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List of formations in American football

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Title: List of formations in American football  
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Subject: American football positions, Dimeback, Jammer (American football), Upback, Gunner (American football)
Collection: American Football Formations
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List of formations in American football

The following is a list of common and historically significant formations in American football. In association football, the formation describes how the players in a team are positioned on the pitch. Different formations can be used depending on whether a team wishes to play more attacking or defensive football.


  • Offensive formations 1
    • T formation 1.1
    • I formation 1.2
    • Single set back 1.3
    • Pro set 1.4
    • Single wing 1.5
      • Wildcat formation 1.5.1
    • Double wing 1.6
    • Short Punt formation 1.7
    • Shotgun 1.8
    • Pistol 1.9
    • V formation 1.10
    • Wishbone 1.11
      • Flexbone 1.11.1
    • Wing T 1.12
    • Empty backfield 1.13
    • Goal line formation 1.14
    • Veer formation 1.15
    • Kneel 1.16
    • Emory and Henry 1.17
  • Defensive formations 2
    • 4–3 defense 2.1
    • 6–1 defense 2.2
    • 3–4 defense 2.3
    • 2–5 defense 2.4
    • 4–4 defense 2.5
    • 5-3 defense 2.6
    • 6-2 defense 2.7
    • 38 defense (split middle) 2.8
    • 46 defense (forty-six) 2.9
    • 5–2 defense 2.10
    • Nickel formation 2.11
    • Dime formation 2.12
    • Quarter and half-dollar formations (prevent defense) 2.13
    • Goal line defense 2.14
    • Other variants 2.15
  • Special teams formations 3
    • Punting formation 3.1
    • Field goal formation 3.2
    • Kickoff formation 3.3
    • Kick return formation 3.4
  • References 4
  • External links 5

Offensive formations

This list is not exhaustive; there are hundreds of different ways to organize a team's players while still remaining within the "7 on the line 4 in the backfield" convention. Still, this list of formations covers enough of the basics that almost every formation can be considered a variant of the ones listed below.

T formation

The T-formation, one of the most basic formations in football

The T formation is the precursor to most modern formations, in that it places the quarterback directly under center (football) (in contrast to its main competitor of its day, the single wing, which had the quarterback receiving the ball on the fly).

It consists of three running backs lined up in a row about five yards behind the quarterback, forming the shape of a T. It may feature two tight ends (known as the Power T) or one tight end and a wide receiver (in this case known as a split end). When legendary coach George Halas' Chicago Bears used the T-formation to defeat the Washington Redskins by a score of 73–0 in the 1940 NFL championship game, it marked the end of the Single Wing at nearly all levels of play, as teams, over the course of the 1940s, moved to formations with the quarterback "under center" like the T.[1] George Halas is credited with perfecting the T formation.

One variation of the T-Formation would be where all the runningbacks would be closer than usual, being at fullback depth rather than halfback depth. Another variation of the "balanced T" formation is the so-called "unbalanced T" formation.[2] In this configuration the line of scrimmage has an end and tackle left of center, while to the right of the center are two guards a tackle and an end. This creates a line that is weighted toward the right of the center. With the backfield lining up in the conventional "T" formation behind the center (quarterback, two halfbacks and fullback), the resulting configuration is "unbalanced" due the asymmetry of the placement of the linemen.

I formation

Basic I formation.

This is one of the most common formations used at all levels of football. It consists of two backs lined up behind the quarterback, with the back closest to the quarterback being called the fullback and the back behind the fullback called the running back, tailback, or I-back. The two backs line up either in a line (hence the name of the formation since it looks like a letter I) or with the fullback "offset" to either side. The fourth back is most commonly employed as an extra wide receiver. Here are three diagrams of I-Formation, strong side right (that is, with the tight end lining up to the right, typical for a right-handed quarterback). Notice that the 4th back required by the rules is the set-back wide receiver at the right (called the flanker).

I formation, fullback offset strongside
I Formation, fullback offset weakside

Two other I formation variations include the Maryland I and the Power I. These formations lack a flanker, and use the maximum 3 running backs rather than the standard 2. They are used primarily as running formations. These may employ either tight ends or split ends (wide receivers) or one of each. The Maryland I was developed by Maryland head coach Tom Nugent.[3] More recently, Utah has utilized this formation with quarterback Brian Johnson.[4]

Maryland I
Power I

Single set back

Typical Single-back formation

Also known as the "ace" formation, the single set back formation consists of one running back lined up about five yards behind the quarterback. The other 2 backs can either act as extra tight ends or wide receivers. This formation is normally used for a pass play, but can also be good for running, as defenders must move at least one player out of the middle of the field (the "box", between the tackles on the offensive line) to cover the additional wide receiver. In passing situations, this formation (and similar variations) is known as max protect as it requires the running back and two tight ends to stay in the vicinity to block an oncoming pass rush and leaves only two wide receivers to catch a pass downfield.

The basic single-back set does not employ a fullback and the addition of the extra flanker. Since he is lined up in the space between the tackle and the split end, he is called the "slot" receiver. This formation may be referred to as "single back, slot left".

Spread formation

A variation of the ace is known as the spread formation. It utilizes 4 wide receivers and no tight ends. In the NFL, this formation was the basis of the Run & Shoot offense that was popular in the 1980s with teams such as the Detroit Lions and the Houston Oilers but has since fallen out of favor as a primary offensive formation.

