After reviewing the background and some of the weaknesses in Evan Engram’s game here, it’s now time to look at how the Giants could try to “Harness energy, block bad.” The previous piece pointed out that despite his improvement as an in-line blocker, spending half of his snaps at the line of scrimmage overloads his play strength, particularly in the run game. In the pass game, space in the slot allows him the runway to get a good release through improving footwork and suddenness. Ultimately, his use of hands and body control suffer all the way through to the catch point if Engram doesn’t get started on the right track. The Giants need to get him on the carousel.
H-Backs in the modern game came into existence under Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibb’s offense in the 1980’s, where 12 personnel was used (1 RB, 2 TE’s, 2 WR’s), morphing from the more traditional two-back sets. Basically, the duties were split between a traditional “Y” TE and the “U” H-back, who was a jack of trades, blurring the lines between FB and TE. Fast forward to 2018, and the H-Back has seen a renaissance at the college football level, particularly in the Big-12, where teams like Lincoln Riley’s Oklahoma Sooners have used H-Backs like Dimitri Flowers not as gimmicks, but as consistent cogs in many phases of the game. This exists on some level at the NFL, with versatile fullbacks like Kyle Juszczyk in San Francisco. His general manager, John Lynch, has dubbed him simply an OW, or “Offensive Weapon.” One of the upsides of using a weapon like this often is the flexibility it offers in a formation without having to substitute personnel. This was discussed in Giants circles early in the preseason — the ability to be multiple with personnel and line up skill position players in different parts of the field. This somewhat reflects James Bettcher’s defensive backfield rotation. An H-Back scratches this offensive itch.
How does Engram fit?
Readers may be thinking, “But Engram’s body type, play style, and skill set does not mirror a fullback’s.” This tweener position can mean different things for different types of players, and good scouting work at some point relies on a projection. It depends on what is being asked of the position. For example, in the preseason, it was unclear if the Giants were even going to have a fullback on the roster. Shane Smith made the original cut, but he was replaced by Elijah Penny in the weeks after. The question is whether Engram can execute at least part of the base run attack in the H-back position filling in for Penny, and then what the upside is of moving a certain number of Engram’s snaps to the backfield. The marriage or compatibility of run scheme and pass attack here are critical to remaining multiple, lining in ways that threaten both run and pass. That was one of the more potent parts of Pat Shurmur’s 2017 Vikings offense. For a closer profile match, the Eagles’ use of hybrid TE Trey Burton from 2017 stands as a good example. Although his offensive snap count was mostly in the 10-15 range, head coach Doug Pederson still felt confident in him running G Lead scheme on a 4th-and-1 in the red zone with Burton helping to seal the edge.
The Giants have a rush attack that varies in scheme and is still trying to find its identity. The majority of runs are inside zone to the weak or open side of the formation, but they also run outside zone, split-zone, and a few gap scheme concepts, from duo to power. On extreme occasions, like Sunday versus the Titans with their backs against the wall, their mix leaned toward a major use of zone (14 out of 16 runs, by my calculation). Thus, reach and space blocks in that scheme would be the initial hurdle for this H-Back (if any of this sounds foreign to what Giants’ personnel and coaches said in the offseason, remember to watch what teams do, not just what coaches/personnel say).
Let’s look at outside zone with force or lead, as some coaches say, where from a two-back set the first back leads to the point of attack. Teams run this in different ways, but against the Bears using an odd front in their base defensive personnel package, fullback Penny blocks the play-side inside linebacker. Often, coaches have the lead back pick up any players that come into his path as he climbs, so it doesn’t function the same way, for example, as an isolation play does. See below:
So the H-back, in this case, needs to have the agility to adjust his path and the overall speed to climb to the second level, and then be able to strike or influence a 225 lb linebacker. But note the technique (and the other linemen, for that matter). It is not about power or the ability to maul their opponent. In the case of modern defenses, the ILB/safety or SLB hybrids will be undersized and faster than traditional fullbacks. This will place a higher premium on agility, and potentially arm length and ability to strike — traits that players like Engram could hone and ultimately excel at.
Other than the zone schemes, the Giants do run gap schemes and, as alluded to above, the unit needs to find its identity. They have on occasion run schemes like wham and boundary sweeps without a huge amount of success. One gap run sticks out that may bridge the gap between Engram as TE and H-back, interestingly enough. It also mirrors the role a second back would have in inside zone, either cutting off a defined second tier defender on the front or backside. In the Week 2 Dallas game, the Giants ran the below isolation scheme:
Engram moves to the mike linebacker, Sean Lee, well and has good pad level through contact. This is, by my charting, the only time the Giants ran this play this year out of this personnel. Its limited use probably has little to do with Engram’s blocking ability but serves as an example that when he his given a clear path, he can neutralize second tier defenders on interior runs. If the Giants want to run more gap plays, then Engram has put on tape that he can get downhill.
