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Summer School: A guide to offensive formations, terminology

Fundamentals are important. Know everything about offensive personnel, designations, and formations.

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For the first installment in the offensive side of Summer School, we're going to look at personnel, designations, and formations. This may sound complicated, but I bet most of you know this stuff already if perhaps you don't know the specific name for it. We're taking things easy this week. The aim here is to cover the basic terminology used by NFL teams when putting together an offensive playbook. With this article, you'll be primed to understand even the most jargon-filled football commentary.

My counterpart, Chris Pflum, may have jumped in at the deep-end earlier this week with a breakdown of the 4-3 defense, but not me. I'm the cool teacher, right? You can totally use your phone in class. Please, Mr. Sinclair is my father. Call me A-Dawg. The Al-Man. Alright, let's get down to business so you kids can finish early and go enjoy the nice weather.


The most important thing to note prior to a play is the personnel grouping. In conjunction with game situation, this is what the defensive coordinator will use to decide his play call. An offensive coordinator has eleven different types of personnel to choose from on any one play. It entirely depends on the team's own playbook language, but the standard method of determination is a simple two-digit code.

You will often hear a commentator state that a team is in "11 personnel" or their "21 package" on-field. That number refers to the grouping of players sent out on offense. The first number tells you how many running backs (including fullbacks) are in the game, and the second number refers to the amount of tight-ends. "21" means that the offense currently has two RBs and one TE in the play. Every team has to have five offensive linemen and a quarterback on the field so we add the two RBs and one TE and that deduce that there are nine players accounted for. You're allowed 11 players on the field, so that means the other two unknowns are classified as widereceivers. It sounds complicated here, but it's really basic Algebra.

1 RB + 2 TE + X WRs = 5.

Solve for X.

Once someone mentions Algebra, I know a lot of people wince, but the equation is always going to equate to five players. You catch on in no time.

Here is a list of the 11 packages commonly used.

00 -€” 0 RB -€” 0 TE -€” 5 WR
01 -€” 0 RB -€” 1 TE -€” 4 WR
02 -€” 0 RB -€” 2 TE -€” 3 WR
10 -€” 1 RB -€” 0 TE -€” 4 WR
11 -€” 1 RB -€” 1 TE -€” 3 WR
12 -€” 1 RB -€” 2 TE -€” 2 WR
13 -€” 1 RB -€” 3 TE -€” 1 WR
20 -€” 2 RB -€” 0 TE -€” 3 WR
21 -€” 2 RB -€” 1 TE -€” 2 WR
22 -€” 2 RB -€” 2 TE -€” 1 WR
23 -€” 2 RB -€” 3 TE -€” 0 WR

Now, technically, there are more options that are mathematically possible. You could use 14 personnel, which would indicate one RB and four TEs and this might have a use in certain goal-line situations, but it would be rare. Just worry about the 11 standard styles for now.

Additionally, offensive coordinators may attempt to trick a defense by using dynamic player types such as third-down running backs and receiving tight ends to make things more difficult for the defense to decide a call prior to the snap. Rob Gronkowski can pose a threat as an in-line blocking TE as much as a split receiver. Shane Vereen could line up in the backfield and carry it up the middle or he could motion out to the slot for a quick pass.

Guys like these give the offense a huge advantage in the pre-snap game. When both Vereen and Gronkowski were with the New England Patriots, the offense could run 22 personnel, yet push both players into receiving roles. The defense is probably expecting a running play from heavy personnel (2 TEs, 2 RBs -€” one of which is likely a fullback), but the multiplicity of each player gives the quarterback four receiving options plus a running back. The defense may have only a few seconds -€” at best -€” to audible and realign themselves before the snap.

And now, if the offense has caught the defense in matching heavy personnel, and they are successful with a passing play, they can keep the defense from switching. The defense

Player designations

The next thing you need to know in order to understand an offensive play is that certain players carry a letter designation. This designation refers to where they line up on the field. Much like the personnel codes, the quarterback and offensive line are exempt, mainly because their alignments vary  little on a play-to-play basis.

Below, I have assembled a glossary of terms you need to understand before you progress on to formations.

Weak/Open -€” The side of the formation which contains the least TEs.

Strong/Closed -€” The side of the formation which contains the most TEs.

X -€” The receiver furthest wide on the open side of the formation.

Y -€” A tight end attached to one side of the offensive line.

Y-Flex -€” The tight-end when split away from the offensive line.

Z -€” The receiver furthest wide on the closed side of the formation.

U -€” The second tight end.

M -€” The third tight end.