It is often used as a pass formation, because of the extra wide receivers. It also makes an effective run formation, because it "spreads the field" and forces the defense to respect the pass, thus taking players out of the box. Certain college programs, such as the University of Hawaii and Texas Tech still use it as their primary formation. Brigham Young University also uses the spread offense, although they tend to employ their tight ends more frequently than Hawaii and Texas Tech. Minnesota and TCU are also starting to employ the spread offense.

Joe Gibbs's "H-Back" set

Joe Gibbs, twice head coach of the Washington Redskins, devised an ace variation that used a setback, or "flexed" tight end known as an H-back. In this formation, the normal tight-end is almost exclusively a blocker, while the H-back is primarily a pass receiver. This formation is often referred to as a "Two Tight End" set. Some teams (like the Indianapolis Colts under Tony Dungy) use this formation with both tight ends on the line and use two flankers. Many other teams in the NFL, even those that don't use this as a primary formation, still run some plays using a variant of this formation.

Pro set

Basic split backs set

Also called the "split backs" or "three-end formation", this is similar to the I-formation and has the same variations. The difference is that the two backs are split behind the quarterback instead of being lined up behind him.

Clark Shaughnessy designed the formation from the T Formation in 1949 after acquiring halfback Elroy "Crazy Legs" Hirsch. Shaughnessy thought he would make a great receiver but already had two great receivers in Tom Fears and Bob Shaw. Schaughnessy moved Hirsch to the flanker position behind the right end. Thus started what was known as the three-end formation.

This formation is most often associated with Bill Walsh's San Francisco 49ers teams of the 1980s and his West Coast Offense. It was also the favored formation of the pass-happy BYU Cougars under the tenure of legendary coach LaVell Edwards. A modern example of the "pro-set" can be seen in the Florida State University offense, which favors a Split Backs formation. The Seattle Seahawks under Mike Holmgren also favored this type of formation with the tight end usually being replaced with a third wide receiver.

Single wing

This archaic formation was popular for most of the first 50 years of modern American football, but it is rare today, except as a novelty. There are many variations of the single wing with really the only common threads being that, first, rather than lining up "under center", the quarterback (actually called a tailback back in the day) is lined up a few yards behind with RBs generally on one side of him.[5][6][7] Second, one of the running backs is stationed outside the end, as a wingback (hence the alternate longer name, "single wingback formation").

Typical Single Wing set. Note the unbalanced line. "C" will snap the ball, even though he is not strictly in the center. This diagram uses the modern terms. In the original single wing, the QB was called the "tailback" and the FB was called the "quarterback" or "blocking back"

The most famous version of the Single Wing offense would be Knute Rockne's "Notre Dame Box" that he ran with the Four Horsemen. It contained two tight ends, and 4 backs. The quarterback in this formation (called at the time a "single-wing tailback"), like today's shotgun QB, received the snap on the fly. The other 3 backs lined up on the same side of the QB in various arrangements. Also, the formation often featured an unbalanced line where the center (that is, the player who snapped the ball) was not strictly in the center of the line, but close to the weakside. The formation was originally designed as a brute-force running formation, since it had 7 players to one side of the center and only 2 on the other. Rockne's innovations with this formation involved using complicated backfield shifts and motion to confuse defenses, and adapting it as a passing formation. The single wing has recently had a renaissance of sorts with high schools; since it is so rare, its sheer novelty can make it successful.

Wildcat formation

Early in the 2008 season, the Miami Dolphins used a modern variant of the single wing formation known as the Wildcat formation. During the latter part of the 2008 season, and throughout the 2009 season, many different NFL teams instituted their own versions of the Wildcat. Some attribute the origins of the "Wildcat" to Bill Snyder’s Kansas State (whose sports teams are known as the "Wildcats") offense of the late ’90s and early 2000s, which featured a lot of zone read runs by the quarterback. Others attribute the origins to Hugh Wyatt, a Double Wing coach (See Double Wing discussion below).

Both the Snyder and the Wyatt versions were different from the "Wildhog" version used by the University of Arkansas for their versatile running back Darren McFadden. Notably, the Cleveland Browns have used this formation with Josh Cribbs. As of 2011, nearly every NFL team has their own variation of the Wildcat. Ohio State University has also used the wildcat with Ted Ginn Jr. and Daniel "Boom" Herron. Villanova University won the 2009 Division I FCS championship using a multiple offense that incorporated the Wildcat. The University of Alabama employed the wildcat as part of their 2009 BCS championship team's offensive package and continued to use it from 2009-2011 with playmakers Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson, and Marquis Maze (though with Maze it was nicknamed the "bobcat" due to his small stature).

