While the Eagles’ media corps spends the week in sunny Southern California, I’m holding down the fort in beautiful Fishtown, where the sky is gray and the trash is starting to pile up along Girard Avenue near the Dunkin Donuts and Beer City.
Welcome to this week’s video breakdown, where the topic is pretty obvious. It’s Seattle’s success using empty sets in their 24-10 Sunday night win.
The concept is very basic. The backfield is empty. No running back, no fullback, just the quarterback, who forfeits an extra blocker and/or play-action threat to get four or five route runners on the field.
It makes a ton of sense for the Seahawks to scheme this way, certainly because they have a very mobile and elusive quarterback, but also because they don’t run the ball well in the first place. Russell Wilson is the leading rusher on a team that ranks 21st in ground yards per game, with a 102.2 average. Add to the fact that the Eagles came into this game with the league’s best run defense, and it just didn’t make sense for the home team to waste too many snaps meeting Fletcher Cox and Tim Jernigan head-on.
So when you’ve got a quarterback who can do it all, you game plan around that, and the Seahawks killed the Eagles with these kinds of looks:
This is an empty set featuring five receivers and a standard offensive line.
The Eagles are in dime here, with four down linemen, one linebacker (Nigel Bradham), and six defensive backs.
Here are the matchups, from the top of the image to the bottom:
- Jalen Mills on Mike Davis or Thomas Rawls (can’t see the damn number on that jersey)
- Corey Graham on Luke Willson
- Malcolm Jenkins on Tyler Lockett
- Patrick Robinson on Doug Baldwin
- Ronald Darby on Paul Richardson
The sixth member of the secondary is Rodney McLeod, who is off-screen playing as a single-high safety. He’s responsible for providing deep help while the other five play man-to-man.
The Seahawks run a little three-yard crossing route with Richardson and Baldwin, and Darby gets picked on the play:
They spread it out and junk it up, with more bodies creating more opportunities to criss-cross and mix-up defenders and confuse defensive assignments.
That’s one design that moved the sticks on a 3rd and 5.
With a fresh set of downs, Seattle did the same exact thing on the very next play, going empty set with five receivers and running another short crossing route on the left side.
This time, the Eagles were in nickel, with Mychal Kendricks in the game:
Here are the matchups, again going top to bottom:
- Mills on Tanner McEvoy
- Robinson on Mike Davis
- Jenkins on Jimmy Graham
- Darby on Amara Darboh
- Kendricks on J.D. McKissic
So Seattle is sending out three wide receivers, a tight end, and a running back in that formation. Jenkins has to deal with the taller and more physical Graham. Kendricks is covering a running back who actually played as a wideout at Arkansas State.
They try to bump Darby here, but Wilson fires a little high and wide of McKissic, resulting in a near interception:
That play didn’t come off, but you see how they force Kendricks into space in a matchup that favors the offense. He’s about five yards off McKissic when the pass is thrown.
Seattle had success doing something very similar on a fourth quarter touchdown pass.
This time, they’re rolling out four receivers with a tight end, Nick Vannett, lined up off the right tackle. The Eagles are again in nickel, with Kendricks man-to-man on McKissic while Graham looks to be responsible for Vannett:
I’m not exactly sure why Kendricks is out there instead of Graham, unless I’m missing something here. Normally you’d have Kendricks assigned to the tight end instead isolating him in a wide area, so I don’t know if this was just confusion or a blown assignment, or a combination of both.
Kendricks bites on a slant and go (sluggo) route and Wilson finds McKissic in the end zone for an easy touchdown:
No cross or pick there, just a mismatch that Wilson identifies at the line of scrimmage.
This was an issue all game long. You saw the Eagles try to blitz on that 3rd and 10 near midfield and Wilson similarly read the coverage and fired a bomb to Doug Baldwin. That specific play didn’t come from an empty set, but it’s another example of how good he is at identifying those favorable matchups.
And when the Birds’ line did get to the quarterback a couple of times, or flush him out of the pocket with that four-man rush, Wilson was able to spin out, extend the play, and force the secondary to hold coverage for 5, 6, and 7 seconds. That adds more to the frustration, because the Eagles’ pass rush wasn’t even poor on Sunday night, Wilson was just that good.
We’ll see if Los Angeles decides to mirror this on Sunday, which I don’t think will be the case. The issue there is that Jared Goff isn’t nearly as mobile as Russell Wilson (most people aren’t), so I don’t see him being able to evade rushers and string out plays in the same fashion. Stylistically, the Rams have a top-15 rushing attack and one of the league’s better backs in Todd Gurley, so I don’t think rolling out empty sets and trying to spread out the Eagles is going to work for them the same way it did for Seattle.
But, if they’re smart, they’ll try to feature it at some point in the game.