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Football: Offensive Formations

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If you watch a college or NFL football game you will notice that the offensive players line up slightly differently for different plays. These different lineups are called formations. Each formation must conform to the rules (for example 7 players must be on the line of scrimmage). Different types of plays are run out different formations. We'll give some examples of formations below.

Single Back

single back football formation

In the single back formation, also called the ace formation, there is one running back in the backfield and the quarterback lines up under center. This allows for four wide receivers or three wide receivers plus a tight end. Teams can pass or run equally well from this formation.

Pro Set

Pro set formation for football

In the pro set there are two running backs, a tailback and a fullback. They are split, each behind and on a different side of the quarterback. The quarterback starts the play under center.

Empty Backfield

Empty backfield formation

In the empty backfield formation, the quarterback is under center and there are no running backs. This is a true passing formation. It allows for five wide receivers on the field.

Spread Offense

Spread offense formation

The spread offense is designed to spread the defense out and create space for talented and fast runners to work in the open field. The spread offense is run from the shotgun formation typically with a number of wide receivers.


The football wishbone formation

The wishbone is a running formation. In the wishbone there are three running backs, two halfbacks and a fullback. There can be two tight ends as well, with no wide receivers. This may tell the defense you are running the ball, but it also allows for a lot of blockers.

I Formation

The I formation

The I formation has two running backs and the quarterback under center. The fullback lines up directly behind the quarterback and the tailback lines up behind the fullback. During a typical play the fullback will run through the hole first, blocking any linebackers. The tailback will follow the fullback through the hole with the ball.

Goal Line Offense

Goal line offense

The goal line offense is the ultimate power running formation designed to gain the last yard or so needed for a touchdown. Generally three tight ends and two running backs are used with no wide receivers.

Shotgun Formation

In the shotgun formation the quarterback stands several feet behind the center. The center hikes the ball in the air to the quarterback. This formation has the advantage of letting the quarterback see the defense and the field better. However, it has the disadvantage of fewer running options. The defense knows the play is likely going to be a pass.


The wildcat formation became popular a few years back with the Miami Dolphins. In this formation a running back lines up in the quarterback position and runs the football. Although this formation is pretty much limited to running plays, there is an extra blocker for the runner as the quarterback is not in the backfield.

*diagrams by Ducksters

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