The wildcat formation occasionally has a different nickname from team to team, based on the team name, team mascot name, player name, or the professional player's alma mater, such as:

  • Wildhog (Arkansas - Darren McFadden /Felix Jones) (Named after Tusk the Hog)
  • Bobcat (Alabama - Marquis Maze)
  • WildCobb (Kentucky - Randall Cobb)
  • Wild Rebel (Ole Miss Running Rebels)
  • Wild Knight (UCF Kinghts)
  • Wild Turkey (Virginia Tech - Greg Boone)[8]
  • Wild Horses (Denver Broncos)
  • Tigercat (New York Jets - Brad Smith, Former Mizzou Tiger)
  • Mountaineer (Carolina Panthers - Armanti Edwards, former Appalachian State Mountaineer)
  • Blazer (Joe Webb, former UAB Blazer)
  • Wild Dawg (Georgia - Todd Gurley, Sony Michel, and Isaiah McKenzie)

Double wing

The double wing, as a formation, is widely acknowledged to have been invented by Glenn "Pop" Warner in 1912. It then was an important formation up to the T formation era.[9] For example, Dutch Meyer at TCU, with quarterback Sammy Baugh, won a college national championship in 1935 with a largely double wing offense.[10]

Double Wing Power Play
Wing-T Power Play

As a modern offensive system it is widely regarded as the invention of Don Markham, which revolved around the off-tackle power play, power sweep and trap. Markham ran very few plays, but blocked them according to defensive fronts and tendencies. A noticeable difference from the other teams lined up in the double-wing formation was the lack of line splits across the front. The Double Wing is combination of the I, which Markham initially ran the offense from in his earlier days, and the Wing-T 30 Series (Power Series). It is often referred to as the "bastard child of the I and the Wing-T". Breaking numerous state records everywhere Markham coached (and even setting the national high school scoring record) the "Markham Rule" was put into place to keep his team from winning by too many points. He is currently the offensive coordinator at Hillcrest High School in the state of Idaho.

With Markham's success came many converts to his offense and many variations of the offense over the years. Perhaps the most well-known of Markham's converts is Hugh Wyatt, who brought more Wing-T to the offense and a greater ability to market the offense. Jerry Valloton also marketed the offense well when he wrote the first book on the offense. Since that time, Tim Murphy, Steve Calande, Jack Greggory, Robert McAdams, and several other coaches have further developed the offense and coaching materials thereof. Their materials may be seen on their respective websites.

The Double Wing is widely used at the youth level, becoming more popular at the high school level and has been used at the college level by none other than Don Markham at American Sports University.

Short Punt formation

Short Punt formation versus a 6-2-3 defense.

The Short Punt is an older formation popular when scoring was harder and a good punt was an offensive weapon.[11][12] In times when punting on second and third down was fairly common, teams would line up in the short punt formation and offer the dual threat of punt or pass.[13]

The formation differs in two significant ways from the single wing. It is generally a balanced formation, and there are backs on both sides of the tailback, offering better pass protection. As a result, it was considered a much better passing formation than running, as the premiere running formation was the single wing. That said, it was regarded as a good formation for trap plays.[14]

The formation was used extensively by the Michigan Wolverines in their early history, and was the base formation for the Benny Friedman led New York Giants in 1931.[15][16][17] In the 1956 NFL Championship, the Chicago Bears shifted into a short punt formation in the third quarter, after falling way behind.[18]


Typical Shotgun formation

The modern descendant of the Single Wing. The quarterback lines up about five yards behind the center, in order to allow a better view of the defense and more time to get a pass off. The shotgun can distribute its 3 other backs and 2 ends any number of ways, but most commonly employs one running back, lined up next to the QB, one tight end and three wide receivers. This formation is most commonly used for passing, but the quarterback can also hand off to a running back or run himself. Many college teams use variations of the shotgun as their primary formation, as do a few professional teams, such as the New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts. Because it is generally more difficult to establish a rushing attack using only the shotgun, most NFL teams save the shotgun for obvious passing situations such as 3rd and long or when they are losing and must try to score quickly.

The Shotgun's invention is credited to Red Hickey, coach of the San Francisco 49ers in 1960.[19] Historically, it was used to great success as a primary formation in the NFL by the Tom Landry-led Dallas Cowboys teams of the 1970s and the 1990s Buffalo Bills teams under Marv Levy, who used a variation known as the K-gun that relied quarterback Jim Kelly. The shotgun offense became a staple of many college football offenses beginning in the 1990s.

Shotgun, Trips left (3 wide receivers on the same side)
Shotgun, Max Protect (Full back in to provide additional protection to quarterback)


Chris Ault's "Pistol" formation

This offense was originated by Chris Ault of the University of Nevada. It is essentially a shotgun variation, with the quarterback lined up closer than in standard shotgun (normally 3 to 4 yards behind center), and a running back lined up behind, rather than next to, the QB (normally at 3 to 4 yards behind quarterback).

The Pistol formation adds the dimension of a running game with the halfback being in a singleback position. This has disrupted the timing of some defenses with the way the quarterback hands the ball off to the halfback. This also allows the smaller halfbacks to hide behind the offensive line, causing opposing linebackers and pass-rushing defensive linemen to play more conservatively. The Pistol can also feature the option play. With this offense, the quarterback has the ability to get a better look past the offensive line and at the defense. Pistol formations have gained some popularity in NCAA football, and in fact, variants of this offense were used by the 2007 and 2009 BCS National Champions, LSU and Alabama, respectively.

In 2008, Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Chan Gailey began using the Pistol prominently in their offense, and are the first NFL team to do so. He brought the philosophy with him to the Buffalo Bills in 2010. The San Francisco 49ers added the Pistol to their offense in 2012 after former Nevada quarterback Colin Kaepernick became the team's starter.

