Offensive Formations in American Football
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Before we get started, it’s important to remember one thing: The language of football doesn’t always make sense.
A lot of coaches use different words to describe the same thing, and so the names you’re going to read about in this article are very generic, and not necessarily the name that a team will use for a formation in their offensive football playbooks.
If you’re using these terms with a football coach or an extremely knowledgeable fan, it’s almost a certainty that they will at least know what you’re talking about when you say “Twins Formation” for example, even if they don’t call it that.
Formation names are just a way to get offensive football players to line up in a certain way, so whatever your players can memorize best will work. There is more than one way to do it.
So let’s get started…
Basic Offensive formations in American football
In this first section, we’ll talk about some very basic formations in football. Some are used more than others today, but you can still see their influence after so many years.
The name for the I Formation is pretty straightforward- The running backs in the backfield are lined up behind the quarterback to look like the letter “I”. This formation has been around for decades because of its simplicity, and all the ways it allows an offense to run the ball.
In this formation, you have the “tailback” (sometimes called the halfback) lined up the deepest in the backfield, and in front of him is the “fullback”. The fullback is usually much more of a blocker for the tailback, but some coaches like to see the fullback carry the ball quite a bit as well.
For example, one of the greatest college football teams of all time, the 1995 Nebraska Cornhuskers, won a national championship the I Formation as their primary formation. Their head coach Tom Osborne ran a triple-option offense and everyone, including the fullback, was a threat to carry the football.
The advantage of the I Formation is that since the backs are lined up right behind one another, it makes it very easy to run the ball right up the middle with a blocker in front of the ball carrier. The offense can get the fullback to block on the middle linebacker in a hurry, and create a lot of space for the tailback to run between the tackles.
The I Formation is much more than a brute force running formation, however, as having three eligible receivers on or near the line of scrimmage allows the offense to create some legitimate threats downfield for the pass.
Split Backs Formation
Next, we go to the Split Backs Formation, where the backfield is split in half with a running back lined up on either side. The exact alignment depends on where the coach wants them to be.
Usually, when an offense wants to run the ball a lot out of this formation, the running backs are lined up tighter to the inside, behind the two guards. This lets the quarterback take the snap and either hand it or fake it to a running back right away and threaten the defense with a run.
On the other hand, if an offense wants to turn it into more of a passing formation, the backs will be split out wider, behind the two offensive tackles, so that they can get out of the backfield quicker and start running pass routes.
You don’t see this formation much anymore…
You’re much less likely to see the split-back formation in a football game than you used to, at least in an NFL or college football game. The formation has almost gone extinct in modern football because most teams prefer to get a second receiver or tight end on the field instead of two running backs.
Those teams who do still use two running backs usually prefer to use the I Formation instead.
Still, if you find yourself at a high school game on a Friday night, there’s still a chance you could see this formation pop up from time to time, either version of it.
The Twins Formation is a term used to describe a formation where two receivers are lined up on one side of the formation, and there is only a tight end (or maybe two tight ends) lined up on the other side.
See the diagram below for a common example of the Twins formation.
You will note that the backfield is still lined up in the I Formation, and that’s because Twins has a lot of potential formation variations.
Offensive coaches will sometimes use this formation to make the defense choose which side they want to focus on. If the offense wants to throw the ball, they have two receivers to one side of the formation. If they want to call running plays, they have a tight end and an extra blocking back who can go to the opposite side.
The idea is that you have a “flexed” side and a “tight” side that gives you the ability to run and throw the ball effectively from the same formation.
Another version of the Twins Formation, sometimes referred to as a “Wing Twin” formation, is shown below:
In this example, the offense has a pair of tight ends to the right, creating a “wing” side and a “twins” side on the opposite side. A lot of modern NFL and college football teams use this formation for the same reason they use the traditional Twins formation: They want to be able to present a credible threat to run and pass the ball, and putting that second tight end up near the line of scrimmage makes him an even more dangerous threat to go deep and catch a pass.
