Offensive Formations: Backfield Alignments

Backfield alignments are classified first by how many backs are in the backfield and where they are positioned.  Before discussing their positioning it must be determined to what reference they are positioned.  We will use the most common conventions for this discussion, starting with the history and evolution of the game as necessary to understand the concepts.


 

The Flying Vee Era

When the game of football was first being played, the team with the ball would line up in a big vee shaped wedge and run at the defense with the ball carrier protected behind the point of the vee with the two sides angled back to protect his flanks.  Then the rules were changed to require seven men on the line of scrimmage and the play to start with the snap of the ball to a player in the backfield with only one player allowed to be in lateral or backwards motion at the the snap.

The Single Wing Era

The game evolved, and soon the way the game was commonly played was from a formation with two ends and four backs: the quarterback, the halfback, the fullback, and the tailback.  Some variations moved one of the backs outside the tackle as a wing back, though by that alignment he should be classified as a receiver, since a back would be aligned in the backfield behind the offensive linemen.  The ends were usually tight ends in the early evolution of the game, then some teams began occasionally splitting out one or both ends to widen the defense.  This was generally done to create more room to run the ball, as at that time the passing game wasn’t very organized in its development.  Typically one of the four backs would receive the snap from somewhere sometimes deep in the backfield and they would cross up with each other and one would dive straight ahead with the intention of confusing the defense as to who had the ball and where it was going.  Conversely, the two ends would streak down the field and try to catch a pass.  Often times the halfback would be the passer.  It wasn’t uncommon for the formation to have an unbalanced line.  Then along came the wing-T formation.

The Wing-T Era

At some point it became common for the quarterback to move up and take the snap directly from the center.  He could then hand the ball off to the fullback or halfback,  or fake the handoff and pass the ball to a receiver.  The formation now commonly featured a wingback, with one tight end and one split end in varying configurations.  Usually the fullback was aligned about three yards behind the quarterback and the half back was aligned even with the fullback behind one of the guards.  Sometimes the wing back would come around behind the formation after the snap and take the ball on a reverse.

The Two Wide Receiver Era

Later, it became common to move the wing back player out to a flanker position outside the tight end so the offense would have a wide receiver on each side —  a split end and a flanker.  Again this further widened the defense.  There were still two backs in the backfield (besides the quarterback).  Also around this time someone came up with the convention of assigning a letter to each receiver to make play calling easier, using the letters “X”, “Y”, and “Z”.  The split end is the “X”, the tight end is the “Y”, and the flanker is the “Z”.  It is at this point that we will begin to diverge from the history lesson since many common terminology systems use the tight end as a reference and are based out of a two-back formation.


 

Closed and Open, Strong and Weak

It used to be that the side the tight end was lined up on was called the “strong” side, with the opposite side called the “weak” side.  It is now common to call the side with the tight end the “closed” side, and the opposite side the “open” side.  So if the tight end lined up on the right, the right side would be the strong/closed side and the left side would be the weak/open side.  If the tight end lined up on the left, the left side would be strong/closed, and the right would be weak/open.  Think of it as the open side has an open area between the tackle and the split end for a slot receiver to line up in, whereas on the closed side, that area is closed off.  Now lets talk about the backs using the closed and open sides as a reference.

Backfield Alignment

In the Wing-T formation, the fullback usually lined up directly behind the quarterback and wasn’t concerned with where the tight end was for alignment purposes.  However, the half back could align even with the fullback either on the closed or open side of the backfield, behind one of the guards.  Early on, a color code was used with blue meaning the halfback was aligned to the closed side and brown meaning he was aligned to the open side.  A later naming system used the terms near and far, with near meaning to the closed side (near the tight end) and far meaning to the open side.

The I-Formation

A later development moved placed a tailback directly behind the fullback.  Typically the fullback was in a 3-point or 4-point stance and the tailback was in an even 2-point stance.  The fullback would align about three to five yards behind the quarterback with the tailback positioned a couple yards behind the fullback.  Often the fullback would lead the tailback through a hole in between the linemen on either side and the tailback would take a handoff from the quarterback hoping to get a block from the fullback.

