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5 Game Changer Offensive Football Player Formations

December 18, 2018

5 Offensive Football Formations That Have Shaped the Sport

We get it - Football probably has the longest list of rules, plays, and calls compared to any other sport out there. Theres enough to fill a textbook or a classroom curriculum on all the intricacies. Thats what the pros do - they watch training films to get acquainted with as many plays as possible. In professional football, players and teams will do anything to earn a competitive advantage over their opponents.

The Super Bowl is approaching fast and you dont want to be that person who doesnt understand the commentators descriptions. Theres a lot to cover when discussing football, so our lesson for today revolves around player formations. In this case, were going to look at offensive player formations.

Defining NFL Player Formations

There are two components to player formations: the players individual role on the field, and their actual physical positions on the field.

American Football Positions




Special Teams

Offensive (interior) line

Defensive Line


Center (C)

Defensive Tackle (DT)

Kicker (K)

Offensive Guard (OG)

Defensive End (DE)

Holder (H)

Offensive Tackle (OT)


Long Snapper (LS)

Backs & Receivers


Punter (P)

Quarterback (QB)

Middle Linebackers (MLB)

Kickoff Specialist (KOS) / Punt Returner (PR)

Running Backs (RB) / Halfback (HB) / Fullback (FB)

Outside Linebackers (OLB)


Wide Receiver (WR)

Defensive Backs


Tight End (TE)

Cornerback (CB)



Safety (S)


Nickelback / Dimeback

Football Starting Formation

Of course, these formations arent set in stone and there are variations both defensively and offensively. We focus on five of the most popular offensive player formations in the sport today.



Football T Formation

T-Formation Definition

This is the foundation of most modern formations in that the quarterback goes right under centre. Three running backs line up behind the quarterback, forming the shape of the T.

T-Formation History & Use

The T-formation was invented by Walter Camp in 1882 and is the oldest offensive formation in American football. It was a very successful and a staple strategy in the early 20th century before falling out of style to formations such as the single wing. However, much of todays offensive football techniques come from the T-formation and it has regained some favour over the years.

To show how this is being used in the modern-day NFL, take a look at how the Chicago Bears executed an offensive play with a creative take on the T-formation on September 10, 2018 against the Green Bay Packers.

Here, we see Bears quarterback Mitch Trubisky with Jordan Howard lined up directly behind him, and Tarik Cohen in the backfield to the right of Howard. Cohen was able to earn seven yards on the play.



Football I Formation

I-Formation Definition

Doesnt quite look like an I? Well heres the explanation - the I formation consists of 5 offensive linemen (2 offensive tackles, 2 guards, and the center), the quarterback under the center and then two backs in-line behind the quarterback.

I-Formation History & Use

No one knows exactly where the I-formation came from, although its been linked to two early 20th century coaches - Charles M. Hollister and Bob Zuppke.

The I-formation was developed specifically for running situations. The tailback starts 6-8 yards behind the scrimmage in an upright position so that he can observe the defense. This gives the tailback more chances to find weak points for the defense to run into.

Lets turn to college football for an example of the I-formation in practice.

In this supercut, we see the Nebraska Cornhuskers repeatedly exposing the Penn State Nittany Lions defense in order to make yard gains throughout the course of this game. This is also a good example of a team (Penn State) failing to make in-game adjustments to their opponents strategy.

Shotgun Formation


Football Shotgun Formation

Shotgun Formation Definition

The shotgun formation puts the quarterback further behind the line of scrimmage to create a more oval pocket to protect him from the blitzing of the opposing teams defense. It also takes elements of another formation, the spread, which spaces the wide receivers out instead of having them close to or behind interior line players.

Shotgun Formation History & Use

The credit for the shotgun formation goes to Sammy Baugh, a triple threat player and coach who played for Texas Christian University and the Washington Redskins.  

This formation typically comes into focus when teams are on passing plays, but some teams use it as a base formation. Despite its advantages for passing, it can be used strategically by halfbacks to put defenses off guard. This, in turn, allows for a fast halfback to get a good number of yards before the opposing defense can recover from any mistakes.

Here is an example from earlier in the 2018-19 season of the shotgun formation being used to pull off a trick play.

Bears quarterbacks Mitch Trubisky and Chase Daniel both lineup in the shotgun formation and sneakily pass it off to wide receiver Taylor Gabriel who runs it in for the touchdown against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Pistol Formation


Football Pistol Formation

Pistol Formation Definition

A more recently invented scheme, the pistol formation has the quarterback lining up four yards behind the center, a much closer setup than the seven-yard set up of the shotgun formation. The running back then lines up three yards directly behind the quarterback.

The pistol formation has been said to be advantageous for the quarterback because it enables them to be close to the line of scrimmage which means they can read the defense more clearly. More importantly, it gives them extra time and a better overall view of the field for passing plays.

Pistol Formation History & Use

The pistol formation is a relatively new formation invented by Jerry Glanville in 1990, when he was the head coach for the Atlanta Falcons. However, it was popularized by football coach Chris Ault in 2005, who used it as the primary offensive formation for the University of Nevada.

There is widespread use of the pistol formation in both NCAA football and the NFL. With that said, each team uses the formation differently to fit the needs of their players and to better compete with their toughest rivals.

This video contains good examples of the 2016 Buffalo Bills successfully using the pistol formation to run the football into the end zone for a touchdown.

Single Set Back Formation


Football Single Set Back Formation

Single Set Back Formation Definition

This formation is unique in the sense that it requires just one running back - typically a halfback - to line up roughly five yards behind the quarterback. There are different versions of the single set back formation such as one involving two tight ends and two wide receivers, or one tight end and three wide receivers.

Single Set Back Formation History & Use

Coach Joe Gibbs of the Washington Redskins pioneered the single back formation, using it as a base offensive tactic to push defenders off the line of scrimmage. He discovered that having an extra receiver on the line forced the defense of opposing teams to either defend the pass or the run, not both, which opens up an opportunity for the offensive team.

Various teams have used the single set back formation over the years including the New England Patriots and the Miami Dolphins. Theyve also become more popular to counteract zone blocking and teams with more complex defensive formations.

Here is a quick visual breakdown of the single set back formation and how it would play out in a game scenario:

The Face Of Football Formations

As we enter the playoffs, you might wonder what offensive formations the teams will use. A teams deployment of an offensive formation is fluid and can change as needed, especially since other teams are constantly adjusting strategically.

For now, well say this - at least you have an idea of how teams organize their players on the field offensively. Stay tuned for our upcoming explanation of defensive formations, and the strategies available to football teams both at the amateur and professional level.

Now that you know about some of the most important offensive techniques, you are ready to attend a game. Get your Super Bowl Tickets, NFL Tickets, NCAA Football Bowl Tickets only at Vivid Seats. 

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