Inside the Playbook: Utilizing the H-Back in the Run Game

Originally written over at Maize n Brew on 8/22/13

Editors Note: The H-back has been a valuable position in modern offenses dating back to the single-wing era of the football. It returned in full force during the implementation of zone blocking offenses of the 80s, and then again fell a little bit to the way side. In the past decade or so, the reemergence of the H-back position has come on full force. Almost every modern offense utilizes an H-back to some degree, both spread and pro-style. The reason is this: it can be used as a lead blocker similar to a FB, a reach blocker in zone schemes similar to a TE (by stretching the front you are opening lanes to run), and as a vertical pass threat, aligned in the slot matched up against LBs, or closed to the LOS. The H-back position brings a lot of run blocking variety into play, adds numbers to the box, but doesn't necessarily diminish your ability to pass. That is why you'll see it's importance in almost any modern offense. And that is why we'll discuss it below. One thing note discussed below is a Wham blocking scheme re-popularized by the Harbaugh lead 49ers, but that just goes to show that an H-back can be used to benefit Power schemes, zone schemes, and every blocking design in between.

A topic that gets brought up fairly often is the use of the Y-TE, U-Back, and FB. Throw in a slot receiver in that grouping and you have a broad range of strengths and variety that can find a weakness in almost every defense. The Y (online-TE) allows you to be a little stronger at the point of attack while displaying some pass catching ability. A UB (U-back) has versatility to stretch the edge, motion out into the slot, or lead into the hole. A FB helps provide a strong downhill running game and another running threat in the backfield. The SR (slot receiver) gives you some options in the screen game and may force a NB onto the field, thereby spreading the defense giving preferable run game match-ups. What I want to explore today is some of the primary run game threats with these players in the game and how that can effect what the defense is trying to do. In this piece I'll primarily looking at formations from under center, but it is important to note that the U position has found strong favor in the spread run game in the past decade or so for the same reasons it is seen as favorable below. The focus, below, was originally on Al Borges's Michigan offense, but it translates well to most offenses in the B1G this year.

Ace Wing
The first formation we'll look at is the Ace Wing, which will incorporate 12 personnel with a single TB, two TEs (a Y and a UB), along with two WRs. From a defensive standpoint, one of the difficulties of covering this offense is that the defense has to defend every single possible gap. Often times, what this means, is that defenses are forced to bring down an 8th man in the box. It also often means that the DL will be fairly spread out. Let's take a look.


The offensive play here is a fold draw, where the OG will be used as a lead blocker in the hole. Note that the OTs will both initially drop as if pass protecting, sucking the DEs up field. This is usually made easier by the fact that the DE will often be lined up outside the TE, and therefore will struggle to make an inside move. Now if the DE is lined up in the C gap between the OT and TE, then he needs to make sure he first seals off any inside move by the DE. Both the non-fold OG and the center will make sure their initial step is to the running gap if they don't already have an easy down block seal. In the case of the center in this play, he can simply down block. The playside OG will take an initial step inside before punching through the DT's inside shoulder, pulling on his backside shoulder, and sealing him off from the hole. The folding OG will can take an initial drop step as if pass blocking, then he'll loop as tightly as he can off the butt of the center and to the second level looking for MIKE. With an Ace Wing formation, an 8-man front is possible, and because of that it is essential that the MIKE gets called out pre-play (should always be anyway as that will set the other second level blocking assignments here). The other important call is which OG will fold, which is dependent on the front. The center will always down block to the next gap over if he can.

Because it's a draw play, the OLBs need to respect the pass. There OL keys won't look completely unlike pass keys anyway, and neither will the QB initially. Both TEs simply look like they are releasing into a route, but what they are really doing is trying to get inside the OLB and seal him outside and use the LB's pass drop momentum to carry him backwards.

Note that the wing here can also be used very similarly to a FB in many instances. Any run in his direction he can still be utilized as a lead blocker. On a counter away, he still has time to get across the formation to become a lead blocker, just like a FB.

