Slants

DR Ryan,

Why do you want to give yet another advantage to the offense? Allowing a no-huddle offense and forbidding the D to substitute at all if the O does not already gives a huge advantage to the offense (at least the offense with versatile players and athletic TE's and backs), in part because of plays exactly like this one, and in part because the offensive players KNOW what the play is supposed to be and hence the uninvolved ones don't have to exhaust themselves as much on every play, whereas the defenders all have to go all out and get tired quickly.

I would think the Tampa 2 is a bad defense to try to defend against the short yardage situation. As a defender, the offensive left with a CB and a WILL on a pair of RB's doesn't scare me. Why not roll coverage to the offensive right? Then the men on Harrison and Wayne could try to jam them off the line (see 2003 Colts-Patriots playoff game), whith the knowledge that the strong safety is behind them to in case either runs a go route, and the free safety can help the MIKE with the TE...

5 Re: Play of the Day: Empty Double Slants

Nice article. I like the fact that FO is covering interesting plays even if they're unsuccessful during execution.

6 Re: Play of the Day: Empty Double Slants

Nice read. These Strategy Minicamps are becoming a favorite.

I thought it IS possible for the defense to sub. Wasn't there a big discussion about that issue last year when the Colts played the Jets?

Harrison and Wayne run hard slants: two steps out, plant, drive hard inside

I think you mean 'two steps upfield'. 2 steps out is something else.

Also, on a blitz, why would you expect the outside receivers to be open??
I'd expect someone open in the area the blitzing linebacker (or safety) has vacated. Or that Harrison would burn Thornton.

7 Re: Play of the Day: Empty Double Slants

Re #3
I only vaguely remember this particular play, but the CB lined up over Wayne is probably Pacman, whom the Colts generally made an effort to avoid.

In principle, I agree with you about the play and the lineup. One thing to keep in mind, though, is the Titans gave the Colts a lot more problems than anyone (myself included) expected this year, and a big part of that was apparently by making Manning's reads difficult. Splitting both Wayne and Harrison to one side against a 4-3 forced the Titans to go zone and show their hand. This is probably only really a play for Fletcher or Harrison, but it could have and should have been successful.

8 Re: Play of the Day: Empty Double Slants

Okay, I know in the Tampa 2, Thornton probably felt he had to maintain his zone, and with Wayne (87) entering it he's going to break off of Harrison (88), especially if Manning's looking to the RBs... but what does the CB who WAS covering Wayne do at that point?

And I'm not sure I understand what's happening with Sirmon. Fletcher (81) runs the seamer, and the article says this has the effect of "clearing Sirmon out and threatening the safety", but then Manning's look to the left "reads" Sirmon to that side. So is he covering Fletcher? Or letting the safety cover Fletcher and moving towards the RBs, and then recovering when the pass is made in order to come up with that INT?

Maybe I'm missing something fundamental here, but why wouldn't Sirmon let the safety handle Fletcher, keep the CB on Wayne, and then move in on Harrison? I really feel like I'm missing something obvious...

10 Re: Play of the Day: Empty Double Slants

Re 8:

Sirmon has to cover fletcher in the short/intermediate until he gets deep enough for the safety to cover him. At least, I think that's what's happening.

11 Re: Play of the Day: Empty Double Slants

#7 - Thanks for the tip-off about Pacman lining up opposite Wayne. I think having a shut-down corner (or at least a guy who is heralded as such) does change things up quite a bit. Alas, he will not be a concern to Manning this season.

By the same token, having Dallas Clark @ TE instead of Fletcher may have opened up some more options. I don't know if Fletcher would really be much of a target deep in single coverage with a safety on him. I suspect Fletcher is there to pull the safety primarily and not be a receiver, unless the safety does something dumb and let him slip by.

12 Re: Play of the Day: Empty Double Slants

I forget who asked, but in the Tampa 2 Cloud system the CB who has Reggie has to drop into the flat zone and hope Marvin isn't cutting back into his zone (arrow route).

This is a great play against a cover corner like Pacman - it doesn't matter how good you are, if you are told to stay away from the play, you're just a stiff in a uniform

And yes, the over the middle route does have the risk of getting your wide out pasted, but because the Mike backer is in the alley he's a touch deeper, and probably backpedalling to avoid the TE going right past him. That's why it's the safety who gets the pick.

13 Re: Play of the Day: Empty Double Slants

DR Ryan,
This substitution issue was actually brought up in the Indy/Jets game during the season. Apparently the rule doesn't state that the offense has to wait after a substitution, but teams general practice was to wait. I never got to hear what the call was, but I remember Tony Dungy talking about it after the game. Anyone else catch that game?