Split Backs

Bill Walsh later made popular the red alignment, where the backs were split on opposite sides of the backfield with the halfback in a far alignment and the fullback in a near alignment.  His splits had the backs aligned a little wider, approximately in the gap between the guard and tackle or on the inside leg of the tackle.  He could also tag the formation red right/left “change”, where the the backs would switch positions, with the halfback now near and the fullback far.  He didn’t let limit the “change” call to be used just in the red alignment.  He expanded the change call to be used in the blue and brown alignments.

The Offset-I

Many teams would instruct the halfback when aligning in a blue or brown “change” formation, putting the fullback offset to the side and the halfback behind the quarterback, to align a little deeper depending on the play being called, so that the blocking scheme would have time to develop by the time he got the handoff from the quarterback.  Eventually the halfback was essentially aligned much as a tailback would be in the I-Formation with the fullback offset to the closed or open side.  These two sets became alternatively known as Blue-I (closed) and Brown-I (open), Strong-I and Weak-I, or Near-I and Far-I.


The Shotgun Formation

At some point it was determined that it would be easier for the quarterback to get back to a position where he could be at a safe distance from the pass rush where he could step up and throw a strong, accurate down field pass if he took the snap from deeper in the backfield.  Thus was born the shotgun formation with the quarterback positioned around four or five yards behind the center receiving the snap.  With the advent of more pass happy teams using the shotgun snap it was common for one player to move from the backfield to a receiver position.  Now with one back in the backfield he was usually aligned in a near or far position, roughly even with the quarterback where he could easily take a handoff or slip out and run a pass route.

The Pistol Formation

Eventually someone figured out the quarterback could take a shotgun snap from a position closer to the center, allowing for the balanced threat of a tailback directly behind the quarterback, and the pistol formation was born.  The pistol has the quarterback about three yards behind the center.


Single Back Formations

When there is a single back in the backfield, it has become common for him to align as either a tail back, or in a near or far position.  In today’s era of teams using multiple formations and alignments, “tailback” and “halfback” are no longer often considered positions on the depth chart, but instead are one of many positions that a “running back” can align at.  This is not the case for the “fullback” position.  This term more often is considered a type of player on the roster that is still used primarily as a lead blocker out of the backfield from the “fullback” alignment in the I-Formation or Offset-I.  With the proliferation of spread (singleback) offenses, the 2-back set utilizing both a running back and a fullback has declined in use, and with it the fullback position.  Some teams don’t even carry a fullback on the roster.

Other Variations

There are other notable backfield alignments that have had periods of great success: the Wishbone, Flexbone, and Power-I.  The Wishbone may have predated the I-formation and featured a fullback aligned close behind the quarterback with two halfbacks set one on each side a couple yards behind the fullback.  It was a 3-back formation that was used to predominately feature the veer triple option game.  The Flexbone is similar with a close fullback, and a slotback on each side of the formation in a close split.  Usually just before the snap, one of the slotbacks goes in motion back behind the fullback near where a tailback would align, but with full momentum at the snap.  This is technically a single back set motioning to a two back set.  It’s also primarily used to run the veer triple option.  The Power-I is another 3-back set that features a fullback and tailback in an I-Formation with an additional offset back aligned on either side of the fullback.  It is used to get an additional blocker for handoffs to the tailback.

 

 

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Offensive Formations: The Basics

A quick note about the history of the game and the names of positions on the field and how they relate to formations — In the modern game, the name of a position doesn’t always correlate to where they are aligned in the formation.  This is because the game has evolved and changed over the course of time.  The positions did at one time accurately describe where a player was aligned.  That evolution is really another topic all in itself, and may be interesting and useful in anticipating where the game may be going in the future.  I will focus on this page, and in general on this site, around the current game and it’s common conventions.  Now the basics…


 

The Rules

By rule, the offense must have seven players on the line of scrimmage at the snap of the ball.  The other four players must be positioned some distance behind the line of scrimmage, one of them being the player receiving the snap.  It should also be noted that the end players on each side of the line of seven players on the line of scrimmage are eligible receivers, with the interior five players being ineligible.  Given these guidelines, there is an immense number of different configurations the players can legally take on the field.   Let’s take a look at some of the more common configurations and their piece parts.