Pass Scheme Potential
The above example of Engram provides a good illustration of H-back potential. Spreading out as the wide receiver with a “+split” (outside the numbers) allows the defense to dictate what type of cushion they want to play. Instead, the backfield naturally gives an H-back space. The offensive line acts as an obstacle and effectively brings the entire field into play for a route. Out of the offensive backfield, running horizontal crossers means going through the defensive backfield. An H-back can attack either half of the field on a much easier path. The Giants run a lot of split-zone runs and play-action, with wide receiver Sterling Shepard often as the sifter or slicer coming across the play. That sift from an H-back going into a vertical route looks like this:
This tape is from the Big 12 championship game between Texas and Oklahoma, two teams who feature the H-back a lot in all facets of the offense. The sift action to a bluff block allows Engram enough of a runway to gather speed and then pivot north, continue to the flat, etc. Many have scoffed at Engram’s route charts from websites like the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, where his use in the Giants’ quick game is on many horizontal routes, looks like the below:
Pat Shurmur, like many coaches, including the Rams’ Sean McVay, wants to stretch the defense horizontally and vertically. Using an H-back is a way to keep those elements intact and cater to a player’s need for a clean release. The issue here honestly is not the route potential, but whether Engram can consistently slice block at the level of someone like Sterling Shepard. The best offenses marry their rushing and passing formations and personnel groupings so that all elements look the same for as long as possible. This part of the analysis is a projection, but Engram is willing, and it the H-back values athleticism over functional and play strength. Simply showing him moving opposite the run direction may be enough to set up and build on a passing game plan.
At this part of the article, one could dig and find multiple other examples of H-back usage in the Big 12 and claim the Giants should emulate it. Coaches and personnel staff spend exhaustive offseason hours in both self-scouting and studying other offenses. In short, there’s nothing I can tell those coaches that they don’t already know. The key, if this type of position is a real possibility for Engram, will come down to blocking. The creativity of the passing concepts for an H-back is best left to the coaches and the grease board. For the purposes of this piece, however, other macro-offensive aspects of the H-back position are worth discussing, as they both compliment aspects of the Giants’ scheme and aid some of the weaker characteristics.
Starting off coming out of the huddle, if Engram was in the backfield on early downs, defenses would have to decide for themselves whether to account for Engram as RB or a TE. For example, if paired with three other receivers, is that an 11 personnel or 20, and how do they answer? Most would answer with nickel sub-packages, and running the ball with Barkley would consequently become easier with defenders forced to honor the box. If there was another tight end in the package, the question of 12 or 21 is not really the issue for the defense. The issue becomes how to play man coverage if in base defensive personnel? See the below image back from the recent Titans game. If they want to play man coverage on Engram from this alignment, an OLB/LB would have to cover him. This is not an impossible coverage answer, but they would have to change their front and DB alignment to remain balanced in their run fit.
Sticking with formation issues, many teams deem an H-back a two-back set, which means some automatically move to a to a one-high safety look. This would set up potentially more favorable coverage looks for quarterback Eli Manning (or whoever is in at QB), giving further initiative post-snap to the offense. This was the case back in 2017, when then head coach Ben McAdoo in the far red zone motioned Engram to H-back and ran a simple vertical route from play action. Please see the below video:
The last element before the snap is moving Engram out of the backfield to the slot with late motion. These actions give more pause to defenses as they adjust coverage-wise. All of the above are not deadly, but they put the offense in a position to dictate to the defense a bit. There is a reason teams like the Patriots and the 49ers are always the highest users of 21 personnel in the league. It’s for elements like this, but with Engram, you add a dynamic, bonafide threat as the movable piece. To be clear, this is not to say “run the offense through Engram.” The number of actual targets is not the key, but rather maximizing the times he touches the ball.
The H-back has other benefits for an offense, like naturally adding to the flexibility in pass protection. An in-line tight end would have to shift to the other side before the snap to pick up a blitz. An H-back has the freedom to aid either side of the formation. Defenses that move their best pass rushers all over the front can be a real headache. On early downs, having the H-back can give coordinators more answers to problems. Quarterbacks and centers set the protection and, as ex-QB Dan Orlovsky says often, “Every play pre-snap presents both a problem and an opportunity for the offense. This H-back gives more answers to problems posed by the defense.
In conclusion, there are many benefits of taking a threat like Evan Engram and moving a large percentage of his snaps to the backfield as an H-back. This position harnesses the positive traits of athleticism, long speed, length, and ability to improve. It minimizes his weaknesses from Part 1 of this edition, which include play strength, short-area burst, and refined route running. This backfield position would be an additive to Shurmur’s offensive playbook, of which the goal is to stretch a defense vertically and horizontally. Engram would not only widen the range of ways to do that, but it would also open up avenues to put many different players in conflict. The H-Back is being utilized at the forefront of offensive innovation in the Big-12. The Giants have a chance to utilize a tweener’s traits and skill sets with little risk. Sometimes the best answers for an offense are already on the roster. You just have to get them on the carousel.