Spread Offensive formations in American football
Now let’s go through some formations that you’re very likely to see during any NFL or college football game, and formations that make up a big part of what’s known as the spread offense.
This is a very generic name for this formation, but as we discussed in the introduction, most coaches will know what you mean when you say “Ace”.
You’re going to see some version of this a lot during games since most modern offenses prefer to spread out the defense with multiple wide receivers. We’ll go into more of the reasons for this in another article, but the idea is to create one-on-one matchups with the receivers and leave fewer defenders between the tackles to stop the run game.
This formation is a staple of the modern spread offense, and just about every offense in football uses this formation in one way or another since it’s so versatile (it’s not just a pass formation).
The tight end who is “attached” to the offensive line gives the offense the ability to run the ball, and the three receivers on the field (plus the tight end) give the offense two eligible receivers on either side of the formation to throw the ball to.
It’s also worth noting that the term “Ace” is a term that can be used to describe any “balanced” formation with two eligible receivers on either side. For example, if the tight end was split out wider and detached from the offensive line, a lot of coaches would still refer to it as Ace, as you see in the diagram below:
Trips are the natural counterpart to Ace. Now you have three eligible receivers to one side, and a single receiver to the backside.
One of the benefits of this formation is that the defense now has to make a choice: Do they rotate the coverage toward the side with the most receivers? Or do they stay balanced and play the same for both sides? If you ask a defensive coordinator, he’ll tell you the answer depends on who that backside receiver is.
If the single receiver to the backside of trips is one of the best players on offense, they probably don’t want to leave him in single coverage, since that’s what the offense wants.
Of course, it’s not all about the passing game. This formation features a tight end who oftentimes will be attached to the offensive line, giving the offense the ability to get the edge on the defensive line and create leverage for whatever running plays the coach is trying to call.
The Trips Formation is another example of a formation in that almost everyone runs in football in one way or another. Just like “Ace”, it can be used as a generic term for any formation where the offense has three wide receivers to one side and one to the other.
You’ll see an example in the diagram below of another version of what a lot of coaches will refer to as “Trips”:
It can also include formations with multiple tight ends.
The empty formation features five eligible receivers split out, lined up on, or just a yard behind the line of scrimmage. This is another formation you’re seeing more and more of these days with so much spread offense at every level of the game, and the empty backfield formation is definitely considered a spread formation since it literally spreads defenses out as much as possible.
Coaches call it “Empty” because the quarterback lines up in the backfield as the sole man in the backfield. There are no other running backs lined up next to him or near him, so it’s literally an empty backfield formation.
This formation used to be mostly a passing formation, where the quarterback would have to get the ball out in a hurry because he had very little pass protection. With only five offensive linemen blocking and no running backs, pass-rushing defensive linemen have an easier time getting to the quarterback. As a result, the idea used to be that the offense would spread out the defense, find the mismatch or the receiver who was uncovered, and get it to him quickly.
That strategy still works, and teams still use it, but offenses have become better and better at pass protection, and the rules have changed to favor the offense more so that teams have the ability to throw deeper passes (which take longer to develop and require the offensive line to block longer) as well as call creative running plays that take advantage of the holes that are naturally created in defense by this formation.
Speaking of the empty backfield formation, let’s talk about another version of the empty set that often appears in the spread offense: The Quads Formation.
As you probably guessed, they call it quads because it gets four eligible receivers over to the same side, which forces defenses to make hard choices about who lines up where, and whether they are going to try to cover everyone.
Put another way, if the defense wants to put a defender across from all four wide receivers to the side of the quad, they can’t really disguise that, so it really limits the different looks a defense can display.
The Bunch Formation is another generic term for any formation that features a 3-man alignment of wide receivers as you see below. Coaches refer to this as a bunch and it can create a lot of problems for defenses, especially when a team has several wide receivers that are tough to cover.
What makes the bunch formation especially dangerous for defenses is the ability for the receivers to cross paths just after the snap, and create confusion for the defensive backs.
Football offenses can use these types of formations to create picks or rubs for a receiver and to get him free against tight-man coverage.
