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Throwing to the fullback from the spread

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The play-action or POP pass to the fullback is becoming increasingly popular with spread teams.

NCAA Football: Oklahoma at Ohio State Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

I’ve devoted thousands of words at this point explaining why the fullback is becoming a staple in spread offenses. For spread teams that want to run the ball, using a fullback in the H-back alignment can allow them to create new gaps up front that will require that the defense sends a DB into the box to support the run fit has all kinds of benefits for creating favorable matchups for speedy skill players outside.

You can read about how I’ve chronicled the return of the fullback here, here, and here. Today I just want to talk about some RPO and play-action concepts that teams have been adding as a way to make the most of blocking H-backs who have good hands and some open field moves.

Oklahoma and Penn State, to name just a few prominent examples, both utilized a new favorite concept amongst spread running teams while scoring big victories over Ohio State and Pittsburgh respectively.

The old favorite way to throw to the H-back

The split zone run is one of the most popular plays in all of football. It essentially combines the best of the gap schemes like power or counter with the standard inside zone play:

It’s great for attacking 4-2-5 Over-quarters defenses that have become all the rage amongst today’s defenses. A savvy RB can run through the play side A-gap here if the LBs vacate it while chasing the H-back who’s creating a new gap on the weak side off the double team. The prize is the cutback lane created between the H-back’s trap block of the DE and the double team of the nose tackle.

The favorite way to throw the ball to that H-back off this play would come from a rollout in which the H-back would feign throwing the block before releasing into the flat for a “y-banana” type quick pass.

The new hotness

Nowadays the weak zone run is just as popular as the split zone run, from this set the H-back is lined up to the same side as the RB and he either helps chip the DE for the tackle or takes him on heads up to allow offense to double team both tackles and get the guards going downhill on the linebackers:

The more downhill nature of the weak zone run opens up possibilities for a different style of RPO or play-action toss to the H-back.

The challenge for the defense is that the H-back is regularly being used to create double teams and angles up front for the OL to knock holes through the front that require immediate run support from the LBs and whichever DB is supposed to account for the new gap. But that H-back will also be the responsibility for one of those same three defenders in the coverage. That creates the possibility for him to feign a block and then release down the middle for a quick pass.

Even if this doesn’t land a big shot on the defense, the threat of it is enough to cause hesitation for the DE, the LBs, and whoever has the H-back in coverage. Hesitation makes it harder to aggressively fill downhill to help the double-teamed OL when it’s actually a running play.

Oklahoma hits Ohio State

I’ve already detailed some of the various ways that Lincoln Riley and Baker Mayfield attacked the Ohio State defense last weekend. Weak zone and split zone are components of the Oklahoma run game but they also love the counter play and did most of their damage throwing to the fullback on those runs.

However, the first time they hit the Buckeyes with FB Dmitri Flowers it was with the weak zone, play-action toss.

Ohio State just got caught here, plain and simple. They’re working out of a 46-style package and the backside linebacker (MLB Chris Worley) is clearly unaware that the FB toss over the middle is coming. Fast flow LBs are always vulnerable to play-action and misdirection but the positioning of the H-back makes this pretty nasty. Count this one against the Buckeyes’ film prep because the FB release toss was on film a year ago.

OU’s Dmitri Flowers is a great athlete and he absolutely torched the Buckeyes on concepts like this one, but imagine if he was a 4.6 type speedster? Barry Switzer took the wishbone offense to another level when he started using faster fullbacks on the dive plays to threaten explosive gains up the middle, there might be the possibility for some similar innovations down the line from plays like this.

Penn State jolts Narduzzi

There are fast-flowing, downhill defenses that attack the run game and make absolutely certain that if you beat them, it’s by throwing the ball. Then there’s Pat Narduzzi’s defenses, who pretty much define the edge of the spectrum for aggressive run defense.

Penn State knew that going into their game against Pittsburgh this last weekend and had a nice play dialed up for TE/H-back Mike Gesicki early in the game.

This is actually a zone read play rather than a weak zone run but the principles are very similar. Narduzzi is looking to get as many guys in the box as quickly as possible at all times, against this three-wide look the plan is to use the free safety over the top behind the linebackers and to add the sam linebacker to account for the extra gap that the TE can create.

Penn State runs a zone read play where the RT chips the DE and then leaves him unblocked for Nittany Lion QB Trace McSorley to pretend to read like on a standard zone read bluff play.

The bluff refers to the H-back, who would normally arc up to block a LB, but this time he breaks down as though he’s blocking the sam linebacker but then releases past him. The strong safety has the slot receiver in man coverage and is pulled away by the bubble route, the free safety is on the other end of the field, and all three LBs are playing downhill as a response to the Lions executing inside zone run blocking.

There’s no one on the TE as he releases downfield for the easy six.

One of the interesting dimensions to this play is that it’s not play-action like the Oklahoma play, the OL is run blocking and McSorley is making the play on the go. Also it’s noteworthy that in both instances, each team has a shorter (6-0 or so), mobile trigger-man at QB that specializes in using his feet to create throwing lanes and in throwing on the run.

These are nasty college-style tactics that make the challenges faced by defenses in matching up to spread running attacks all the more difficult. The QBs that excel in these tactics aren’t necessarily going to be the same as the guys that are prized for having NFL measurables. Ultimately, this is a nice way for athletic FBs and TEs playing as H-backs for these teams to get the ball in the passing game without having to master pro-style option routes or working against DBs.