V formation

Os Doenges of Oklahoma City University is credited with inventing the offensive V formation, nicknamed "Three dots and a dash" (Morse code for the letter "v"). His Oklahoma City program presented the new offensive formation to great fanfare before losing to the Southwestern Moundbuilders by a score of 7–0.[20]


The Wishbone formation

The wishbone is a 1960s variation of the T-formation. It consists of three running backs: a fullback lined up directly behind the quarterback, and the two halfbacks split behind the fullback. It can be run with two tight ends, one tight end and one wide receiver, or two wide receivers. Most offensive systems that employ the wishbone use it as their primary formation, and most run the ball much more often than they pass. The wishbone is a common formation for a the triple option offense in which the quarterback decides after the snap whether to hand the ball to the fullback for a run up the middle, pitch the ball to a running back on the outside, or keep the ball and run it himself.

The wishbone was developed in the 1960s by Emory Bellard, offensive coordinator at the University of Texas under head coach Darrell Royal. The offense was an immediate success, and Texas won the national championship in 1969 running a wishbone / option system. It was subsequently adopted by many other college programs in the 1970s, including Alabama and Oklahoma, who also won national titles with variations of the offense. As with any hugely successful formation or philosophy, as teams learned how to defend against it, it became much less successful.

Today, the wishbone / option offense is still used by some high school and smaller college teams, but it is much less common in major college football, where teams tend to employ more pass-oriented attacks. The Georgia Tech are among the few NCAA FBS teams that commonly use the wishbone and its variations. It has very rarely been used in professional football, where passing systems predominate and quarterbacks are too valuable to risk injury by regularly running the football.


The base flexbone formation.

The flexbone formation is a variation of the wishbone formation. In this formation, one back (the fullback) lines up behind the quarterback. Both ends are often split wide as wide receivers, though some variations include one or two tight ends. The two remaining backs, called wingbacks or slotbacks, line up behind the line of scrimmage just outside the tackles. Usually, one of the wingbacks will go in motion behind the quarterback before the snap, potentially giving him another option to pitch to.

Like the wishbone, the flexbone formation is commonly used to run the triple option. However, the flexbone is considered more "flex"-ible than the wishbone because, since the wingbacks line up on the line of scrimmage, more run / pass options and variations are possible.

Wing T

The Delaware Wing T, as developed by David Nelson. In this case, one of the half backs starts in the back field. The other (the wing back) almost always goes in motion towards the QB at the snap

A formation similar to the Flexbone, though much older, is known as the "Delaware Wing-T" was created by longtime University of Delaware coach and NCAA Rules Committee chairman David M. Nelson, and perfected by his successor Tubby Raymond. It has become a very popular offense with high schools and small colleges. It was designed at the time to be a mix between the single wing and T-formation. It took the motion and run-strength of the single wing, and the QB-under-center from the T. In this variation, there is only one wing back, with the other back lined up next to the fullback on the opposite side from the wing back. However, the Wing Back may also line up diagonally from the Tight End. He may be used as an extra blocker or a receiver. He may come in motion for running plays.

The Wing T has its roots in what Otto D. Unruh called the "T-Wing" formation and is known to have called the play as early as 1938 with the Bethel Threshers.[21]

Empty backfield

Empty backfield, trips split left, slot right

Also known simply as "Five-wide", a reference to the five wide receivers. In the empty backfield formation, all of the backs play near the line of scrimmage to act as extra wide receivers or tight ends. This is almost exclusively a passing formation used to spread the field, often to open up short inside routes or screen routes. It can also be run with one or two wing backs like the flexbone formation allowing a running game and the ability to run the option. The quarterback can line up either under center or in the shotgun. This formation is becoming more popular in the NFL and college football, with recent successes at Texas Tech University and by the New England Patriots in their record-setting 2007 season.

Goal line formation

Also called "jumbo", "heavy", "full house" or other similar names. As the name implies, this formation is used exclusively in short-yardage situations, and especially near the goal line. This formation typically has no wide receivers, and often employs 3 tight ends and 2 running backs, or alternately 2 tight ends and 3 running backs. Often, a tight end or full back position is occupied by a player who normally plays offensive line or defensive line positions to act as extra blockers. The Chicago Bears of the mid-1980s famously used defensive tackle William "The Refrigerator" Perry as a full back in this formation. In most cases, it is exclusively a running formation, designed to score by brute force. Some teams have successfully used this formation to pass out of, most famously the New England Patriots, who have used linebacker Mike Vrabel as a tight end to catch touchdown passes in both Super Bowl XXXVIII and Super Bowl XXXIX

Veer formation

The veer formation.

The veer formation is a formation with two halfbacks lined up four and a half yards behind center on opposite sides of the quarterback who is under center. Two wide receivers are split out and a tight end is incorporated on one of the sides. The triple option is run most out of the veer.


The "kneel" formation was developed in 1978 after The Miracle at the Meadowlands.

A special offensive formation is used at the end of a game, when a team has a lead and simply needs to run out the clock to win the game. The "kneel" or "victory" formation was developed in the 1978 NFL season after The Miracle at the Meadowlands, a botched final play in a game between the New York Giants and the Philadelphia Eagles which resulted in a fumble and a pivotal last-second score. This formation is intended for one purpose: to allow the quarterback to safely down the ball without losing control, preventing the defense from recovering and advancing the ball to the end zone. The formation features several stop-gaps in the event the quarterback does lose the ball: a seven-man line, the quarterback, two upbacks (running backs) immediately behind him, one at each side in the event he fumbles, and a fast player (usually a wide receiver or cornerback) several yards back as a last resort in case the defense recovers and is able to advance the ball.

Both the Giants and Eagles developed similar formations of this design. The Eagles named their version the "Herman Edwards" play after their cornerback who scored the winning touchdown on the above fateful play.