For example, if the Z receiver in the diagram below has a defender assigned to him in man coverage, and the two receivers inside of him get vertical quickly, all he has to do to elude the defender across from him is to release inside and underneath, and suddenly he’s got enough open space to get open for a reception.
This is why the bunch forces defenses to spend time on it in practice because you need special calls and combination coverages to be able to cover all the different ways a team can run pass routes from this alignment.
We’ll go into greater detail on bunch formation pass plays in another article.
In this section, we’re going to talk about formations that aren’t technically formations but are still important to know and understand.
So let’s get this out of the way, the shotgun formation isn’t really a regular formation- it’s a backfield set (or a backfield formation).
What’s the difference?
A formation defines all eleven offensive players on the field, whereas the “shotgun” only refers to the way the quarterback lines up in the backfield and receives the snap from the center.
There are almost unlimited ways to line up in a shotgun formation- You can line up with two running backs, one running back, or none at all, just like the empty backfield formation we discussed a moment ago. If the quarterback lines up deeper in the backfield (usually between 4-5 yards behind the line) so that the snap has to travel through the air from the center, that qualifies as a shotgun formation.
Most teams these days will line up in the shotgun with one running back lined up to one side or the other of the quarterback, and the other four eligible receivers line up near the line of scrimmage, but other times they can line up with two or more backs in the backfield as well.
This brings us to another version of the shotgun formation…
This might sound confusing, but the Pistol Formation is technically a shotgun formation but is also classified as its own backfield formation. The difference is that the running back is lined up directly behind the quarterback, unlike the typical shotgun formation where he’s lined up off to one side or the other.
The pistol was developed into its own offense by Coach Chris Ault, who liked to use the gun but didn’t like the way that it forced the running backs to line up differently than they would’ve if the quarterback was under center. This is important because it is harder to create a “downhill” run game that attacks the middle of defense if your running backs are taking the handoff and starting with their momentum going side-to-side instead of vertically.
So instead, he decided to keep his running backs in the same spot as they would normally line up if the quarterback was directly behind the center so that the offense could have the best of both worlds.
The running back would be able to come straight downhill, take the handoff, and build up momentum to run right up the middle just like in a traditional formation, but the quarterback would be lined up deep enough to take the snap and have extra time to throw just as in the normal shotgun.
Coach Ault did not invent the pistol formation, but he was the first to develop it into a full-fledged offensive system when he was the head coach at the University of Nevada. His success with the pistol led other teams to study it and incorporate it into their offensive formations.
These days it’s extremely common to see college football teams line up in the pistol to run and throw the ball. One of the disadvantages to this formation is that the running back starts deeper in the backfield, and directly behind the quarterback, so it is sometimes tougher for him to see the defense when he’s supposed to be pass-blocking, and get to where he’s supposed to be.
Overall, it’s a great tool to drive the opposing defensive coordinator crazy and make his life tougher.
Single Back Formation
The Single Back Formation is exactly what it sounds like. You’ve got one back in the backfield behind the quarterback.
Though there is no definite rule about the term, most coaches only call it a Single Back-formation when the quarterback lines up directly under center.
Several of the formations we’ve already discussed can be considered a single back formation, including Ace and Trips, and this is just another word coaches use to add context to the description of a play and formation.
Old School Formations
In this section, we’re going to cover some formations that you’re a lot less likely to see on an NFL Sunday or even from your favorite college football teams, but still, get a lot of play at the high school levels and below.
Let’s start with the Wishbone Formation. The Wishbone is named for the unusual backfield formation that resembles, you guessed it, a wishbone.
The Wishbone Formation is the basic form of the Wishbone Offense, which we will cover in more depth in another article.
The three running backs in the backfield provide a lot of opportunities for misdirection, and this formation is often used to run all sorts of option running plays, which makes it a perfect fit for the high school level where it is sometimes harder to find good passing quarterbacks.
The Flexbone formation sometimes referred to as the “Double Slot” formation, is the basic formation involved in the Flexbone offense.
