One of the toughest personnel groupings in football to defend is the 11/20 personnel Spread offense that utilizes an H-back/TE hybrid to create extra gaps and a multitude of formations. Teams that have a hybrid TE can line him up in the backfield, at slot, or on the line. The flexibility that an H-back brings to a multiple Spread offense is evident in the way the college game is evolving. More and more offenses are turning to hybrid “big” bodies to give defenses different looks on any given play. Going form a two-back three WR formation one play and a Pro Spread TE formation on the other.
One formation, in particular, is the weapon of choice for many teams that run Bash concepts, or “back away” runs, the 20 pers. “sniffer” look. One advantage offenses have by using a “sniffer” H-back is that he has a two-way-go. He can insert into an open gap (Iso), kick out the end man on the line (Power), pull along with another lineman (counter), or arc to seal a linebacker. There are a plethora of ways an offense can attack a defense using this grouping and formation. The addition of an extra blocker into the box also forces some teams to spin the secondary to add extra men in the box (which allows the offense to blow open the top on an isolated secondary player).
Don Brown, the Defensive Coordinator for the Michigan Wolverines, used a unique style of defense (shown below) to combat the Minnesota Gophers multiple 11/20 pers. running attack. The Gophers were entering the game 4-4 and looking to bounce back after a close loss to Iowa (10-17), while the Wolverines were looking to continue their winning ways having beaten Rutgers the previous week (35-14). Minnesota’s offense under new head coach P.J. Fleck is a mixture of TE sets and Spread sets.
When looking at the scheme Brown chose to defend the Gophers 11/20 pers. formations, one will notice the ultra aggressiveness towards the run and the lack of “coverage” for the H-back. Brown also had several change-ups and automatics to motion and the different formations the Gophers threw at the Wolverines. Below is a diagram of how Brown blitzed the Viper anytime the H-back motioned away.
Coach Brown during his clinic talk at the 2018 Lone Star Clinic noted the absence of the TE in the passing game during the Big 10 season. Outside of Troy Fumagalli at Wisconsin and Mike Gesiki at Penn State, one will be hard-pressed to find a TE that merits an extra man in the passing game. This allowed the Wolverines to add an extra defender in the box against most Big 10 opponents without worrying about an “H-Pop” or a TE streaking down the middle of the field.
Throughout the game, Brown’s defense was able to contain the Gophers running game, limiting them to just under 100 yards. As stated, Minnesota rarely used the TE/H-back in the passing game allowing Coach Brown to be ultra-aggressive to the run. Though the lack of an extra defender opened his secondary up to deep shots outside (and some did hit home), the Wolverine defense was able to limit Demry Croft, the Gophers QB, to a measly stat line of 5/12 for 74 yards passing. Below is a film study of how Coach Brown and the Wolverine defense defended the Gophers multiple 20 pers. looks.
“Solve Your Problems With Aggression“
Offenses that rely heavily on the H-back in the run game use the back as an extra blocker. Whether a simple Split Zone or a GH Counter, the H-back most likely will take the defense to the play. One way offenses can counteract this tendency is to utilize “Bash” concepts (shown below). This keeps the defense honest and stretches the defense horizontally and vertically. One simple mistake by a LB or D-lineman and the QB or RB is off to the races. Tom Herman, when he was the offensive coordinator for Ohio State, made a living on Bash plays and the Buckeyes still use these concepts.
The “Viper” or Sam LB can do a multitude of different things under Brown’s scheme to add into the run fit or drop into coverage. Brown uses several techniques to get the hybrid Sam into the mix versus an offense that uses an H-back. Michigan used the Viper near the open side of the formation if the H-back was aligned to the single WR side. This places a three-man man wall to the H-back. This technique is similar to a dropping safety in a Quarters defense. By placing a 5 and 3 technique near the Viper, it essentially eliminated him from the box fit (now a “free” player). Brown would choose to “travel” the Viper (discussed later) or insert him on a blitz depending on the formation and motion. Below is the film study:
Example #1: [1Q – P & 10] GF Trips Slot Open – Q CTR GT Bash (W) [Keep]
To begin the game Minnesota aligns in a 20 pers. 2×2 formation – GN Slot Twin. Brown’s base to begin the game is to put the Viper to the H-back’s side and set the strength that way too. If the H-back motions, which he does above, the alignment doesn’t change and the Viper blitzes to the upfield shoulder of the near back. The motion moves the Mike to the opposite “B” gap and the boundary safety gives a “down” signal telling the CB he is going to invert on the snap of the ball. Minnesota runs a Q Counter (GH) Bash. The strong side of the line runs a “Pirate” stunt and wastes the puller. The Viper, who is aligned outside the 5 and 3 tech.’s is unabated to the QB.