Emory and Henry

A modern implementation of the Emory and Henry formation.

The Emory and Henry formation is an unusual American football formation that dates to the 1950s, where Emory & Henry College's football team used it. Instead of grouping all five ineligible players together, the Emory and Henry groups them, along with the two ends and two slotbacks, in three three-person groups: the center and the guards in the middle of the field, and an end, a tackle and a slotback near each sideline. In general, the formation is rare due to its inherent limitations: the tackles cannot receive forward passes or advance downfield despite their positioning (they can, however, receive lateral passes and participate in end-around plays), and it puts the tackles out of ideal blocking position, subjecting the quarterback to the defense's pass rush and effectively rendering the tackles of little use. The formation can also be combined with other formations that feature a single running back and a quarterback in the backfield. The sometimes-legal A-11 offense combines the Emory and Henry with the wildcat.

The formation has seen limited usage in recent years, mainly as a trick play that attempts to confuse the defense and get the ball to a receiver on the outside before the defenders can properly line up. It has been used most often by Florida and South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, who coined the commonly used name for the formation when he mentioned that he'd once seen Emory and Henry College run it.

Defensive formations

4–3 defense

Basic 4–3

This base defense consists of four defensive linemen, three linebackers, and four defensive backs (two safeties, two corners). Against two-receiver offensive sets, this formation is effective against the run and the pass. In the original 4–3, defensive tackles would line up opposite the offensive guards, and defensive ends on the outside shoulders of the offensive tackles.[22] On passing downs, the Mike (middle linebacker) is often responsible to cover any running backs, the Sam (strong-side linebacker) covers the Tight End, and the Will (weak-side linebacker) either covers a back or blitzes in an attempt to sack the quarterback. Though first used as a base defense by the New York Giants in 1956, plenty of teams experimented with it during the 1950s, and thus there are multiple claimed inventors of this defense. There are several different variations of the 4–3 defense such as the 4-3 under defense, 4-3 over defense, 4-3 umbrella defense, 4-3 swim defense, and 4-3 slide defense.

4-3 under defense (linebackers shifted to strong-side)
4-3 over defense (linebackers shifted to weak-side)

6–1 defense

To counter Brown's attack, Owen installed a 6-1-4 defense, with his ends, Jim Duncan and Ray Poole, "flexing," or dropping back as linebackers. It was the forerunner of the modern 4-3
—Paul Zimmerman, Zimmerman, Paul, The Past is Prelude, (September 1, 1997), Sports Illustrated, Retrieved June 22, 2013.

The original 6-1 was invented by Steve Owen in 1950 as a counter to the powerful passing attack of Paul Brown's Cleveland Browns.[23] It was called the "Umbrella" defense because of the four defensive backs, whose crescent alignment resembled an opened umbrella, and the tactic of allowing the defensive ends to fall back into pass coverage, converting the defense, in Owen's language, from a 6-1-4 into a 4-1-6. If offenses grew wise to the drop back, the ends could pass rush instead. Using this new defense, the Giants defeated the Browns twice in 1950 during the regular season.

Paul Brown was such a meticulous coach that if you gave him something he'd never seen before, he became flustered.
—Tom Landry, Zimmerman, Paul, The New Thinking Man's Guide to Pro Football, Simon and Schuster, 1984, p. 128

It saw use during the 1950s in Owen's hands, but never became a significant base defense. It was functionally replaced by the more versatile 4-3.

3–4 defense

Basic 3–4

This is the base defense of some teams. It consists of three defensive linemen, four linebackers, and four defensive backs (two safeties, two corners). The advantage is that while 4 players still usually rush the line, the quarterback can be less sure of which of the 4 linebackers will join the 3 linemen. This formation sacrifices some size (of linemen) for speed (of linebackers), but coaches choosing to utilize this formation as their base defense typically choose larger players in the front 7 to make up for the shortage of size. In this formation, the single tackle usually lines up directly over the "nose" of the ball, and is often called the "nose guard" or "nose tackle". In this formation, the linemen often line up directly in front of the offensive line, while the linebackers "shoot the gaps". There is also a variation of this defense called the 3-4 under defense. This defense is a one gap version of the 3–4 defense.

2–5 defense

In this variation of the 3–4, known also as the "3–4 eagle", the nose guard is removed from play and in his place is an extra linebacker, who lines up on the line where the nose guard would be, sometimes slightly behind where the nose guard would be. It allows defenses more flexibility in man to man coverages and zone blitzes. It was created by Los Angeles Rams defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmur, and evolved from Buddy Ryan's 46 defense. Shurmur created the defense in part to take advantage of the pass rush abilities of Kevin Greene, a defensive end sized linebacker. The "eagle" in the formation's name comes from the late 1940s-early 1950s Philadelphia Eagles coached by Greasy Neale.

The original Eagle defense was a 5–2 arrangement, with five defensive linemen and two linebackers. In Neale's defense, as in Shurmur's variation, the nose tackle could also drop into pass coverage, thus Shurmur's use of the Eagle defense name.

4–4 defense

The 4–4 defense consists of four defensive linemen, four linebackers, and three defensive backs (one safety, two corners). Puts "eight men in the box" to stop the run, but it sacrifices deep coverage against the pass, especially if the opponent's receivers are better athletes than the cornerbacks. The formation is popular in high school football as well as smaller collegiate teams. If the opposite team is a good passing team, outside linebackers are usually called on to defend slotbacks.

