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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