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smalleyBy Kai Smalley, Head Coach, Snohomish High School (WA)


With so many programs running the spread offense with a no-huddle tempo, it is critical to be prepared for any formation or personnel grouping, especially empty sets. Coach Smalley outlines their plan here...

By Kai Smalley
Head Coach
Snohomish High School (WA)
Twitter: @fbcoachsmalley


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smalleyWith so many programs running the spread offense with a no-huddle tempo, it is critical to be prepared for any formation or personnel grouping, especially empty sets. Even teams that aren't “Air Raid” style offenses are spreading the field more and almost every team that does spread the field has some sort of any empty package.

Empty formations present a unique set of problems for defenses. They create numbers advantages for the offense, force the defense to adjust their coverage, and can force the defense to walk defenders out of the box. If your defense is not prepared, an Empty set can cause major problems. To address these issues, we have decided to have a base package that you use to attack Empty formations, that way you aren’t scheming different week to week. That said, it is important to have a couple of options to choose from depending on how an offense attacks your defense, as well as having change-ups to disguise your defense and pressure.

Attacking Empty Formations

We base out of a 3-3-5 defense, which allows us to use multiple fronts without having to change the assignments for the defenders. It also allows us to disguise our fronts and coverages. Diagram #1 shows our base alignment versus an empty formation.


Our philosophy in defending empty is to be aggressive and disguise. We align this way against empty no matter what we plan to do, that way it will always look the same. We have three different checks we can use against empty sets and depending on the team we may use all three or possibly just one or two. We teach them all to our players early, so that we are not throwing them something new in the middle of the season for one team or being caught unprepared during a game.

Every spring we install our empty checks as part of our base defense, that way we carry them into the season and we can use them as we see fit. It is important to be able to disguise our intentions pre-snap so that the offense cannot get a read on what we will do, so all three options look the same pre-snap, but each has a different number of actual rushers.

The checks can bring a 6 man pressure, a 4 man pressure or a 3 man pressure. The 3 man pressure has probably been our most effective attack because it involves a read-rush technique that allows us to disguise who will be rushing and where they are coming from depending on the protection the offense uses, it is also a favorite of all our players. This is the pressure will be covered in this report. It should be noted that this scheme is only used against a 5-wide empty look, if they have a true tight end, we will use a different scheme.

Against empty we are always aware of the threat of QB draw, so we reduce from our odd front to an even front by walking our backers up and mix it up from there. This gives us the ability to put 8 defenders into coverage while giving us the option to try and overload the offensive line with the appearance of a 6-man rush. Our base coverage is zero, but we may also mix it up between Man, Man-Combo and Zone coverage. We will always align to show straight Man coverage and keep the offense guessing as to what coverage we may end up playing.

Smack-It (3-Man Read-Rush)

Our most effective option is showing our 6-man pressure and only bringing 3, but doing it creatively with a Read-Rush technique. This is the curve-ball to our empty package. As I mentioned, we have a 6-man pressure and play straight man or bluff pressure and drop into zone coverage and they both have their benefits.

The key to it working is our alignment. The read-rush allows the offensive lines blocking scheme to dictate our rushers angle of attack. It also allows us to us to exploit open rush lanes and match ups.

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  • The Coaching points on the “read rush” technique that Coach Smalley uses which allows for the allusion of a six-man pressure while only rushing three defenders. How whether the offensive lineman pass protect (or run block) will dictate which defenders become rushers and which become droppers.
  • The technique behind the “read step,” that gives defenders time to make the correct read before either rushing or dropping against slide protection schemes.
  • The aiming points of both the outside and middle rushers in the “Smack It” pressure.
  • The coaching points of both the exterior and interior droppers in coverage including how one of them is used as a “pull up” player when the QB pulls the ball down to throw.
  • BONUS: Watch narrated game film on these pressure concepts.

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Overall, the goal is not to make this an every play answer to empty, which is why we keep the two other pressures in our package. Depending on the team and the game plan, we may not use this pressure, but it is always the first we teach and we use it as the go-to pressure. We have found that having this automatic-check is a good answer in case a team comes out in empty when we are not expecting it. If we are playing a team that we know we will run empty, we will usually keep all three in the game plan. If this is the case our players know that if the opponent comes out in empty they will look to the sideline and get a quick signal for which of the three pressures we want, which is another reason why we align the same for all three checks.



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