5-3 defense

Defense is based on two standard formations, the 6-2-3, and the 5-3-3. All else is "variations."
—Steve Owen, Owen, Steve, My Kind of Football, David McKay, 1952, p. 174

The 5-3 defense consists of five defensive linemen, three linebackers, and three defensive backs (one safety, two corners). It appeared in the early thirties as a response to the improving passing offenses of the time, particularly the T formation.[24][25] It grew in importance as the 1940s progressed, as it was more effective versus the T than the other standard defense of the time, the 6-2. By 1950, five man lines were standard in the NFL, either the 5-3 or the 5-2 Eagle.[26] As late as the early 1950s, the Cleveland Browns were using a 5-3 as their base defense.[27][28]

6-2 defense

The 6-2 defense consists of six defensive linemen, two linebackers, and three defensive backs (one safety, two corners). This was the primary defense in football, at all levels, during the single wing era (the 1930s), combining enough passing defense to handle the passing attacks of the day along with the ability to handle the power running games of the times.[29][30][31][32] As the T formation grew popular in the 1940s, this formation was replaced in the NFL with the 5-3 and the 5-2 defenses.

In colleges, this defensive front has remained viable for a much longer period of time, because colleges, historically, have run a lot more than the NFL. Three common six man fronts seen in this more modern era are the tight six (linebackers over offensive ends, four linemen between linebackers), the wide tackle 6 (linebackers over offensive tackles, two linemen between linebackers) and the split 6 (linebackers over guard-center gap, all linemen outside linebackers).[33][34]

38 defense (split middle)

38 refers to the positions of the defensive players on the line of scrimmage. Two "3" techniques (DT, lined up outside of the guards) and two "8" techniques (DE, lined up outside of end man on line of scrimmage). The DT's are the only down lineman. Two standup players (Monster and Rover) are in "5" techniques. Two Linebackers are 3 yards off the ball behind the DT's. A combination of the 4–4, 6–2, and the 46, it is designed to stop the run and to confuse offenses. 3 players in the secondary all cover deep thirds. The confusing element is either the "5" techniques or the "8" techniques can rush or drop into the flats. The LB's have hook zones. Each player on the line has a two gap responsibility.

46 defense (forty-six)

The 46. Notice the strong safety in the box and the 2 outside linebackers shifted to the same side outside of the defensive end

This formation was invented by Buddy Ryan, defensive coordinator of the Chicago Bears during the 1980s. Instead of having four linemen and six linebackers (as the name may suggest), it is actually a 4–4 set using 4–3 personnel. This was accomplished by moving a safety up into the "box" instead of a fourth linebacker. The '46' refers not to any lineman/linebacker orientation but was the jersey number of hard hitting strong safety Doug Plank, the player Buddy Ryan first used in this role at Chicago.[35] The other feature of the 46 was the placement of both "outside" linebackers on the same side of the formation, with the defensive line shifted the opposite way with the weak defensive end about 1 to 2 yards outside the weak offensive tackle. This defense was the philosophical equivalent of the "Notre Dame Box" offense devised by Knute Rockne in the 1930s, in that it used an unbalanced field and complex pre-snap motion to confuse the opposing offense. Chicago rode this defense into a 15–1 season in 1985, culminating in a 46–10 win over New England in Super Bowl XX.

5–2 defense

The 5–2. If the defensive ends drop into pass coverage, this formation becomes functionally equivalent to a 3–4

The 5–2 defense consists of five defensive linemen, two linebackers, and four defensive backs (two corners, two safeties). Historically, this was the first major defense with 4 defensive backs, and was used to combat the passing attacks of the time.[36] A later evolution of the original 5-2 is the Oklahoma 5-2, which ultimately became the professional 3-4.[37] The differences between the Oklahoma 5-2 and the 3-4 are largely semantics.

Nickel formation

While the original Nickel defense utilized 5 defensive backs in conjunction with a 4 man rush, and but 2 linebackers, modern definition calls any formation that utilizes 5 defensive backs (from nickel = 5 cent piece) a Nickel defense. The Nickel defense originated as an innovation of Philadelphia Eagles defensive coach Jerry Williams in 1960 as a measure to defend star tight end Mike Ditka of the Chicago Bears.[38] The Nickel coverage scheme is often used when the offense is using an additional wide receiver as it matches an extra cornerback against the extra receiver. The extra corner is often called a nickelback. Some variations use an extra strong safety instead of an extra cornerback.[39][40][41][42] Strong safeties are often the more physical of the safeties, often resembling linebackers, so a Nickel with the extra safety can be more effective against the run than one with an extra corner. The Nickel formation comes in several varieties:

4–2–5 nickel defense

There are a couple paths to the 4-2-5. One is by removing a linebacker from the standard 4–3 to add the extra defensive back. The second is by converting the ends of a wide tackle six to safeties (the defensive ends of a wide tackle six already have pass defense responsibilities).[43][44][45] A variation is the 2–4–5, which is primarily run by teams that run the 3–4 defense. They replace a defensive tackle with a corner.

3–3–5 nickel defense

The 3–3–5 removes a lineman to the nickelback.

33 stack
33 stack green

The 33 stack uses an extra strong safety, and "stacks" linebackers and safeties directly behind the defensive linemen.


