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How Russell Wilson, Seahawks destroy defenses with 'empty' set

The Seahawks used empty sets to great effect last season, and Seattle's offense might utilize that look even more this year. Joe Nicholson/USA TODAY Sports

RENTON, Wash. -- When Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson attended Jon Gruden's QB camp in 2012, one of the topics they discussed was going empty.

That is, an offensive look with five pass-catchers going out into routes and no running backs in the backfield. It's a concept that Wilson had success with in college and one that the Seahawks used to destroy defenses in 2015.

"I think we've done a great job of that, really for a while now of being in empty," Wilson said. "Kind of reviewing at the halfway point last year, especially. We were like, 'That's something that we do really well and we want to be in that, it's a good thing for us.' Then obviously when Marshawn [Lynch] and [Thomas] Rawls went down, OK, let's capitalize on that even more and got the playmakers out in the flanks that can make those plays.

"We have so many guys that can do so many different things, and when you have that option, it makes it tough on the defense to try to figure out what we're doing. I've been in empty since I was a young kid myself, so I've played in it a lot -- NC State, even Wisconsin, we kind of changed it up there and went a little empty there. I like spreading it out."

According to ESPN Stats & Information data, Wilson averaged 10.3 passing yards per attempt when the Seahawks were in empty last year. That was the top mark in the NFL. He completed 74.7 percent of his passes, which was fourth.

Here's an example from a matchup against the San Francisco 49ers.

One thing the Seahawks like to do is use motion or shifts to empty. That can tip the quarterback off to whether he's facing man coverage or zone. Here, the linebacker travels with Fred Jackson, indicating man coverage on the five available receivers.

"It can make life easier sometimes," said Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell. "It depends how the defense decides to play it. But it can simplify things. It gets a lot of guys spread out away from the core, and then it can clear up your protections. Sometimes it can make it harder. But it can clear up some protection and protection rules, as well -- simplify that.

"I think that also goes to the maturation of Russell. Everybody doesn't think that he can throw, but he's a very adept passer. We've always said that. If we wanted to flip it and throw it every down, we'd feel confident in that and have the ability to do that. And that kind of showed it."

Because the offense only has five players to protect the quarterback, the defense can check to a blitz. Gruden referred to this as "Code 1" during the TV special. Just sending one extra defender can set up one-on-one matchups with all of the offensive linemen.

Sending two extra defenders (six total) can ensure the defense that it will get an unblocked defender rushing the quarterback, but it means playing cover zero (no deep safety).

"Sometimes they can bring more than you can handle, and you just have to know where the extra guys are coming from," Bevell said. "Usually there's a quick receiver that you can get the ball to."

Matchups are a bonus for the offense in empty. How many teams have four or five good corners? On the play above, Tyler Lockett ran a vertical route out of the slot and beat the nickel corner for a 24-yard touchdown.

The other key is Wilson getting rid of the ball quickly. Overall last year, he took 2.67 seconds to pass. When the Seahawks were in empty, that number dropped to 2.38 seconds.

According to the Football Outsiders Almanac, the Seahawks used empty on 11 percent of their snaps in 2015, fifth most in the league. And after the team drafted running back C.J. Prosise in the spring, Pete Carroll suggested it could be an even bigger part of the offense in 2016.

"We really like being in empty," Carroll said. "It's a great formation for the quarterback. Russell loves it. And that gives us a matchup opportunity that is very unique. That's why [Prosise] was so valuable to us, that's why we took him and that's why we were thankful we were able to pull it off."

On the play referenced above, it was a linebacker singled up against Jackson. This year, that could be Prosise, a guy who played receiver before transitioning to running back at Notre Dame.

The Seahawks could use an empty look with Prosise, Doug Baldwin, Lockett, Jermaine Kearse and either a tight end (Jimmy Graham or Luke Willson) or Paul Richardson. That could be a tough group for defenses to match up with.

Prosise missed most of the summer with a hamstring injury, but he played last week and looked good. Don't be surprised if the Seahawks try to target him out of empty in the preseason finale against the Oakland Raiders. This could be a look that the Seahawks go to often in 2016.