Inside the Playbook - Jim Harbaugh's Rushing Attack

With the arrival of Jim Harbaugh in Ann Arbor, Michigan goes from a predominately inside zone blocking scheme back to a mostly man/gap blocking scheme. But it isn’t limited to that. Harbaugh’s offenses have been able to utilize zone as anything from a means of keeping defenses honest, to it providing the base run scheme for his offense. Furthermore, he has continually added elements to both his gap and zone schemes in order to keep them fresh and in ways unpredictable. Some of these schemes developed in his time at Stanford, while others became more prevalent when he arrived in the NFL. While all the run plays he used for the 49ers won’t likely make their way immediately to his Wolverines team, it is more likely that the Michigan offense features a similar amount of plays he incorporated at Stanford (fewer than he utilized in the NFL due to practice time constraints) but pull from both eras. In this article, we will look at Jim Harbaugh’s rushing attack.

Power O
The base of the Jim Harbaugh offense is classic Power O. His run game works with it and off of it, as does much of his play action pass attack. One thing about the way Harbaugh runs Power O is that he keeps the rules uncomplicated. I’ll get into how it differs from some other programs in a later article, but simply put: Down blocks, power block from the FB, pull from the BSG around the double team, RB reads A gap to D gap and hits the LOS with authority. Strongside, Weakside, Wing, TE-Wing, Barge, Unbalanced, Super Unbalanced, it doesn’t matter. He’ll double at the point of attack and work to punish the defense.

Inside Zone
Down blocks look similar to zone blocks at the inception of the play, but this time the OL is looking to reach the OL playside and work to the 2nd level. On a standard Inside Zone, the FB will block away, further imitating the look of Power O (the only major difference being the lack of pulling OG). This look to the backside of the Inside Zone sets up the cutback with deadly consequences. Try to leverage Power O and get sealed by inside zone. If both sides read their keys but overreact, that cutback lane could potentially be wide open for the taking.

Lead Inside Zone
Harbaugh doesn’t always want to run to the strong side. Like all great I-Formation coaches, he also knows how to use his FB as a lead blocker. And that’s why his go-to Weakside run is an Lead Inside Zone. Here, the FB takes care of the backside EMOL (in place of the FB), while the FB is able to lead to the playside ILB (typically a WILL). Between the flow of the guards and the flow of the FB, which is a common read path for defenses, there is now no correct reaction for the defense based on flow.

Outside Zone
The ball still needs to be stretched laterally, and sometimes the easiest way to do that is by simply running stretch zone. Harbaugh loves running outside zone particularly after flipping the strength of the formation, often times flipping the formation and then motioning back the other direction. All this is in an effort to have the defense align incorrectly so that – while worried about the run between the tackles – they can be out-flanked on the edge. FB will take the first off color to flash outside before turning it up handle the alley-defender, and big opening can be creased down the sideline.

Lead T
Also known as Fold T, this is an Outside Zone variant in which a crack block or a pin block from a TE, H-Back, or WR is utilized to seal the EMOL on the line inside and allow the PST to become a lead blocker on the edge. Used both with and without the addition of a FB, this is a great way to both seal the defense inside and get a numbers advantage on the edge. It also allows OL to get out into late filling alley players, such as safeties, in a more confined area, giving a big advantage to the Big Uglies that like to punish their smaller nemesis.

This play can also be run to the Weakside by pinning with the PST and pulling with the PSG. This would be called Lead G

Down G
Down G is another combination man-gap-zone scheme. The backside blocks zone, but the playside generally blocks man/gap. Both the TE and the PST will down block to pin the defense inside. Off of that, the defensive EMOL will often be tasked with setting the edge and forcing the play back inside. Well the pulling PSG can use that to his advantage by driving him wider and deeper into the backfield, forming a natural crease for the RB. This play attacks the edge but goes inside the EMOL, giving the RB a clear alley to split the defense before getting vertical.

Counter H/F
This play mimics Power O in some ways, Iso in other ways, and Inside Zone at its inception. Incorporating down blocks once again, the initial step by the RB is in the same direction as the down blocks. Like Power O, both the FB and the BSG have the same flow. However, this time the BSG will kick the EMOL while the FB will lead through the hole into the 2nd level. As teams begin attempting to react faster and more downhill in an effort to stop the combination of hard hitting interior runs a runs that crease them to the outside, the counter opens up and takes advantage of that aggressiveness.

No old-school style I-Formation offense is complete without the Isolation play. This play can be run just as well to the Strongside or Weakside, but utilizes down blocks and double teams at the point of attack to initiate movement in the defense and utilizing power and momentum to the lead blockers advantage. Used mostly in short yardage situations as a quick hitting play.

Lead Draw
The lead draw really started because defenses began crashing the Iso before it could really develop. The MIKE was meeting the FB in the hole and the doubles couldn’t get to the 2nd level, and this limited some of the big play possibility of the Iso. So teams began implementing a draw component, but utilizing the same blocking scheme, only with altered timing. The result, a play that gets Big-on-Big, Back-on-Backer, forces the defense to respect the pass, and allows the offense to get movement before the defense can even react.