 

The Offensive Line

The five ineligible players on the line of scrimmage comprise the offensive line.  Typically the center is in the middle of the five flanked by a guard to his right and left, with a tackle outside of each guard.  The center snaps the ball to the quarterback.  This configuration is called a “balanced line”.  If the ball is snapped by a player that is not the middle player of the five linemen, it is considered an “unbalanced line”.  In most cases, unless other wise stated, offensive formations are assumed to have a balanced line.  In addition to relative positioning, stances and splits by offensive linemen can vary.

Offensive Line Stances 

Offensive line stances are either 2-point, 3-point, or 4-point.  Each stance has advantages and disadvantages.  A 2-point stance allows for the best lateral and backward movement, and is thus the best stance to be in for pass protection, pulling, and blocks that require lateral movement.  A 4-point stance is best for firing straight forward with low leverage to drive the opposing player back, thus it is best suited for short yardage running plays.  A 3-point stance allows for a little of the low leverage of the 4-point stance with better lateral and backward movement, but less than that of a 2-point stance.

Offensive Line Splits

Splits are the distance between players on the line.  They can vary from different age groups, coach to coach, and may change play by play, dependent on the game situation.  Generally, younger, smaller players use smaller splits and older, bigger players use larger splits.  A common high school split could be normally set at two feet between the center and the guards, and three feet between the guards and the tackles.  The splits could then be changed in-game to “tight” or “wide”, with “tight” being a one inch split across the line and “wide” being  an increase of one additional foot from the normal splits across the line.  It should also be noted that as the guards and tackles align themselves, they need to be positioned behind the ball as it is handled by the center.  There is a “neutral zone” extending the length of the ball in which neither an offensive or defensive player can be positioned.  For this reason, guards should pick a convenient landmark in the center’s stance and align to it, such as placing their hand down even with the center’s toes, so that the forward most part of their body is behind the nuetral zone, then the tackle can align even with the guard.  This can also be adjusted, because the further back the guard can get away with aligning, the easier it will be to make “pull” blocks.  Also, the tackle will be further back in a better pass protection position.


 

Backs and Receivers

The offense has eleven men of the field, and five of them are ineligible linemen.  That means the remaining six are eligible players.  Two of those eligible players are the ends to each side of the line, leaving four more players behind the line of scrimmage, all of whom are eligible.  To make a general distinction of those positions, they are considered either to be backs or receivers.  Assuming an offensive line with normal splits, a player aligned somewhere behind the offensive linemen is considered a back, and a player aligned somewhere outside to the left or right of the linemen is considered a receiver, including the two ends, who are always considered receivers.  The reason this is so important to strategy is because in the forward passing game, one of the four backs is passing the ball, usually the quarterback, with the other five eligible receivers free to go down field and catch the ball.  The defense then needs to have a plan to cover five possible pass receivers on any given play.

The Ends

The two end players are the two eligible receivers on the ends of the line and can each align any distance between the furthest outside lineman to their side and the sideline boundary.  They are generally considered to be either a tight end or a split end.  A tight end is usually at a split similar to that of the offensive line, perhaps three feet from the tackle, and often down in a 3-point stance.  A split end is usually at a greater distance from the tackle,  and often is in a vertical, staggered 2-point stance.  Players are usually assigned a position of tight end or split end and move to either side of the line based off of the strength (left or right) of formation called.  In the earlier days of football ends were assigned the position of left end or right end, and didn’t change sides.

Receivers 

The two ends are always considered as receivers in the formation.  After considering them, you now consider any other eligible players aligned as a receiver to either the left or the right of the formation.  There are generally considered as one of three basic alignments, a wing, slot, or flanker.

A wing is a player normally aligned with the same split of a tight end, but off the ball (behind the line).  A wing can be aligned just outside a tight end or outside the tackle where the end is a split end.  They are typically down in a 3-point stance or in an even 2-point stance.

