Inside the Playbook: Minnesota's Use of TEs to Attack the Hole

I’ve talked previously about the advantage of having good H-backs in an offensive system. Minnesota, coming off the Maxx Williams era, has continued to use TEs/H-Backs/FBs in a variety of ways to present match up issues through the use of formations/keys. Against Michigan – a team that primarily plays Cover 1 with a very deep center-field safety – they used the position of the H-Back to attack what is known as the “hole” of the defense. The hole – typically associated with Cover 2 teams – is the void in the defense in front of the safety level (typically directly between the two-high safeties) and behind the LB level. Let’s take a look at how Minnesota attacked this void through the air, and how it was set up with their formations.

Heavy Personnel – Split TEs
Minnesota comes out in 22 personnel (2-TEs and 2-RBs) and only 1 WR. This forces Michigan to stay in at least their base defensive personnel group of a 4-3, but they went one better and came out in a 4-4, further limiting their options. When the Gophers break the huddle, they split two heavy guys to the field, another to the boundary, and the WR (Maye) in the slot to the boundary. Minnesota then motions the WR from the boundary to the #3 position to the field.

Defensive Reaction
Forcing the defense to come out in a 4-3 limits how the defense can play this. The defense really has five options here:    
  1. Rotate the field CB inside.
  2. Move a safety down
  3. Lock with the motion and have boundary CB follow WR across formation
  4. Walk out a LB
  5. Go zone

Some of these options overlap; all of them have weaknesses.

Let’s start with the first option: rotating the field CB inside to match up with the WR. CBs like to play on the outside; it is where they are accustomed to taking on a run play, it’s where they are comfortable with where to take their eyes, it’s where they can limit the direction receivers can attack you. It’s also the position the receiver has the most space to work, in that the defender has a lot of field to cover. Moving a CB inside forces another defender to cover that space, either a safety or a LB. Moving the WR into the #3 position with late motion would mean that the CB would have to communicate a very late switch with either a safety or a LB to get on the outside guy while he moved inside; the risks the defense not being set up and having a communication breakdown.

This now overlaps with the second item above. Most likely, a safety is already rotated down to cover the #2; if not, he’s helping out over the top. But by rotating a safety down, you are tipping your coverage. Either the defender on the outside (either a LB who isn’t used to working in space or an out-sized CB) has no help over the top. The only other option is to move the boundary safety across the field to help over the top or move him across the field to cover the WR. Neither of these things are optimal. Moving the safety pre-snap leaves a one-on-one situation with an out-sized player to the boundary; it also still has a safety matched up with a WR in the slot (tough cover) and leaves no one deep or has safety help over the top but still leaves you with matchup problems still (to the boundary, #1 to the field with no help over the top; LB in space either over #2 or covering a WR).

Here’s what it looks like rotating the field safety down.

And here’s the issue rotating the boundary safety down.

The third option is something Michigan ended up countering with, and is another advantage to adding the motion man. Motioning across the formation tips the coverage. Now you have a CB locked onto a WR moving through wash to get to the far side of the field. This sets up a lot of rub routes and is a very difficult cover for the CB. Similarly, it still leaves another player to defender the boundary player that isn’t accustomed to covering in space. Either a LB (though he may have safety help over the top, but that likely limits safety help over the trips side or forces the defense to play with 5 defenders in the box) or moving a safety onto an island to the boundary.

The fourth option has been discussed in a few of these. You can cover #2 and #3 with LBs, but this takes two defenders out of the box (leaving you with five against five blockers and two potential ball carriers) and still often sees a LB matched up against a WR. Yes, the coverage has help, but run support does not; and it’s typically the MIKE (often the worst cover LB) that is forced to cover the #3.

As far as going zone, that works, but your hand is tipped (often by the motion of the WR). You lose the tight coverage you desire, and you’re still forced to have LBs try to cover quicker counterparts underneath.

How It Works for Minnesota
So what you see is that, simply by formation, Minnesota has forced Michigan into a tough situation for how they want to play it. Michigan ends up leaving both CBs on the outside threats, moving a LB out over #2 (leaving the field safety to help over the top), and moving the MIKE into sort of an apex position between #3 and the offensive EMOL. The MIKE is put into a run/pass conflict, and the coverage is tipped. Minnesota attacks the hole.

The Minnesota WR runs what I’m calling a Quick 6 (aka. Bolt Route, Slice Route; it may be a choice route but I doubt it) it which his stems quickly inside, gets vertical behind the LB (often the stem to set up a corner route or an out route) and then slants across the field directly into the hole of the defense, behind the LBs (setting himself up in the throwing lane between the underneath defenders) and in front of the safety. Easy-peasy lemon-squeezy.

H-Back in a Blocking-Back Position
Blocking-Back (BB) designation comes from old single-wing to separate the positioning of the player from that of a wing-back (typically off the LOS outside a TE or OT) or an Halfback (typically half way back – hence the name – and offset). The Blocking-Back lines up directly behind the OL, lined up between an OT and OG. As the term indicates, they are most often used for blocking, as they allow the offense to insert a blocker through the LOS or outside the LOS with the additional benefit of often times hiding him behind the big uglies up front (as to not give away the play direction). Rarely are they used in the pass game except to leak out of the backfield, as their position makes it difficult to get a clean vertical release.

How It Works for Minnesota
Minnesota likes to run Lead Inside Zone to the weak side of the formation. The BB position puts that FB/HB in a spot to get through the LOS quickly and attack the playside LB before he can get down  into the hole the RB is trying to attack; so it’s a good spot to run the ball out of.

For that reason, it’s also a good spot to run play action out of. By positioning him in the BB position, it forces the LB into a really difficult run/pass conflict. While the OL doesn’t hard sell the run fake, the OT still kicks the DE and the is still OG moves inside on the interior defender, and combined with the FB coming full speed at the LB, it sells it enough to force the LB to react down to defend the run immediately.

This reaction to the run allows the BB to slip the block and run what is often referred to as a “bender” route (though typically run from the slot, this has the same purpose) in which the receiver starts by slightly stemming outside before bending his route back inward and attacking the void in the defense. He can do so by either carrying out the seam or post, flattening his route into more of a dig, or running into the hole of the defense and settling. The ball comes out before the receiver can even settle though, and it’s a big gain as the offense, with their positioning and tendency, has forced the LB into a very difficult conflict.

I love moving players around because it forces the defense to think constantly. On top of that, it gives the offense ways to exploit how defenses typically set up and react. Both of these plays are examples of Minnesota doing just that with their TE group. It’s something you see more and more around football today, and is a key way in which Minnesota remains a “heavy team” but still stressed the defense in the pass game.