14 Re: Play of the Day: Empty Double Slants

Like Tom said, Sirmon only covers Fletcher until he gets deep enough to pass him off to the safety. If Harrison would have caught the ball cleanly he probably would have had a 10 yard gain and his typical dive to the ground to avoid the big hit. Noone was there to tackle him immediately or lay a big hit on him, and Sirmon only got back into the play because Harrison mishandled the ball and it popped up. From there Sirmon showed very good awareness to move up and get the pick. Also, the rule is that if the offense substitutes, then they have to allow the D to make changes as well. If the offense doesn't sub, then the defense still can, but they run the risk of a quick snap and 5 yard penalty for too many men on the field.

15 Re: Play of the Day: Empty Double Slants

And as an aside, the Bengals team from '88/89 were the first to really use the no-huddle to their advantage. Suprisingly enough the Bills were the ones to start the 'phantom defensive lineman injury' ruse to slow them down. The Bills then incorporated the no-huddle into their offense after that season and complained when teams pulled the same 'phantom' injury scheme against them. This led the NFL to make a rule that an injured player leave the field for at least one play.
This goes to show that no matter how inventive you are, after 15 non-winning seasons until 2005 everyone forgets about you.

16 Re: Play of the Day: Empty Double Slants

Re #11
It's not clear exactly from the diagram, but the safeties are probably deep, maybe 10-15 yards off the line judging by how the Titans normally lined up against the Colts. This means that Manning has room enough to hit Fletcher short and pick up the first down, unless Sirmon moves to cover him. Maybe since Clark isn't in the game, the safety doesn't have to pay as much attention to the TE on the seam, but he does need to be ready to cover Harrison. I think MJK's suggestion in #4, that the Titans should have rolled the coverage to the offensive right, has merit, but doesn't solve the basic problem.

Two other notes in the interest of completeness:
1. Bulluck showed some weaknesses in lateral movement covering running backs this year, so you may be able to hit Rhodes on the flat. This is potentially dangerous, but may make for a viable additional option.
2. Re #6. Three plays earlier, the Titans had blitzed with both OLBs, Thornton and Bulluck, and Manning hit Utecht for 18 yards. This was against the Colts' normal single-back set, with Utecht lined up as the TE and Fletcher in the slot.

17 Re: Play of the Day: Empty Double Slants

#10 & #14 (Tom & MDZ) -- thanks for the note about Sirmon covering Fletcher until he could pass him off to the safety. In retrospect, that's obvious, but I just missed it somehow. (I blame the graphic. Hell, the safety's only an inch and a half away from Sirmon on my monitor...)

Here's a thought inspired by #12 (joel)... now, please bear in mind that football terminology is something I'm still acquiring, having never played before... but what if Fletcher (81) had run a Flag instead of a Go? (Flag? Is that right? He runs straight out for 10-15 yards, then cuts for the pylon?) In the Tampa 2, would he be the responsibility of the safety or the CB?

18 Re: Play of the Day: Empty Double Slants

Fletcher (81) runs the seamer, and the article says this has the effect of “clearing Sirmon out and threatening the safety�, but then Manning’s look to the left “reads� Sirmon to that side.

This confused me at first, but here 'left' merely means 'looks to the left of Harrison' not 'looks to the left side of the field.'

19 Re: Play of the Day: Empty Double Slants

re 1, 15: not really on topic, but since it came up:

before the 1988 AFC championship game, the Bills actually complained to the league about Cincinnati's no-huddle attack. The league informed the Bengals 2 hours before kickoff that they would not allow them to use the hurry-up, and that the officials would stand over the ball until the Bills had subbed their defenders onto the field.

Cincy won anyway, and ironically it was the Bills who would go on to make the no-huddle/hurry-up offense famous.

20 Re: Play of the Day: Empty Double Slants

One of the most annoying things I watched last year was when Manning (or occasionally Brady) would rush their team up to the line to catch the defense with 12 guys on the field. Getting a first down for being more anal than the oppostion seriously rankles with me.

21 Re: Play of the Day: Empty Double Slants

Why do the NFL mandate that defense gets to match personnel with O?

Because only the offense knows when the play is going to start - therefore, essentially, if the defense couldn't freely substitute if the offense substitutes, the offense could completely eliminate defensive substitution whatsoever.