The Belly play features the entire OL performing down blocks. It looks like inside zone, and can act like inside zone if the RB decides to cut, but it is a play that at its heart features double teams and down blocks. Often used with a FB kick blocking the playside EMOL, another favorite wrinkle is to turn it into a read play, where the QB reads the playside EMOL. In this case, if a FB is used, he’ll often be tasked with BOSS blocking the alley filling safety in the event the QB keeps.

Double Lead
This is similar to an Iso play, but utilizes a double lead from both a FB and an H-Back through the hole. Typically, the idea is to attack off-guard in this situation, where the H-Back has OLB responsibility and the FB has MIKE responsibility. It’s a way to get bodies through the hole at the point of attack and maintain a Big-on-Big, Back-on-Backer philosophy, while creasing the defense.

A lead can also be run with the H-Back flexed out to WR. In that case, the FB would be targeting the SAM LB rather than the MIKE. It is essentially the same as an Iso play, only that the FB blocks the OLB instead of the MIKE and it is intended to go a gap further outside.

Long Trap
At its inception this will look a lot like Power O or Counter H/F, with the BSG pulling toward the playside. However, in this case, the pulling OG is tasked with trap blocking the EMOL, and rather than have the FB act as a lead blocker, he will be responsible for a BOSS block to prevent the second level from disrupting the play. The example below utilizes this blocking scheme to run a shovel pass.

Wham Inside Zone
This will look just like split zone, however, in this case the DT is left free at the snap rather than the BSDE. The Wham blocker will then kick him out, and with the OL able to get immediately to the second level, the RB has a nice crease to work with.

Why This Makes It Difficult For Defenses
There is no one simple read. This is a very complex and multiple run playbook, one that will likely be trimmed down to start with at Michigan (in 2008, Stanford was an Inside Zone base at least in several games, then they relied heavily on Power O in 2009 before really expanding in 2010; Harbaugh’s offense became more complex in the NLF). It will take time to learn and it will take time to implement. But the key is, whether running mostly man/gap schemes or whether they run mostly zone schemes, the playcalling will constantly keep defenses on their toes by mixing up reads and working to get a numbers advantage and leverage advantage at the point of attack.

Let’s look at a simplified table to see why it’s difficult for the defense to key on plays; below is a chart of the direction each blocker will go on a given play (note: this is against a 4-3 Over Defense)

A lot of these plays can be run out of 11 personnel as well as they can work out of 22 personnel, and Harbaugh will use both. But the core philosophy will remain the same, and that philosophy will be to “Move a man from point A to point B… against his will,” because damnit, that’s just a good time right there.

Note that I'm not getting into screens, end-arounds, QB runs, or option plays, all of which Harbaugh will utilize, and has utilized plenty of even before Andrew Luck became the starting QB at Stanford. I can get into some of those aspects later.



  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. What program do you use to draw plays?

    1. There are several programs out there for it. But for the purposes of this, I just use Power Point as it's fairly simple and cheap for my use.

  3. Thanks for this write up. Very informative and greatly appreciated.

    As you mention the combination has a lot of complexity. Michigan's Oline has been through multiple offenses and two OCs during the Hoke years. Now they have another major transition facing them. Would you care to hazard an opinion on which parts of this will be in the base offense when Harbaugh begins his first season? A repeat of his first year at Stanford or something different?

    1. I think the implementation will take time. Things like "Wham" are not things you want to start with, those are wrinkles that take some practice to know how to "pass" the NT with your OL and trap him with an H. So those are more possibilities down the road.

      I don't think the base will stray too far from what Michigan has done as a base the last 1.5 seasons. It'll probably lean more on Power O than Inside zone, but you'll see plenty of both (including split zone and lead zone). I'd also expect to see the stretch, Tackle Lead, and Iso (for and short situations) almost immediately.

      I'm currently writing an article that goes into how Harbaugh stretches the field laterally despite using heavy sets. In that, you'll see why stretch and Tackle Lead are relatively fundamental to his overall game plan, as they prevent the defense from shooting gaps between the tackles.

    2. I agree with Coyote on the 1.5yrs-- and Power-O. I call Power-O 34-PULL, to RT. Or 33-PULL to LT, using My Old Numbering System. The importance is the BSG-PULL for the play.

      BUT-- the Mch-O used 34-PULL a lot LY, and ALSO the ISO plays. 32-ISO to RG, and 31-ISO to LG.

      But neither 34-PULL or ISO ever developed any consistency-- at least In My Book anyway.

      There was ZERO use of LeadDraw, or even Counter.

      I suspect part of the problem for the Mch-RunGame of the last 1.5-2yrs, is this last point.

  4. yep-- this is Very Very Good by Coyote. His RunPlay ID-TypeCall Language often mirrors my own, and even The Ultra Technical Language INSIDE each RunPlay Type often mirrors my own.

    His ID of Lead Draw, is Extremely Impressive. And drawing The Distinction between ISO and Lead Draw is, well, even More Impressive.

    Coyote and I am are-- A-maize-ingly, it seems-- on The Same Page.

    But of course, Coyote is-- Way WAY Up There . . . in The Clouds . . .

    I-- am On Earth . . .


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