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.
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 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.