The Cincinnati Bengals came out in an empty-backfield formation 14 times on Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens. On those 14 plays, Joe Burrow completed 11 of 13 passes for 246 yards and a touchdown and was sacked once. His completions included Tyler Boyd’s 68-yard touchdown, Joe Mixon’s 52-yard catch that sealed the game, and five other passes of over 15 yards. Needless to say, they were wildly successful in these formations.
An empty-backfield formation is any formation where there is not a running back lined up in the backfield. Although there are many variations, sometimes people will use the term “empty” to describe any of these formations. I am guilty of this and will call them by this name in this article. However, it is important to note that this is not just one formation. The Bengals ran eight different empty formations in this game. This is pretty impressive, given that every one of the Bengals’ empty formations came out of 11 personnel (1 running back, one tight end and three wide receivers). There were three major structural differences (meaning formations that looked different regardless of personnel) and the other differences came down to shuffling the deck of who lined up where.
These differences may seem minor, but there is a reason they didn’t line up the same way every time. Moving players around allows them to create matchups. This is particularly effective out of empty formations, which limit what the defense can do by forcing them to cover five immediate receiving threats.
Most of the empty formations the Bengals ran in this game featured trips (three receivers) on one side and twins (two receivers) on the other. The most common version of these features the running back wide to the trips side, the tight end inside of him, and Boyd as the inner-most receiver. The twins side featured Ja’Marr Chase in the slot and Tee Higgins on outside, hence the title of this section: “Wonder Twins.”
The Bengals deployed the empty formation in this way five times. Interestingly, they targeted each position once.
The first empty formation of the game came on a third down in the red zone.
The Ravens had three to cover two on the twins side and four to cover three on the trips side. When the safety to that side jumped the in-breaking routes, Burrow knew he had Chris Evans one-on-one with linebacker Patrick Queen on the vertical, so he took a shot.
Evans didn’t have a great release, and the defender was on him quickly. This made it a pretty tough throw for Burrow, and the ball fell incomplete.
On this play, the Ravens were in Cover 1.
With the nickel back playing loose on C.J. Uzomah, Burrow had plenty of room to get him the ball.
He threw a good pass, but the ball bounced off of Uzomah’s hands, incomplete.
Once again, the Ravens defended the empty look with a Cover 1 defense, but this time the deep field safety, played over the top of Chase, ignoring the trips side of the formation.
Remember, the trips side features a running back on the outside, a tight end inside him, and Boyd as the inner-most receiver. The Ravens had two defensive backs and a linebacker on that side. Despite it being the worst possible matchup, it was the linebacker, Queen, who would cover Boyd.
Boyd ran an out-and-up, and Queen bit on the out. When Boyd turned up field, Queen stopped, seemingly unaware that deep field safety was clear on the other side of the formation.
Mixon torched the defensive back who was attempting to cover him on the deep route, then put in an excellent effort as a blocker to help spring Boyd for the 68-yard score.
That brings us to the twins side of the formation, with Chase in the slot.
Here, the nickel back who was lined up over Chase showed blitz. Burrow saw this and pointed it out.
Burrow knew he wanted to get the ball to Chase and Chase knew the ball was coming his way, but he stayed cool. He released a slowly and stared down the safety, who was rocking down to cover him. As the safety settled, and his weight shifted back, Chase accelerated to the inside.
Burrow put the ball right between the safety and the linebacker, who was responsible for the short-middle zone.
Chase made the catch and lost ground to screw up the linebacker’s pursuit angle. As a result, he was able to take this short pass and turn it into a 20-yard gain. This was an excellent play where Chase showed off the maturity of his game, understanding the nuance of route-running and picking up yards after the catch.
Chase was extremely productive out of empty sets Sunday; recording six catches for 92 yards.
That brings us to Higgins on the outside. On this play, he ran a dig route.
The cornerback knew he had inside help, but Burrow threw a ball that neither he, nor the short-middle zone player could get to and Higgins reeled it in for a 13-yard gain.
This version of the empty formation sent Boyd to the twins side as the slot receiver, with Chase to his outside. The tight end was the inner-most receiver on the trips side, with Mixon outside, and Higgins in between them.