22 Re: Play of the Day: Empty Double Slants


Were the Bills first? Or was Seattle?

I clearly remember the Seahawks having 2 pretty good nose tackles who took turns getting hurt.

The rule was already that an injured player had to leave the field for a play, but after that, an injured player in the last 5(?) minutes of the game would cost the team a timeout.

I still remember Paul McGuire's outrage as the Seahawks shuttled their NTs. His moralizing must have been a profound influence on a young Joe Buck.

23 Re: Play of the Day: Empty Double Slants

Re 17:
The safety's.
Flag route is 5-10 yards upfield and then to the corner of the field. (sideline side).
That part of the field is the Safety's. (both safeties have one half of the field).
The corner is in the flats.

24 Re: Play of the Day: Empty Double Slants

Re 13: I don't remember from the time, but it looks like the NFL consensus is what has been discussed here. People thought that the rule specified that the offense had to wait until the defense had a chance to substitute before they ran a play, if they'd substituted themselves, but apparently that's not the case.

Let me just look it up in the official rule book ... oh wait.

By the way, this type of play is great for Madden/NCAA play when you're not very good and need a quick completion. The slants and out all offer quick-completion possibilities, and if you get a favorable matchup on either deep receiver (usually it works better for that purpose if it's a WR slot left instead of a RB), you can chuck it deep and hope it comes down.

25 Re: Play of the Day: Empty Double Slants

I can't say who was first, but I can tell you that the Seahawks shenanigans were in the playoffs. Little known fact: Joe Nash won an Emmy for that performance.

I imagine the concession also comes from the radio in the helmet. The point of the radio was to reduce the time spent getting plays in from the sideline, not to prevent the defense from getting set.

26 Re: Play of the Day: Empty Double Slants

Maybe when they face off in the first game this season that play will work seeing as the Colts no longer have to worry about Mr. Jones :-)

Another way to beat the no-huddle is for your offense to hog the ball for 40 minutes and hope the other team misses a kick at the end (Giants-Bills Super Bowl).

27 Re: Play of the Day: Empty Double Slants

i don't really see why this isn't just a bad play call in this situation.
I'm perfectly happy throwing the ball in 3rd and short, but if I'm going to do it, I either
A) want big-play possibility if I'm taking this risk
B) want to take advantage of the fact that I know the other team will be playing the run
C) want to use this opportunity to keep defenses honest; next 3rd and 1, if I want to run, I want them worried about the pass.

a simple play action covers all of these, where this play call throws all of these away.

don't get me wrong, i think the play is perfectly good, and a fine call 1st down, 2nd down, 3rd and long.

28 Re: Play of the Day: Empty Double Slants

It's not a bad play call because they had an open receiver and the QB found him. That means they out manoeuvred the defense.

30 Re: Play of the Day: Empty Double Slants

Nice read - but bad play call in my book. Aside from the fact that Marvin bobbled the ball why would you want to run an empty backfield on 3rd and short?

One of the basic principles of good offensive design is to keep the D guessing if you will run or pass. 3rd and short is a running down for just about every team in the NFL - by going empty you make the D's play recognition much easier and take away the opportunity to fool the D which should bite hard on a good play fake.

True by running it with 2 RB's on the field it keeps the D out of the nickle and against a zone team gives you a good match with a slot receiver lined up over a LB. As per #27 good call on 1st or 2nd down but a bad call on 3rd and short.

Just line up in an I with 2 WRs or even with an exra TE and just 1 WR - make the D play run first and then throw a deeper slant (behind the play side LB) off play action maybe with the TE running a delayed release into the area the WR has vacated as your second read. Manning is a master at play action off that stretch play they run.

Sometimes offenses beat themselves by trying to be too clever. This looks like a good example of that.

31 Re: Play of the Day: Empty Double Slants

Name one team that can cover a 4 WR set. Then you'll understand why this set is so valuable. Essentially, the defense can't possibly cover all of the pass options, who now start in a better position to receive passes that will garner the necessary yards.
The Colts seem to have the offensive side of football, covered, right?

32 Re: Play of the Day: Empty Double Slants

"I can’t say who was first, but I can tell you that the Seahawks shenanigans were in the playoffs. Little known fact: Joe Nash won an Emmy for that performance."

Joe Nash was a good NT, but who was the other NT? I remember teams mad at the Bungs about the No-Huddle but the Bungs threatened the NFL, saying that they'd make the league look bad if the refs didn't allow it or something like that. ironically, as was noted, the Bills had success with the no-huddle, but the NFC still won anyway:)