A slot player originally described a player positioned between a split end and a tackle, detached from the core of the formation (in the slot between the end and tackle).  It is now more loosely used to describe a player aligned between the widest receiver to a particular side of the formation that may be on or off the ball, and the tackle.  A slot player is usually up in a vertical, staggered 2-point stance.  Don’t confuse this with using the name “slot receiver” to describe a position on a team’s depth chart who is usually the team’s #3 wide receiver.

A flanker is a player positioned in a detached split from the formation outside the end, and aligned off of the ball.  Typically a flanker is aligned wide outside of a tight end.  There could be a slot player between the tight end and the flanker, or a wing player for that matter.  There could possibly be a split end with a flanker aligned just outside.  Those variations extend beyond the scope of the basics, and are covered on the Offensive Formations page.

Backs

There are a few different types of backs.  A long time ago, the name of the backs’ positions described where they aligned.  In the modern game, the names don’t fit the alignment, but have become strongly associated with their respective common roles.  In the old days, the four backs were the quarterback, halfback, fullback, and tailback.  From that description you can get a basic idea of how they were aligned.  Furthermore, in those times the center could snap the ball to a different back on different plays.  Obviously, the game has changed considerably and the quarterback is now usually the back receiving the snap.  With that being the case, in modern terminology, when describing a formation the quarterback is assumed as always receiving the snap and not counted as a variable back in the formation.  With that distinction, if a formation has a quarterback and one other back in the formation, it is called a one-back formation.  If there’s a quarterback and two other backs, it’s called a two-back formation, and so on.  The number of backs being counted are the backs besides the quarterback.  So for our purposes, we consider a back to be a player lined up somewhere behind the offensive linemen and that is not the quarterback.   As far as specific backfield alignments are concerned, you can learn more on the backfield page.  First let’s determine how many backs (besides the quarterback) are in the backfield and classify the formation accordingly.


Classifying Types of Formations

A general way of classifying types of formations is by looking at the piece parts.  Let’s start with assuming a balanced line with normal splits and look at how the backs and receivers align.  We know there will be at least one receiver to each side, considering there must always be an end on each side.  The remaining four eligible players can align either in the backfield or as a receiver to the left or the right.  We are assuming that one of those remaining four is the quarterback.  So to simplify things we can say that a formation usually has three fixed eligible players: a receiver on the left, a receiver on the right, and a quarterback in the backfield.  Now the only variable parts in this system of classification are the remaining three players, and whether they align as receivers to one or the other side or as a back in the backfield.  A more intuitive way to look at it is to consider the offensive line and quarterback as relatively fixed components, and the other five “skill position” players as the moving parts.  If we break it down using this concept, all offensive formations are one of six types.

The six basic types of formations:

1 x 1

2 x 1

2 x 2

3 x 1

3 x 2

4 x 1


 

1 x 1 Formations

“One by One.”  One receiver to each side.  This leaves three backs in the backfield (commonly called a “full house”).  Two important things to note — first, that the formation is balanced; second, that this is the only configuration of a 3-back set.

2 x 1 Formations

“Two by One.”  Two receivers to one side and one receiver to the other side.  This leaves two backs in the backfield.  Two important things to note — first, that the formation has a definitive strong side (the two receiver side); second, that this is the only configuration of a 2-back set.

2 x 2 Formations

“Two by Two.”  Two receivers to each side.  This leaves one back in the backfield (commonly called a “singleback” set).  Two important things to note — first, that the formation is balanced; second, that this is one of two possible configurations of a 1-back set.

3 x 1 Formations 

“Three by One.”  Three receivers to one side and one receiver to the other side. This leaves one back in the backfield (commonly called a “singleback” set).  Two important things to note — first, that the formation has a definitive strong side (the three receiver side); second, that this is one of two possible configurations of a 1-back set.

3 x 2 Formations

“Three by Two.”  Three receivers to one side and two receivers to the the other side.  This leaves no backs in the backfield (commonly called an “empty” set).  Two important things to note — first, that the formation has a definitive strong side (the three receiver side); second, that this is one of two possible configurations of an “empty” set.

