Pats' empty set full of opportunities

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Coming up empty has a negative connotation, but it's been mostly positive for the Patriots' offense.

The "empty" set has been a significant part of the unit's success.

According to ESPN Stats & Information tracking, the Patriots have run 42 plays this season out of the empty set, in which there is no runner in the backfield and five pass-catchers are spread wide at the line of scrimmage. Only the Houston Texans have run more (43).

The league average is 17 empty-set plays per team, 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.

"That's just him doing what he does best," running back Kevin Faulk said. "It's not just his work on the field, but also off the field, studying film and how [defenders] play. That's what makes him who he is."

Brady's ability to execute out of the empty set helps the Patriots create favorable matchups by exploiting weaknesses in the defense. Tight end Benjamin Watson's 35-yard touchdown catch against the Buccaneers is the most recent clear-cut example of this.

At the snap, Brady was in the shotgun and motioned running back Laurence Maroney out of the backfield to the far right. Watson and fellow tight end Chris Baker also were split to that side, with receivers Randy Moss and Wes Welker on the left side.

Buccaneers defenders scrambled to cover up Maroney with safety Sabby Piscitelli, and linebacker Geno Hayes lined up over Watson. In all, there were 10 Buccaneers within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage, and a single high safety who shaded slightly to Moss and Welker's side.

That simplified Brady's read.

"It's nice for a quarterback to see the defense, to see them separate; then you're able to pick your best matchup," Brady said. "If you can find your matchup before the ball is snapped, then you can protect it and it's usually a pretty good play."

The Patriots have totaled 286 yards on those 42 plays out of the empty set this season (6.8-yard avgerage), according to ESPN Stats & Information. The league average is 5.5 yards per play.

"When you go empty, the majority of the pressure is in two areas: with the quarterback and offensive line," said Matt Millen, a studio analyst for "Monday Night Football." "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."

On Watson's touchdown catch, for example, the Buccaneers blitzed linebacker Barrett Ruud to create a five-man rush. The offensive line picked up the blitz, giving Brady the time to connect with Watson, who blazed past Hayes straight up the numbers.

If there is a danger for offenses that rely heavily on empty sets, it's protection.

"Any time you empty a backfield, they pretty much know what protection you are going to be in -- you have five blockers," Brady said. "So if they bring a sixth guy, you have to throw it quick. If they bring five guys, you have to sort the five that are coming, so it's always a protection issue when you're in an empty formation. If you can pick it up, you can really sort out the coverage pretty easily."

Brady is arguably the NFL's best at executing out of the empty set, as his command also helps the Patriots control the pace of the action. It also helps to have such explosive weapons as Moss, Welker & Co.

While there were some struggles earlier in the season, Brady has found his footing, and the empty set has once again emerged as a big part of the team's offense.

"The biggest advantage for them is having the quarterback," Millen said. "He sees the whole field and is really good at it."

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.