The formation was developed from the Wishbone formation that we discussed above, but instead of three running backs lined up deep in the backfield, two of them are moved up closer to the line of scrimmage to create more of a threat for the pass as well as the run.
This formation typically features one of the running backs to either side (sometimes called an “A Back”) put in motion to the other side, while the quarterback can open up and toss it to him, give the ball to the fullback (sometimes called a “B Back”) or throw it downfield.
The Flexbone has been around for a long time, but one coach who is well known for running this formation and offense is Paul Johnson, who was the head coach at Georgia Tech until the end of the 2018 season when he decided to retire.
Double Wing Formation
The Double Wing formation is something you rarely see anymore, even at the high school level, but the teams who run it are very tough to defend. Some teams may use a version of this as strictly a goal-line formation, but there are others who base their entire playbook on it.
This formation features, you guessed it, a “wing” on each side of the formation, which is football slang for a blocker just off the line of scrimmage and lined up extremely close to the tight end. It also usually comes with incredibly tight “splits” by the offensive line, meaning that most coaches prefer their offensive linemen in this formation to line up as close together as possible so there is not even an inch of open space between them. This way, there is no open space for the defensive line to shoot through an opening and cause trouble in the backfield.
The double-wing formation creates a lot of issues for defenses because of the ability for the ball to go in either direction or right up the middle. Since the formation is balanced, and there is no numbers advantage to either side, the defense has no idea which way the ball is going until after the snap and a quick fake or handoff.
At first glance, the Double Wing formation may not look like anything special, but coaches who have tried to stop it will tell you it is one of the most challenging offensive formations to prepare for.
The T Formation used to be the primary formation at both the college and professional level, but these days, when it is rarely used, it is mostly used as a way to beat a goal-line defense.
Having three backs in the backfield allows for all kinds of misdirection, play-action fakes, and quick handoffs, which is what the game relied on the back when the rules weren’t so advantageous for the passing game.
You won’t see this formation very often unless you attend a lot of high school football games, but it still has an influence on the game today, as we’ll see with the next formation we talk about.
This formation is sometimes referred to as a Wing-T Formation. Even though the Wing-T offense features many different offensive formations to attack a defense, if an offense lines up this way, it will automatically be identified as a Wing-T offense.
The Wing-T was adapted from the old T formation that we just covered a moment ago, similar to the way the Flexbone formation was adapted from the original Wishbone.
The formation uses a lot of quick motion by one of the backs lined up close to the line of scrimmage, and can get the ball to anyone in the backfield, as well as creating a lot of opportunities for the play-action pass.
The formation (and offense) was popularized by Coach Harold “Tubby” Raymond at the University of Delaware, and he used this as a primary offensive formation with the offense to win 3 National Championships and 300 total games during his tenure.
We will go into further detail on the Wing-T offense in another article, not to be confused with the Slot-T Offense.
Power I Formation
The Power I Formation is typically used as a kind of goal line formation, adding an extra blocker to the backfield gives an offense more of an ability to run the ball when the defense is expecting it.
This formation is much less of a passing threat, but as we’ve already discussed, any time you have this many running backs in the backfield, you can get very creative.
On the other hand, you could run something as simple as an off-tackle power play, and you’ve got the numbers in the backfield to do it.
Single Wing Formation
To be clear, there are all kinds of different versions of a single wing formation, but this offense still influences today’s game at all levels, and there are plenty of coaches who still use it as the foundation of their offense.
Just like the double wing formation has two “wings” as part of the formation, the single wing formation has just one “wing” and it’s used to try to create leverage for the offense to block defenders and run the ball.
The single-wing formation here is characterized by having multiple players in the backfield who can receive the direct snap from the center and threaten the defense in any direction.
As we’ll see in the next section, this formation still has a major influence on teams that may not even use the single wing as part of their base offensive formations.
These are unusual formations that you don’t see as often but can cause defenses a lot of problems if used correctly.
The Wildcat formation is a cousin of the old Single Wing offense that we’ll discuss in more detail in another article. The traditional Wildcat formation features an unbalanced line and a player other than the quarterback taking the snap.