4 x 1 Formations

“Four by One.”  Four receivers to one side and one receiver to the other side.  This leaves no backs in the backfield (commonly called an “empty” set).  Two important things to note –first, that the formation has a definitive strong side (the four receiver side); second, that this is one of two possible configurations of an “empty” set.


Wrapping It Up

While there’s considerably more to offensive formations than what has been described here in the basics, you should now at least be ready to tackle the finer points armed with sufficient knowledge.  I should add one last note that this system of classification is a far more practical tool for the defense than it is for the offense as a way to determine how to line up and who to cover under the quick time constraints between plays.

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Offensive Formations

In order to better understand and identify offensive formations it’s helpful to understand what makes up the individual parts, as well as how the rules of the game affect formations.   If you aren’t knowledgeable on this subject, read up on the basics.


 

Offensive formations can be classified as one of six basic types:

1 x 1 (3-back) “Full House”

2 x 1 (2-back) “Regular”

2 x 2 (1-back) “Doubles”

3 x 1 (1-back) “Trips”

3 x 2 (empty) “Trips Empty”

4 x 1 (empty) “Quads”


Further breaking it down should identify the five cases where the passing strength is to the open side, particularly for defensive purposes:

2 x 1 “Slot ” formations

2 x 2 “Doubles Slot Open” formations where there are two WR’s to the open side (passing strength) and two TE’s to the closed side.

3 x 1 “Trips Open” formations — the single receiver side is the TE.

3 x 2 “Trips Open Empty” formations — the TE is to the two receiver side.

4 x 1 “Quads Open” formations —  the single receiver side is the TE.


Now, combining these we have the eleven basic families of formations:

1 x 1 “Full House”

2 x 1 “Regular”

2 x 1 “Slot”

2 x 2 “Doubles”

2 x 2 “Doubles Slot Open”

3 x 1 “Trips”

3 x 1 “Trips Open”

3 x 2 “Trips Empty”

3 x 2 “Trips Open Empty”

4 x 1 “Quads”

4 x 1 “Quads Open”

It should be noted that memorizing the families and their names as eleven discrete entities isn’t necessary if you can instead identify that they are constructed from patterns that are repeated — either of the “Doubles” families are two by two; any formation with three receivers to a side is either singleback or  “Empty”; any “Open” formation has the passing strength opposite the tight end; a 2-back formation only has three receivers and can never have balanced passing strength…and so on.  Once you examine those eleven families and start making those connections you are putting this knowledge to good use.  This is particularly true when teaching pass coverages, where numbering the receivers to assign coverage responsibility comes into play.


 

Now that you’ve defined these basic families of formations, you then further refine it by backfield alignment, who is on or off the ball, varying splits, and stacking and bunching receivers.

Backfield Alignment

Start by identifying if the QB is taking the snap under center, from the pistol or from the gun.  One way it can be done is that when no call is made, the QB is under center, other wise “Pistol” or “Gun” is called.

Now identify the RB’s (and FB in 2-back) alignment.  If no call is made, assume RB in 1-back set is in a tailback position, other wise call “Near” or “Far.”  In 2-back set call “I”, “Near-I”, “Far-I”, “Near”, “Far”, “Split”, or “Change”.  You can use a “Vee” call in 3-back to put RB at tailback, FB in near alignment and third back in far alignment.  Other wise calling “Near-I” or “Far-I” gives you an I-formation with an additional near or far back.

It’s also important to have some calls that will align a RB in a receiver position.  This could be in the slot or flanked out wide to the closed or open side.

Players On and Off the Ball

It’s common for the X and Y receivers to be aligned on the ball and Z receiver to be aligned on the ball, but it’s good to have some formations and alignments that allow them to switch.  For example, “Off” can mean the Y is now off the ball and the Z moves up on the ball.  In a slot formation, “Exchange” puts X off the ball and Z on the ball.  The reason this is important is two fold: because an “Off” alignment by a tight end puts him an better position to pass protect, make a “wham” block, or pull to the open side to kickout the backside end on inside zone plays, and because it changes who is the underneath receiver in rub route and high-low pass route combinations.  For example, you may want to run “Smash” or “Dagger” from a “Slot Exchange” alignment to help the #2 RCVR get over the top of #1 quicker, allowing the QB to get the ball out sooner.  These alignments make useful keys for the defense for these reasons.