The 3–5–3 refers to a defense that has three down linemen (the "3" level), three linebackers and two corners (the "5" level), one free safety and 2 strong safeties (the "3" level). This is similar to a 33 stack, but with players more spread. Also called the "umbrella" defense or "3-deep". In this set, the third safety would be referred to as a "weak safety" (WS) and allows two position safeties at the mid-level with a third safety deep. It is because of this that the secondary safety in a football defense is called a free safety rather than a weak safety

Dime formation

A 4–1–6 (typical dime set-up)

Any defense consisting of six defensive backs. The sixth defensive back is known as the dimeback and this defense is also used in passing situations (particularly when the offense is using four wide receivers). As the extra defensive back in the nickel formation is called the nickel, two nickels gives you a dime, hence the name of the formation.

Quarter and half-dollar formations (prevent defense)

3-deep quarter formation (3–1–7), the most common
The 0–4–7 quarter

Defense consisting of seven (quarter) or eight (half dollar) defensive backs. The seventh defensive back is often an extra safety, and this defense is used in extreme passing situations (such as to defend against a Hail Mary pass). It is occasionally referred to as the prevent defense because of its use in preventing desperation plays. The cornerbacks and safeties in a prevent defense usually make a point of defending the goal line at the expense of receivers in the middle of the field, thus making the formation susceptible to running plays and short passes.

The quarter formations are run from a 3–1–7 or a 4–0–7 in most instances; the New England Patriots have used an 0–4–7 in some instances with no down linemen. Half dollar defenses are almost always run from a 3–0–8 formation. The eighth defensive back in this case is usually a wide receiver from the offense. The wide receiver can capitalize on interception opportunities in the expected high-risk offensive play.

Unlike other formations, the extra safety is not referred to as a quarterback or halfback (except in Canadian football), to avoid confusion with the offensive positions of the same names, but rather simply as a defensive back or a safety.

Goal line defense

A goal-line defense with "9 in the box"

Defense used on the goal line or in short yardage situations where the entire defense lines up close to the line of scrimmage in an attempt to stop an expected running play. It is usually used to counter a Goal Line offense. Since there is not more than 10–11 yards of field left, the safeties can be pulled for more linemen or linebackers.

However, depending upon the abilities of a particular receiving corps, some defenses may be forced to keep their defensive backs in goal-line situations, weakening their ability to stop the run.

Other variants

Clearly, the permutations are endless, bound only by the individual and collective abilities of a defensive unit. More extreme formations may be called for when a coach feels that his team is at a particular disadvantage due to personnel matchups. For example, Eric Mangini, former coach of the Cleveland Browns and the former coach of the New York Jets, has employed a scheme that involves 1 defensive lineman and 6 linebackers. Prior to the snap, only the lineman assumes a three-point stance, ready to rush the passer. The 6 linebackers "rove" up and down the line of scrimmage, attempting to confuse the quarterback as to whether they will rush, drop into coverage, or blitz. This defense, combined with poor weather conditions, did serve to improve the Jets' pass rush against the New England Patriots offensive line. Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady was limited to just 14 completions out of 27 attempts, with no touchdowns and one interception during their December 16, 2007 game, but the defense proved ineffective in stopping the Patriots' running attack as the Patriots won.

Special teams formations

Punting formation

Diagram of a punt formation (blue, at top), against a punt-block formation (red, at bottom).

Punting formations use a five-man offensive line, three "upbacks" (sometimes also referred to as "personal protectors") approximately 3 yards behind the line to act as an additional line of defense, two wide receivers known as "gunners" either to stop the punt returner or to down the ball and the punter, 15 yards behind the line of scrimmage to receive the long snap. The number of upbacks and gunners can vary, and either position can be replaced by a tight end in a "max protect" situation.

|                    |[][][][][]    [][][][][]
|      FS            |             PK
|   LB    LB    LB   |-----------()-----------
|CB   DEDTNTDTDE   CB| []   []   []   []   []
|---------()---------| []                  []
|   TELTLGLSRGRTTE   |   []              []
| UB              UB |      KR        KR
|           PH       |
|                    |
|       PK           |
Above: ASCII art representations of the offensive kick (bottom left) against a generic kick defense formation (top left) Note the extremely tight spacing of the linemen. Top right: Kickoff formation, bottom right: kick return formation.

Field goal formation

Most field goals feature nine offensive linemen (seven on the line, both ends in the tight end position, with two extra slightly off the line of scrimmage), a place holder who kneels 7 yards behind the line of scrimmage, and a kicker.

Kickoff formation

Kickoff formations are usually in a straight line, with ten players (nine if a placeholder is used on the kickoff) lined up across the field several yards behind the ball. Many leagues require that at least four players be on each side of the kicker at the time of a kick; prior to this, an onside kick formation often had all ten of the other players on one side of the kicker. In 2011, the NFL instituted a rule requiring players other than the kicker to line up no more than 5 yards from the ball before the kick. The latter rule was instituted to prevent players from generating the speed expected from a 15-yard runup before the kick, thus potentially reducing the speed and impact of collisions down the field.

Kick return formation

Kick return formations vary; in most situations, an association football-like formation is used, with eleven players staggered throughout the field including two (rarely, one) kick returners back to field deep kicks, two more twenty yards ahead of them to field squib kicks, two more at about midfield mainly to assist in blocking, and five players located the minimum ten yards from the kicking line. In obvious onside kick formations, more players are moved to the front of the formation, usually top wide receivers and other players who are good at recovering and catching loose balls; this formation is known as the "hands team". A kick returner will usually remain back in the event of an unexpected deep kick in this situation.