In the diagram below, the left tackle has been moved to the right side, while the tight end is playing in the spot where the left tackle usually lines up. This creates an unbalanced line, with extra run-blocking ability to the right, but the ability to throw a pass to the tight end on the left.
It’s a really crazy look, which is why it is tough to prepare for.
Why would an offense use the Wildcat? Well, for a couple of reasons:
First of all, you’re usually lining up in a formation that is very different from most basic formations that the defense usually sees, or even that you usually see. If the opponent tries to line up in the typical defensive formations that they specialize in, they’re vulnerable to the unbalanced side. On the other hand, if all the players at the defensive line shifted over to the unbalanced side, now you’ve got an opportunity to the opposite edge of the formation.
This is also effective because the guy taking the snap should be one of your most dynamic players. Instead of snapping it to the quarterback, and then either handing it to that guy or throwing it to that guy, you’re getting it in his hands as quickly as possible.
The Wildcat formation has been around for a very long time, but it got re-introduced to the general public as a hugely successful formation in 2008 when the Miami Dolphins used the formation to upset the New England Patriots early on in the season. The Dolphins continued to use it throughout the season, and partially due to the Wildcat, they won a division title after starting 0-2 on the year.
You don’t need to be an NFL team to run the Wildcat. No matter what level you play at, it’s an effective way to get the ball in the hands of your best player.
Emory and Henry Formation
The Emory and Henry formation gets its name from Emory & Henry College in Emory, Virginia, where it is believed to have originated. It takes the idea of a closed or unbalanced formation and flips it on its head.
This formation is very balanced, but it’s also very unusual, with the players, including the offensive line, spread out for the full width of the field into separate pods, almost like a punt formation. The idea is that the defense will have trouble lining up correctly to one side or the other, or they’ll over-adjust and leave room inside for running plays.
Even if the defensive line spreads out to account for the wider offensive linemen, and all you have left in the middle of the defense is a nose tackle, you can still run the ball up the middle.
You won’t see this one very often, but every once in a while a college coach who likes to get creative will pull it out of the bag of tricks, and the Cincinnati Bengals even used it on a regular basis when Marvin Lewis was the head coach.
You can see some examples of the formation in the video below:
Swinging Gate Formation
The Swinging Gate is a tricky formation that is typically used after the offense scores a touchdown, and the field goal team lines up in an unusual way that forces the defense to either line up to it properly or gives up an easy score.
There is no “one way” to line up in this formation since there are lots of different versions, but usually, it looks something like what you see in the diagram below.
In this example, the offense has the option of either snapping the ball to run a trick play, or they can decide to line back up and kick the extra point if the defense doesn’t give them the look they want. It is considered a very effective way to go for two points after a score.
This is not normally used in the middle of the field during a drive, but there is no rule preventing it.
Click the link to read more about the swinging gate formation.
An Unbalanced Formation features 4 or more ineligible players on one side of the center or the other.
A legal football formation consists of seven players on the line of scrimmage including the center, and most of the time this includes a guard and tackle on either side of the center, and finally an eligible player at the end of the line on either side.
We won’t go too much deeper into football rules in this article, but a player is not allowed to catch a pass if he lines up on the line of scrimmage and is “covered up” by someone else- meaning that there is another player lined up on the line of scrimmage outside of him.
When we talked about the Wildcat formation above, we gave you an example of an unbalanced formation. The left tackle lines up to the right side of the formation to give that side extra “beef” in the run game, and so now there are an unbalanced number of people on the right side of the line of scrimmage. This is a big reason why it is such a big part of the goal-line offense for teams, especially in high school and college football.
Of course, just like a lot of these other formations we’ve covered, there are lots of ways to do it. Many times an offense may decide to move one of their wide receivers over and cover him u on the line of scrimmage, making him ineligible to catch a pass.
What’s the point in lining up in offensive formations like this? It’s true that a receiver won’t be as good at blocking the run as someone who plays offensive line, but it still creates a strain on a defense. Sometimes the opposing defense won’t recognize it.
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