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Steelers Offense in Focus: What to look for in an H-Back

Jaylen Samuels was the prototype for an H-Back in Matt Canada’s offense.

NCAA Football: North Carolina State at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Jaylen Samuels exploded onto the scene in 2015, the sophomore increased his touches from 21 as a freshman to 121 in his second year in Matt Canada’s offense. He turned those 121 touches into 965 yards and 16 touchdowns. Samuels produced those numbers on a pretty balanced work load with 65 receptions and 56 rushes, scoring seven times on receptions and 9 times on runs.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Jaylen Samuel’s production was his position. Jaylen Samuels played H-Back, a hybrid position that is half fullback, half tight end. From that position, Samuels was the Wolfpack’s leading scorer and receiver, while ranking as the #2 running back and second in yards from scrimmage.

With all of his production, it might surprise you to know that he spent a lot of plays as a blocker.

Jaylen Samuels is the H-Back (right behind the tight end) to the bottom of the screen.

While not expected to block as well as a tight end, Samuels was asked to lead block, pass block and come across the formation to seal edge defenders. He wasn’t a great blocker, but he was good enough, and his blocking led to opportunities in the passing game.

Jaylen Samuels is the H-Back to the top of the screen.

In typical Matt Canada fashion, a lot of the motion (and most of the defense) goes one way, and the ball ends up going the other way. Jaylen Samuels was at his best in these situations, he wasn’t asked to run a great route or read blocking, he releases into space, finds the ball and makes a play in the open field. Samuels was more dangerous as a receiver than anything else, and that made him a perfect fit for the spread-offense inspired version of Matt Canada’s offense he developed at NC State.

Jaylen Samuels is in gray, the player in motion to the bottom of the screen.

With his ability to block, catch and run with the ball, Samuels was a tough matchup for teams without an elite athlete at linebacker. Syracuse has a safety on Samuels, and that safety isn’t used to navigating pick routes like this one, and Samuels is open for another of his touchdowns.

As an H-back, one of the places Samuels would line up is in the backfield as a fullback, where he would lead block, but was also a threat on play-action passes.

Jaylen Samuels is the fullback.

By the time the defense realizes it isn’t a run play, Samuels is all alone and it’s an easy toss and catch for the touchdown.

I wanted to show these touchdowns because these aren’t fantastic routes or great runs after the catch, the majority of Jaylen Samuels’ production was set up by his versatility, and how Matt Canada schemed to weaponize that versatility.

The last part of Jaylen Samuels game I want to cover here is as a runner. While a good chunk of Samuels’ rushing yards were gained filling in as the tailback, he was a dangerous runner from his H-back spot as well.

Jaylen Samuels (#28) is the H-Back to the bottom of the screen.

Jet Sweeps were another good fit for Jaylen Samuels’ open field playmaking ability.

While most football players get put in a position where they can focus on doing one or two things at a very high level, an H-Back is more valuable the more versatile they are. One of the main problems a player like that faces in the NFL is the increased average athleticism and the number of defenses with linebackers that can easily handle a “jack of all trades, master of none” type of player like Jaylen Samuels.

One of the toughest challenges that face Matt Canada and his offense is finding players that can create the versatile threat at the H-back position that helps his offense thrive. In the next part of this series, I’m going to start looking at the Steelers 2020 season to see how Matt Canada’s influence worked in his first year working with the offense, and draw some clues for what to expect in 2021, including players that might be well suited to the H-back role.