To defend punts, the defensive line usually uses a man-on-man system with seven defensive linemen, two cornerbacks, a linebacker and a kick returner. They may choose to attempt to block the punt, or drop back to block for the receiver.


  1. ^ Daly, Dan, National Forgotten League, University of Nebraska Press, 2012, Chapter 3.
  2. ^ Avedisian, Charles T. and Trocolor, Robert G. "The Unbalanced T", New York: Warwick Printing Co. 1945
  3. ^ Tom Flores et al, Coaching Football: From Youth Leagues to the Pros, p. 19, McGraw Professional 2005, ISBN 0-07-143914-5.
  4. ^ Diagram and description of the Maryland I at
  5. ^ Bible, Dana X. Championship Football, Prentice-Hall, 1947, pp 97-105.
  6. ^ Faurot, Don, Secrets of the "Split T" Formation, Prentice-Hall, 1950, Chapter 21.
  7. ^ The single wing formation, at
  8. ^  
  9. ^ Bible, Dana X. Championship Football, Prentice-Hall, 1947, pp. 106-110
  10. ^ Holley, Joe, Slingin' Sam, University of Texas Press, 2012, Chapter 4.
  11. ^ Retyl, Richard, U-M's Shotgun Offense is Older than the Winged Helmets Themselves. Nov. 9, 2010. Retrieved June 26, 2013.
  12. ^ Bible, Dana X. Championship Football, Prentice-Hall, 1947, pp. 111-114.
  13. ^ Ibid, p. 179.
  14. ^ Faurot, Don, Secrets of the "Split T" Formation, Prentice-Hall, 1950, pp. 268-170.
  15. ^ Faurot, p. 10.
  16. ^ Retyl, op cit.
  17. ^ Short Punt in Pro Football Formations 1: In the Beginning. Hickock Sports. retrieved June 26, 2013.
  18. ^ Schenkel, Chris, NBC Broadcast, 1956 NFL Championship.
  19. ^ "Red Hickey, 89; NFL Player, Coach Invented Shotgun Formation". Los Angeles Times. 2006-03-31. Retrieved 2012-05-29. 
  20. ^ "V Formation Makes Debut". New York Evening Post. September 14, 1941. Retrieved May 28, 2013. 
  21. ^ "Otto Unruh".  
  22. ^ Lombardi, Vince, Vince Lombardi on Football, New York Graphic Society, 1973, Volume 1, pp. 172-183
  23. ^ Owen, Steve, My Kind of Football, David McKay, 1952, p. 183.
  24. ^ Bible, Dana X. Championship Football, Prentice-Hall, 1947, pp. 157-159.
  25. ^ Owen, Steve, My Kind of Football, David McKay, pp. 172-191
  26. ^ Carroll, Bob, Gershman, Michael, Neft, David, and Thorn, John, Total Football II: The Official Encyclopedia of the National Football League, Harper Collins, 1999, p. 465.
  27. ^ Brown, Paul, and Clary, Andy, PB: The Paul Brown Story, Atheneum, New York, 1979, p. 220.
  28. ^ Owen, p. 174
  29. ^ Bible, Dana X. pp. 152-156.
  30. ^ Owen, pp. 172-191
  31. ^ Zimmerman, Paul, The New Thinking Man's Guide to Pro Football, Simon and Schuster, 1984, Chapter 6.
  32. ^ Zimmerman, Paul, "The Past is Prelude" (September 1, 1997), Sports Illustrated. Retrieved on June 22, 2013.
  33. ^ Caddas, Chester, Stopping the Triple Option with the 6-2 in Defensive Football Strategies, American Football Coaches Association, 2000, pp. 126-132.
  34. ^ Belichick, Steve, Football Scouting Methods, Ronald Press, 1962, Chapter 5.
  35. ^ Ryan, Rex and Walker, Jeff, Coaching Football's 46 Defense, Coaches Choice, 2000, p. 19.
  36. ^ Zimmerman, Paul, The New Thinking Man's Guide to Pro Football, Simon and Schuster, 1984, p. 128.
  37. ^ Keith, Harold, Forty Seven Straight: The Wilkinson Era at Oklahoma, University of Oklahoma Press, 1984, p. 55.
  38. ^ Philadelphia Daily News 9/25\1986
  39. ^ "American Football Monthly - The Magazine For Football Coaches". 2012-07-06. Retrieved 2013-11-20. 
  40. ^ "Stack 3-3 Zone Blitzes |". Retrieved 2013-11-20. 
  41. ^ "3-3-5 Defense: Entertainment and Football Definition". Retrieved 2013-11-20. 
  42. ^ Bennett, Brian (December 29, 2010). "Speed, position switches define TCU way". College Football Nation Blog.  
  43. ^ Zimmerman, Paul, New Thinking Man's Guide to Pro Football, Simon and Schuster, 1984, p. 133.
  44. ^ Arnsparger, Bill, Arnsparger's Coaching Defensive Football, St. Lucie Press, 1999, pp. 56-58.
  45. ^ Jones, Gomer, and Wilkinson, Bud Modern Defensive Football, Prentice-Hall, 1957, Chapter 6, pp. 73-76.

External links

  • Diagrams of NFL offensive and defensive formations
  • Article on the history of the Split T formation
  • Story on the invention of the Wishbone
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