Example #2: [1Q – 1st & 10] GF Trips Slot Open – CTR GT (W)
Later in the same series Minnesota comes out in the same initial formation and motion. The Viper doesn’t move when the H-back motions across the formation. Unlike the first example (zone), the Michigan defense is now in a Cover 1 (man) look. The Mike, who is responsible for the H-back moves with him when he motions. The same “Pirate” stunt is run again and the Viper LB comes clean to tackle the RB in the backfield. By placing the Viper next to the front strength and putting two LBs in the box, the offensive line is “tricked” into not blocking him because of their rules (see below).
Example #3: [1Q – 2nd & 10] GN Trips Slot Open – Arrow Screen (S)
Minnesota counters Brown’s scheme later in the series by running a flat or arrow screen to the RB into the boundary. Michigan uses the same Cover 1 coverage as shown before. The arcing H-back is like a natural pick for the Will LB who is responsible for the RB darting to the flat. The defender manning the slot runs with him while he cracks the Mike leaving daylight for the RB. The weakside overload is negated by the quick screen. The RB catches the ball and scampers upfield to make it a manageable 3rd & 1.
Example #4: [1Q – 2nd & 8] GNP Twin Open (WC) – Q Iso Bash (S)
As stated earlier, Brown has several ways to play teams that are heavy 20p. In the video above, Brown is going to “travel” the Viper. Travel in Brown’s terms means the Sam LB is now responsible for the H-back and will take him where ever he goes. This allows the ILBs to fit their gaps, and if the “H” appears they will spill any run to the Viper who is going to “box” or be on the outside shoulder of the H-back. This is a unique way to gain a plus-one advantage against teams that use the H-back as a puller. Brown also opts to mug the Mike (or put him in a gap) and sends him through the strong side “A” gap. Below is a diagram of the call.
Spread offenses that utilize an H-back can “Steal” a man if they insert him in a gap or wall of a DE in a Split Zone. Brown reduces this stress by “traveling” the Viper and making him fit outside. Regardless if the play is a Split Zone or a Read-Arc, the defense has numbers. Offense use the H-back as a puller because it doesn’t trigger the ILBs. With no Guard pulling they are forced to fit their gap. In a simple Split Zone, one wrong move by the outside fitter to the H-back and the offense can have a big gain. In the video above, the penetration gets to the RB and he is stuffed for no gain.
Below is an example of a similar alignment later in the game. In Travel, the Viper fits off the H-back. In this particular play, Minnesota runs a Veer Toss out of a slot formation. The Viper clearly follows the H-back as he arcs for the ILB. Once the Viper sees the ball tossed he races outside. The safety manning the slot replaces as the slot cracks the Viper. What is lost in this outside Veer play is the pressure Brown chose to run. Much like the earlier Mike blitz, the Will is mugged over the Guard and the Nose crosses the face of the Center. This movement frees up the Mike, who works to the now vacated “B” gap anticipating the H-back to work back across the formation.
If the H-back were to go in motion the Viper doesn’t follow (Travel) opting instead to sink near the LOS with him fitting outside (This is demonstrated in the very first diagram). Because of the motion, the Michigan defense rotates to the H-back and the Viper must now relate to #2. With Minnesota shifting to a Wildcat backfield there is a slim chance the RB will pass the ball. This allows the Viper and the rest of the Michigan defense to be aggressive fitting the run.
Example #5: [2Q – 2nd & 9] GF Slot Twin (WC) – Q Split Zone Bash (S)
Minnesota used a shift to Wildcat several times during the game to run Bash concepts. The clip starts late, but you can see when the backfield shifts, the Viper hurries down to the LOS. The same Viper Pirate stunt as shown before is given a little twist by cutting the CB to the boundary as well (in the first example the safety inverted). If the Wildcat QB would have given the ball to the stretch the runner would have been collected by the trapping CB. With Minnesota in a Wildcat backfield, the Will to the field can be aggressive. Though the coverage aspect of this scheme looks weak, the tendencies don’t lie. Brown is going to force the Gophers to pass with their RB. Here is a look at the pressure:
Here is the same pressure later in the game versus a simple Inside Zone Read. The QB has to give the ball because the Viper and trapping CB are sitting on the outside of the box. The Viper can be ultra aggressive on the mesh because he has the CB in his back pocket to handle any QB run. This overload leads to a tackle for loss (TFL) and the Gophers behind the chains.