They ran a slip screen to Mixon on that side, but Burrow didn’t throw the ball that direction. Seeing the loose coverage on Chase, he threw the backside hitch. Chase turned on the wheels and picked up the first down.
The Three Amigos
Why not put Higgins, Chase, and Boyd all together on one side? That’s what the Bengals did here.
The twins side features Mixon on the inside and the tight end on the outside. The trips side had Higgins, Chase, and Boyd from outside in.
Boyd’s vertical release drew the attention of the linebacker and created a big opening for Chase, who once again made a short pass a big gain with his ability to run after the catch.
3 on 2 - Good check by Burrow pic.twitter.com/k8Da5NpvQO— Matt Minich (@CoachMinich) December 28, 2021
This was the exact same formation (but with Stanley Morgan Jr. in place of Higgins).
This time, the Ravens made a big mistake. Because they had players with coverage responsibility showing blitz, they only had two defenders lined up against the three amigos on the trips side. Burrow saw this and audibled (note how he points to his wrist).
Boyd ran straight to the flat, while Morgan and Chase blocked the most dangerous defenders. This was an easy first down for the offense, because they caught the defense out of position.
The Three Musketeers
The front side of this formation is exactly like the previous formation, but on the backside, the tight end and running back are flipped.
On both of these plays, Burrow looked to the trips side before turning to the twins side.
In the first clip, the defender played loose on Uzomah, so Burrow hit him on the hitch for a few yards.
This was the last pass of the game, which put Burrow over 500 yards... way over.
It was third-and-four. Most of the routes went just past the first down marker. Burrow looked to the trips side first, but seeing no one open and feeling pressure coming, he scrambled to the twins side.
The tight end was covered, but Mixon was wide open, streaking down the field. Burrow found him for a 52-yard gain. A fitting end to an incredible day.
Chase and Mixon Twins
You can't run this coverage against empty pic.twitter.com/tjsD2tqdYF— Matt Minich (@CoachMinich) December 28, 2021
On this play, the Bengals came out with the tight end wide to the trips side, Higgins inside him, and Boyd as the inner-most receiver. On the twins side, they had Chase in the slot and Mixon to the outside.
The Ravens ran a zone-blitz that featured a 2-deep, 4-under coverage. You can’t run that coverage against empty. If you want to run a zone blitz, you have to rock one of the safeties down.
The Ravens did not, which left Chase wide open. Not ideal for Baltimore.
Chase took it 15 yards to move the chains.
This formation also featured Chase and Mixon as the twins, but the trips side was a little different. The tight end was the inner-most receiver, Higgins was on the outside, and Boyd was between them.
Burrow looked like he wanted to get the ball to Chase, but the pressure came and Burrow was sacked. This was the only time he was sacked in an empty formation.
This formation is structurally different from the others that have been discussed so far. Instead of having a true trips side of the formation, Uzomah is lined up as an H-back to the three receiver side. This allows him to make a chip block before releasing into a route.
Mixon lined up outside of Higgins to that side. Chase lined up outside of Boyd on the other. It was Boyd who made the catch for a short gain on this play.
In this final clip, the trips side of the formation has been reduced into a bunch. This features Higgins on the outside, Boyd inside him, and Uzomah as an H-back, once again chipping before releasing into a route. On the twins side, Chase was outside Mixon.
Chase caught the comeback to set up first-and-goal. This was a great ball against the 2-high safety look.
Going back to his college days, Burrow has thrived in empty formations, and the Bengals had a wealth of success out of a variety of empty formations in their matchup with the Ravens.
These formations put a lot of pressure on the defense. They limit what the defense can do and make them declare what they are doing sooner. This helps the team take full advantage of Burrow’s ability to read a defense. The Bengals caught the Ravens’ defense out of position and in a coverage that couldn’t handle the empty formation. They also beat them finding and exploiting favorable matchups.
The variations of the empty formation allowed the Bengals to team up Chase and Higgins on the same side at times and Chase and Boyd on the same side or both in the middle at others. This created a lot of opportunities for the Bengals’ offense to make plays.