How to Identify Football Formations

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When football players take the field, they line up in certain places on or behind the line of scrimmage. These patterns are called formations. Here’s a brief overview of the lineups for both sides of the field.

Click here for a PDF that summarizes the formations.

Offensive formations

An offensive formation is how the offense aligns all 11 of its players prior to using a particular play. A team can run or pass out of many formations. Here are three of the most popular ones:

  • Shotgun offense: The shotgun offense is often used on passing downs. This formation gives the quarterback (QB) more time to visualize the defense, particularly the secondary’s alignment. Here’s what you’ll see:

    • The QB lines up 5 to 7 yards behind the center.

    • The center makes a long snap to the QB.

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  • Split-back formation: In, Teams use the split-back formation because it’s difficult for the defense to gauge whether the offense is running or passing. Here’s what you’ll see:

    • The runners are aligned behind the two guards about 5 yards behind the line of scrimmage.

    • The backfield is balanced (that is, it’s not aligned toward one side or the other). This makes it more difficult for the defense to anticipate what the play will be.

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  • I formation: The I formation is ideally suited to a team with a great running back because this lineup allows him to have complete vision of his blockers and the defensive players’ first reaction to the run. Here’s what you’ll see:

    • The tailback (TB) — the runner who will carry the ball — can place himself as deep as 7 yards from the line of scrimmage.

    • If the blocking holds up, the runner can be in full stride when he nears the line of scrimmage.

    • Before the play begins, you’ll see why this formation is called the I: the quarterback (QB), fullback (FB), and tailback form an I, with the fullback between the quarterback and tailback.

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Defensive formations

Defensive players line up differently based on what they think the offense is going to do. Their goal, after all, is to stop the opposing team and get the ball back for their offense. Here’s a look at some common lineups that defenses use to keep the offense in check.

Most defenses are named by their fronts, or the number of defensive linemen and linebackers who align in front of the defensive backs.

  • 4-3 front: The 4-3 defense is a well-balanced defense on paper. It consists of

    • Two defensive tackles (DT)

    • Two defensive ends (DE)

    • Two outside linebackers (LB)

    • A middle linebacker (MLB)

    • Two cornerbacks (CB)

    • Two safeties (S)

  • The 4-3 defense needs ends who are strong pass-rushers and physically tough against the run. The defensive tackles should be strong against the run and agile enough to sustain pass-rush pressure on the quarterback. The stronger and more physical of the two outside linebackers lines up over the tight end, leaving the other, quicker outside linebacker to be more of a pass-rusher.

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  • 3-4 front: The 3-4 defense is ideally suited to defending multiple offensive formations. It uses

    • Three defensive linemen, with the one in the middle called the nose tackle (N)

    • Four linebackers (LB)

    • Two defensive linemen (DE), usually consisting of one superior pass-rusher and a rugged run-defender

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  • Cover two: The cover two, a 4-3 zone defense, is designed to stop short passes. Rather than cover receivers man to man, the defensive side of the field is divided into zones, with each zone the responsibility of a safety, cornerback, or linebacker. Here are the zones:

    • The deep part of the field (the area starting about 15 yards from the line of scrimmage) is divided into two large zones, each of which is the responsibility of a safety. (The cover two gets its name from these two large zones.) The safeties guard against receivers running downfield to catch long passes.

    • The area between the line of scrimmage and the deep part of the field is divided into five small zones, each of which is the responsibility of a cornerback or linebacker. The idea is to stop the short pass, or if a receiver succeeds in catching a short pass, to keep him from gaining more than a few yards.

    • If a receiver breaks a tackle and gets downfield, one of the two safeties is supposed to stop the receiver from breaking off a long gain.

  • The cover two defense requires talented linemen who can pressure the quarterback into throwing the ball before receivers can break into the open areas between zones.

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A basic punt formation

In a basic punt formation, the players on the punting unit line up against what coaches call man coverage.

  • X is the center (or snapper); he stands over the ball.

  • PP is the punter’s personal protector.

  • P is the punter.

  • Ws are the wings.

  • The Es (ends) are on the line of scrimmage about 10 to 12 yards away from the wings.

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