Here we have 11 personnel. One of a favorite personnel to pass out of, run plays out of this personnel group tend to lean heavily on zone concepts.


Here, we look at an inside zone run. Inside zone has been covered fairly regularly and discussion of it can be found in many places. A nuance here is that the backside OT will first step inside to ensure no one is trying to shoot the gap playside of him, like the DE using an inside move. He will then fan back to the DE to stop anyone from crashing down the line and stopping the play from the backside.

Here Michigan actually uses two FBs and zero TEs. Not that the straight back FB goes the opposite way, cutting off any defender trying to shoot the backside gap, giving a cut back lane for the RB.

The defense, used to man blocking concepts, is looking for pulling OGs and the down block from the center. Now the center is reach blocking and no one is pulling. The offensive line reads have become more complex simply by switching up the scheme up front.

Note that by forcing the defense to cover multiple receivers, the draw play is now of greater effect. You may also now be able to run things like power with a single lead blocker in the form of a pulling guard. So most run plays in the play book are still theoretically open, or at least a variant of that play can be run.

Twins Wing
Twins wing is going to be 22 personnel, meaning 2 RBs and 2 TEs in the game.


It's time to play power football and we'll do just that by looking at Power. Nothing unusual about this power play, the backside OG is pulling up and through the hole, looking to knock out the first off color jersey he sees. It is essential here that the double team gets push on the DT before releasing. If that's a stalemate or the DT gets even an inch, it forces the pulling guard deeper and slows down the play, allowing defenses to swarm.

Note here that Michigan has flipped their TE, or what is commonly referred to as an unbalanced line today. Michigan runs the power to the strength, as per usual.

Obviously you now have more blockers, and therefore can run any plays out of the formations we are discussing today. But you have a bit more versatility in doing so. You can now counter without the FB taking the LBs to the ball, by using the Wing (U-Back) as a lead blocker in that direction. Another defensive key is now going to give the defense an incorrect read.

Strong I
Out of the strong I (meaning the offset FB is to the strong side) we will once again look at a power play, but this time the counter lead power.

Note: counter lead iso - essentially meaning the FB will run through the running lane and hit a LB - is often times a more popular counter play to the weak (open) side of the formation, but in the next piece I'll explain why I went with counter lead power. This "Counter Power" would typically simply be called a power play to the weakside. The initial counter step by the RB is simply a mechanism to correctly time the play so that the blockers can get to their spots before the RB does. Another thing that will likely be different is the backside pull. In this case, it wouldn't be uncommon for the backside OG to stay in on the double team with the center and have the backside OT pull, assuming the OT is a capable puller. For a player like Lewan, expect to see the OT pulling through the hole.

This video shows a lead counter, where the pulling OG will kick the DE and the FB will lead into the hole. Denard's footwork is still shaky, and he kind of messes up the handoff, but the blocking scheme is correct.

Motion weak and you essentially have the equivalent to the Ace Wing formation, just with a guy lined up a little more in the back field. Any play run out of that can be run out of Ace Wing, though you need to make sure you have the personnel to do it out of both, and that's what Michigan is looking to do.

Conclusion and Further Work
So out of 4 different personnel packages I've shown 4 different run plays. Note that, especially if it's the OT pulling on the counter lead power, that the defense has a different key on every play, or at least he's reading something different from his initial key on each of these plays. But with the versatility of the players, 22 personnel can become 21 personnel or 12 personnel, and 12 or 21 personnel can become 11 personnel. Of course, it can potentially work the other way around as well. This means that Michigan will have the capability of putting out a personnel group and run pretty much anything optimally. Utilizing pre-snap shifts will give the defense less time to communicate offensive trends from various formations, and utilizing a U-back will allow the offense to run anyone of these plays regardless. So that's the advantage of having this sort of versatility, but it's not where the advantage stops.

In part II we are going to look at how this all sets up the play action pass game.


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