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Week 1: Heavy Personnel in Empty Sets

Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

The Browns face the New York Jets Week 1. The Jets have a stout defensive line (even without suspended Sheldon Richardson) with Muhammad Wilkerson,  Damon "Snacks" Harrison, and 6th overall pick rookie Leonard Williams. They also have a talented trio of corners in Darrelle Revis, Antonio Cromartie, and former Brown Buster Skrine.


So, are there any favorable matchups for the Browns offense? Yes, the Jets inside linebackers and safeties struggle covering backs and tight ends.

Heavy going Empty

21 personnel shift to empty 5 wide

  • Come out with 2 WRs, 1 RB, 1 TE, and 1 FB/TE ("21" or "12" personnel, depending if FB or 2 TEs).
  • If the defense is in nickel or base, shift RB and FB out wide, leaving an empty backfield.
  • This forces the defense to cover backs or tight ends with linebackers or safeties in space.
  • If the defense takes out a linebacker for another defensive back, then stay in a run formation.
  • Either way, you've created a personnel mismatch that you can exploit with the proper alignment.

In their base and nickel defenses, the Jets have the option of covering backs and tight ends with their inside linebackers, their outside linebackers, or one of their safeties. When it comes to a back or tight end lining up out wide, the Jets are most likely to send ILB DeMarco Davis, ILB David Harris, or FS Marcus Gilbert.

Jets ILBs

  • Both Davis and Harris have slightly above average range.
  • DeMarco Davis has a bit better closing speed but often gets flat-footed in zone and struggles to break on the passes.
  • David Harris keeps his feet pretty well in zone but has only average ball skills and fails to contest passes consistently.
  • Both are only average at changing directions and moving laterally.
  • Neither hold up well in man coverage versus breaking routes.

DeMario Davis flat-footed in zone coverage:


DeMario Davis zone and break:


#56 Davis and #52 Harris showing their range and movement skills:


David Harris man coverage laterally:


David Harris ball skills:


FS Marcus Gilbert

  • Gilbert has a lot of experience covering slot receivers, one of his common responsibilities in San Diego last year.
  • Able to jam receivers coming off the line.
  • Decent covering vertical.
  • Caught flat-footed in underneath zone coverage.
  • Poor closing on routes in front of him.
  • Struggles with sharp breaking routes.
  • Good speed but problems with backpedal technique.
  • Makes up for average coverage ability with run defense and blitzing off the edge.

Marcus Gilbert flat-footed zone coverage and close:


Gilbert vs Go route:


Gilbert bad footwork vs breaking route:


Gilbert giving up too much space underneath:



It's clear that none of these three defenders are capable of effectively covering a wide receiver. Do the Browns have any running backs, tight ends, or fullbacks with wide receiver-caliber route-running skills? If so, they could pose a serious threat to the Jets' base and nickel defensive sets by bringing in heavy personnel groupings and then lining up or motioning into empty backfield sets.

Duke Johnson, Rob Housler, and Malcolm Johnson have the best route running ability of the Browns backs and tight ends. Gary Barnidge and Isaiah Crowell have the speed for it but lack a bit in terms of sharp route-running. E.J. Bibbs has the sharp cutting ability (plus is a danger in with the ball in his hands) but has limited long speed. Jim Dray offers the least threat as a receiver but has reliable hands.

Somebody from these position groups stepping up could go a long way toward taking the pressure off the offense and avoiding the threats posed by the Jets' strong defensive line and cornerback groups.