The same pressure is used later on in the game. With the QB dropping back for a pass, the trapping CB walls off any short hitch throw by working vertically with #1. The Viper outruns the TE to the QB and sacks him from behind. The three-man route is easily picked up by the defense’s weak roll. This route combination is referred to as “Shakes” in the Air Raid system. It divides the field into thirds. The outside WRs can run comebacks or inverted corners depending on what the OC wants. This is a great example of how a hybrid Sam can cause problems for offenses when leaving a sole TE or lineman to block him.
Later in the game, Brown has his Odd Stack personnel in the game and uses the same pressure. The result is very similar. The Viper is able to beat the TE to the QB and apply pressure. The QB is forced to scramble to his left and the Viper chases him down before he can get to the sticks. Brown utilizes packages to change-up the look, but most of the time, the scheme stays the same.
Example #6: [2Q – 3 & 12] GFP Twin Open – Split Zone (S)
Brown does a great job of giving offenses different looks whether from his base four-down of Odd Stack Nickel package. In the video above, Brown opts to go with his Odd Stack Dime being that it is 3rd and long. Regardless of the package, most of Brown’s defense translates from one package to the other. Everything eventually ends up looking like his base four-down. This creates seamless transitions from one package to the other and the players understand their fits because they don’t change. For instance, in this particular setting, the Will LB is now the 3 tech. A similar call to this look has been seen before, in an earlier clip (Example #2). See below:
Above is the same scheme, just used in a different package. The three-down Nickel package allows the Viper to travel with the H-back instead of the Mike in the above clip. In the 3-3 package, the backside safety acts as the Viper in the previous clip and sinks near the edge of the box ready to insert on the snap of the ball. The 3 tech. is replaced by the Will who mugs the Guard. The same “pirate” stunt is used to as well. The pressure works perfectly. The H-back takes the crashing DE and the Dime forces the RB to cut to the open “B” gap on the opposite side. The Nose stunt wastes the Center and Guard allowing the Mike to be free to hold the “B” gap. the backside Guard tries to climb, but to no avail. It’s now 4th down. Below is a diagram of the pressure. Notice how similar it is to the four-down version.
Example #7: [3Q – P & 10] GF Slot Twin – PA Pass (Shakes)
Minnesota ran the same play-action for the most part out of this personnel package, the Air Raid’s “Shakes” combination. On this particular play, Brown gives the illusion that the Viper is going to “travel” with the H-back. Once the QB gives the indicator to the Center, the whole Michigan defense shifts. This is the same weak side roll as shown before except the Viper is not adding in, instead of working the seam to the boundary. The Will LB is pushed out of the box and will “run the pole” through the middle hole as the slot goes vertical allowing the Viper and Mike to play the underneath and spy the QB. The trapping CB holds the edge and forces a hard throw for the QB. Here is a look at a diagram of the scheme:
Example #8: [3Q – 1st & 10] GN Trips Slot Open (Y-AC) – Veer Toss (S)
To counteract Michigan’s aggressiveness to the weak side, Minnesota turned to a Veer Toss away from the Viper. To this point in the game, the Viper was making a killing on the weak side of the Gophers’ offense and Michigan’s scheme was making it hard for Minnesota to run the ball. Knowing the Viper will trigger on motion, Minnesota moves the H-back across the formation and the Viper works down to the edge of the box. The Mike and Will “banjo” the H-back and RB. With the RB pushing, the Will now works to the RB and the Mike drops to take the arcing H-back. The aggressiveness of the Will makes it impossible for the slot to crack him near the LOS. The result is a loss for the Gophers.
Later in the game Minnesota tries the same play, but without the motion. The result is the same except this time the DE makes the play in the backfield. With the 3 tech. to his side, the DE can hold and will take the first threat. Even if the play were to bounce, the Viper has the leverage to turn it back or make the tackle.
