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.
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.