Varying Splits

Varying receiver splits can be used to better position a player for a number of different reasons.  Flexing out a TE into a wideout alignment can free up a good athlete to make a play in space and can really cause problems with the way the defense calls it’s strength.  It’s also common for teams to assign their WR’s a “normal” split, a “plus” split and varying degrees of a “minus” or “reduced” split.  Often the splits vary depending on where the ball is placed in reference to the hashes.  A “normal” split may could be considered to be about 12 yards from the sideline when the ball is placed in the middle of the hashes and move out a yard or two with the ball on the near hash and move in a couple yards with the ball on the far hash.  A “plus” split would widen the receiver’s alignment by a couple yards, and a “minus” split would shorten it by a couple yards.  A “reduced” split might be further shortened down to just outside the tackle.  Because defensive backs should be taught to be acutely aware of what kind of split a receiver is taking for purposes of using either the sideline or inside players for help in limiting the passing game, a WR’s split can affect how he is played by the defense.  Like any other aspect of alignment, splits can better position receivers to execute their assignments.  A plus split can help isolate the CB away from his inside help and free up room to run a slant.  A minus split can can better position a WR to attack the safety in the seam or create open space to run an outside breaking route.  A greatly reduced split can put a WR in a position to make a crack block inside, run a reverse, or run a crossing route.  This is again also a useful key for the defense.

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Offensive Personnel Groupings

The system used to identify personnel groups on this site is the two digit system that has grown in common use.  The first digit indicates the number of running backs in the group, the second digit indicates the number of tight ends.  The number of wide receivers is determined as the remaining number of the five “skill position” players on the field (besides the quarterback).

Under this system, the personnel groups are called as follows.  You’ll notice I’ve omitted groups with more than three tight ends, since most teams don’t carry more than three tight ends on the roster:

Group     –     Personnel

01              –     0 RB, 1 TE, 4 WR

02              –     0 RB, 2 TE, 3 WR

03              –     0 RB, 3 TE, 2 WR

10              –     1 RB, 0 TE, 4 WR

11              –     1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR

12              –     1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR

13              –     1 RB, 3TE, 1 WR

20              –     2 RB, 0 TE, 3 WR

21              –     2 RB, 1 TE, 2 WR

22              –     2 RB, 2 TE, 1 WR

23              –     2 RB, 3 TE, 0 WR

30              –     3 RB, 0 TE, 2 WR

31              –     3 RB, 1 TE, 1 WR

32              –     3 RB, 2 TE, 0 WR

Conversely, each package can be called by name, although several different naming conventions are in use and as a player or coach moves from one system to another, this can cause considerable confusion and require relearning what is essentially the same information with new terminology.  For this reason, the two digit numbering system has spread in popularity in coaching circles as a way to make the personnel group naming more intuitive.  When the coach wants one running back, one tight end, and three wide receivers on the field, he just calls, “Eleven personnel!”  It’s up to the players to remember which groups they are in based off the depth chart.  For example, when the coach changes from 11 personnel to 12 personnel, the slot receiver should come off the field and the second tight end should come on the field.  If he then changes from 12 personnel to 21 personnel, the second tight end comes off the field and the fullback comes on the field.

 

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Playbook Downloads

Playbook downloads are listed on two separate pages for the sake of organization.  The links below point to a separate page with a list of the actual playbooks available for download.  If you have trouble with a download, leave a comment or email me at eric@pigskin.ninja.  Let me know which playbooks you want and I can email them to you.

College Playbooks

NFL Playbooks

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Glossary of Terms and Phrases

0 route: Shallow drive pass route.

0 technique: Nose tackle aligned head-up on the center.

1 route: Quick pass route to the flat. 

1 technique: Nose tackle aligned on shade to open or closed side of the center.

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Communications

Playcalling

Huddling

Cadence

Pre-snap Calls

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Special Teams

Kickoff

Kickoff Return

Punting

Punt Return

Field Goal/Extra Point

Field Goal/Extra Point Block

Fakes in the Kicking Game

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