Example #9: [3Q – 2nd & 10] GF Slot Twin – PA Pass (Shakes)
This is the same Viper Pirate stunt as shown earlier but against a play-action pass. Minnesota uses slide protection leaving the RB to come from the opposite side to pick up the blitzing Viper. The backside safety inverts into the seam area. The Viper’s blitz is knocked off by the RB, but the pressure does its job by forcing the QB out of the pocket. This is a great example of relentless effort. The Viper spins off the block and pursues the QB chopping his throwing arm creating a sack/fumble.
Example #10: [3Q – 3rd & 15] GF Trips Slot Open (WC) – Split Zone Bash (S) [Keep]
The clip below shows why teams are turning to hybrid players as blitzers and box players. The Viper’s speed kills the Split Zone Bash. Throughout the game, Minnesota kept turning to their Wildcat concepts look to try and negate Michigan’s ultra-aggressive defensive scheme. In the clip below, the QB makes the right read and pulls the ball (Viper has the stretch read). The stretch read doesn’t wall the Viper and he is easily able to collect the QB in the backfield for another TFL. Minnesota had no answer and will have to punt out of their end zone.
Example #11: [3Q – P & 10] GN Trips Slot Open (WC) – Power Read (W) [Keep]
Here is another example of how the overload to the H-back’s side allows for free players to the open side. Minnesota shifts again to their Wildcat backfield and runs a Power Read to the boundary. The play side offensive tackle, seeing the Mike mugged in the strong side “A” gap, latches on to the DT and helps the guard with a double team. The Mike, seeing his guard pull, wraps with him. The Will and DE exchange gaps and the DE boxes the pull. The QB, seeing the wrapping Mike bounces the play outside and follows the stretch where the DE and Will are waiting for him for yet another TFL for the Wolverines.
Example #12: [4Q – 2nd & 7] GN Trips Slot Open (Y-AC) – Zone (W)
In the final play of this breakdown, the Wolverines are in their Odd Stack package. As stated prior, Brown’s packages change, but the scheme does not. Originally, the Viper was going to travel with the H-back and the LB to the two WRs (#9) will act as the 3 tech. This puts the Wolverines in an “Under Travel” look (Under because the LB responsible for the 3 tech’s fit is opposite the H-back or strength). As the H-back motions across the formation, the Viper, as with the original automatic shown earlier, blitzes off the edge. The two OLBs switch responsibilities because the front flips. This puts #59 out of alignment and he inserts too tight into the box barely missing the RB bouncing outside. The Viper on the front side is unabated and runs down the line, chasing the back. This clip, though a gain for Minnesota, highlights how Brown’s scheme translates throughout each package.
This game in particular highlights how football is evolving in the Spread era. Khaleke Hudson, Michigan’s Viper or Nickel Sam, demonstrated how a defense with a hybrid at Sam can wreak havoc on a Spread offense. The use of Hudson near the LOS against the run and blitzing in the passing game gave Minnesota fits all game. His stat line for the night is pretty impressive too:
The usefulness of the Viper position was originally demonstrated by Jabrill Peppers in 2016 (Brown’s first season at Michigan). By using the Viper near the LOS, Brown is able to beat the offense with speed. Using calls like “Travel” to allow the ILBs to be “free” players is an ingenious move versus a 20 pers. Spread team. Adding simple checks to combat motion allowed Michigan to overload the Gophers. What is even more impressive is that the scheme translates throughout packages allowing Brown to sub different players without losing the base call.
Throughout the game, Brown used slight tweaks in coverage and different packages to keep Minnesota guessing. If Michigan was traveling the Viper and the H-back motioned, he would insert the Viper and overload the offensive line to the open side. This freed up the Will and Mike LBs to pursue the RB (and would help if the H-back “yo-yo’ed” and came back on Split Zone or Counter). By setting the Viper right outside the box and mugging ILBs, the Wolverines were able to expose some of the flaws in Zone schemes. Many times there was no one to block the Viper. 15 total tackles and 8 TFLs are astonishing numbers to consider.
Brown continues to find unique ways to defend formations. The only negative in the scheme is that the defense is essentially playing man-free (Cover 1) or rolling to Cover 3 (weak roll). This puts a lot of pressure on the CBs and safeties, but as noted in the article, Minnesota chose to run three-man routes against the Wolverines to allow for extra protection. Though they hit on a few occasions, the Wolverines were able to force difficult throws or sack the QB altogether.
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