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Patriots enjoy that empty feeling

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham

The New England Patriots are running on empty, and they've gone farther than anybody else.

ESPN's Stats & Information gang has categorized every NFL play so thoroughly it can tell us the Patriots have run 42 plays out of an empty set this year. An empty set means no running back is in the backfield with five eligible targets spread out near the line.

The Houston Texans lead the NFL with 43 plays out of an empty formation, but the next closest AFC team after the Patriots is the Pittsburgh Steelers with 27.

The Patriots have amassed the most yardage while empty. They've gained 286 yards, an average of 6.8 yards per play.

Mike Reiss of ESPNBoston took a hard look at why the Patriots feel so comfortable running out of an empty set. As Reiss notes, the league average is 17 empty-set plays per team at 5.8 yards a pop, "but there is a good reason the Patriots more than double that total: They have unshakable trust in quarterback Tom Brady's ability to make the right decisions quickly and deliver an accurate throw. Few quarterbacks have such a gift."

Reiss speaks with Patriots players and ESPN analyst Matt Millen to get their thoughts on why they're able to execute those plays so efficiently.

"When you go empty, the majority of the pressure is in two areas: with the quarterback and offensive line," Millen said. "The majority of it is on the quarterback because he has to make the read. It's how fast he sees things, his ability to make good decisions, and how quickly he can get the ball out of his hands.

"On the flip side, going empty makes you show your hand as a defense. If you're going to blitz, you have to get in position. It's hard to disguise when the field is that spread out because all the people have to be covered. So you're pretty much locked into just a few coverages."

The Miami Dolphins have run the fewest empty-set formations among AFC East teams, but they own the second-best average in the NFL. They've run 13 plays for 113 yards. Their 8.7-yard average is seven-tenths of a yard behind the Oakland Raiders.

The Buffalo Bills have run 18 empty-set plays, tied with the Dallas Cowboys for 11th most. The Bills have gained 108 yards, slightly higher than the league average.

The New York Jets have run 15 empty-set plays for only 67 yards, a 4.5-yard average.