H / Slot -€” Any receiver between an outside receiver and the offensive line.

Former NFL coach and current ESPN commentator Jon Gruden is famous for his "Spider 2 Y Banana" play call that has become somewhat of a catchphrase for him in recent years. The "Y Banana" part of that play refers to the tight-end (Y) running a post-route (vaguely shaped like a banana). Different teams use different playcalling language, but here is where it fits within the West-Coast Offense nomenclature.

When I worked at Pro Football Focus, we tracked each player in minute detail with a much more elaborate set of letter codes because XYZ didn't cover what was required. A lot of my job was tracking pre-snap player alignments using their particular in-house system. One player could have up to five or six letters to denote their field position. "SLoWR^k" would mean that this player was the outside (o) of two slot receivers (S) on the left side (L) of the formation, he was one of the two non-OL players who must be on the line-of-scrimmage (^), and that he blocked on the play rather than running a route (k).

An analyst looking at game tape could transcribe the entire field using this advanced system, and another analyst looking at the chart could then re-plot the formation using simple data. It contained a lot of information in a short amount of time, which was important because you could be charting 22 players per play and 150 plays per game. It's time-consuming. Language efficiency was key.


There are three areas to understand within any formation; the quarterback, the backfield and the receivers (including any detached tight-ends). The offensive line -- and any player attached to it -- can be disregarded for this level of study. We do not use the offensive line and any in-line tight-ends to determine the formation. Once the tight end detaches from the line, he becomes a receiver or a running back and only then will he impact our view of the formation. For this exercise, we will only be using players split wide, in the backfield, and receiving the snap to determine the set-up of the play.

Color code:

Under center

In this situation, the QB stands directly behind the center, who snaps the ball between his legs and physically hands it to the QB. The QB can either turn and hand the ball to a running back aligned behind him, or drop back to pass. This formation requires good footwork from a QB. Three, five and seven-step dropbacks must be mastered in order to effectively run this scheme in its entirety. The number of steps is often determined by the prime depth of the receiver's route. A QB will go through his progressions while dropping back in order to determine his target before he has to set his feet, step in, and throw.


The QB sets up 4-6 yards behind the center and receives a long snap as the ball travels through the air. From here, he can run the spread passing game without having to worry about dropping back. The majority of college football offenses use this and as such, its popularity within the NFL has grown, too. Offensive coordinators have adopted college philosophies in order to speed up the development time for rookie players.


This is somewhat of a compromise between both alignments. The QB stands 3-4 yards behind the center, usually with a running back behind, though potentially also to the side. The running game when a QB is under center allows the back to get a running start, while the passing game forgoes the worry of dropbacks. The pistol formation gives you the possibility of both.


Single back

As it sounds. One running back. Can be aligned behind the QB under center, to the side for a shotgun snap, or either in a pistol scheme. A shotgun snap is more likely to be a passing play, so a running back may sneak out to catch a pass or stay in to block.

Empty back

No running backs in the backfield


A running back and a fullback both align directly behind a QB under center. The fullback normally acts as the lead blocker on run plays.

Offset I-formation

Similar to the standard I-formation, except the fullback (the player closer to the QB) aligns slightly to the left or the right of the QB. The running back aligns behind as standard. This is often used for tricky pistol plays as it gives the QB two immediate options to hand the ball to, as well as standard receiver concepts.

Split backs

This occurs when the QB is under center and there are running backs behind him on either side but not directly, or when a QB is in the shotgun flanked by a running back on either side.

Full house

This is three running backs on the field. One is positioned behind the QB, one in front to the left, and one in front to the right. Much like an offset I-formation, but with two fullbacks.

TE Flex Wing

This is a formation used notably by the New York Giants and Green Bay Packers. It features an offset I-formation style look where the tight-end aligns behind a guard in the backfield. Both Ben McAdoo and Mike McCarthy like to use their TEs creatively and this pushes them into a hybrid TE/FB role.



The definition of this is fairly simple, even if it does have a multitude of possible styles. A balanced formation is any play with an even number of receivers on each side of the offensive line. The alignment of any tight ends attached to the formation is ignored. Focus only on detached players.

All-tight / Goal-line

Here we have some unorthodox formations that are only going to be used in short-yardage situations. The "All-tight" look is rarely seen in the NFL, but the goal-line formation is quite common. Goal-line can have no more than one WR with the rest of the personnel attached to the formation or set in the backfield.


This is a two WR set where both players are aligned to the same side of the offensive line. There is one outside receiver and one slot receiver.


This is a three or more WR set where at least three receivers are aligned to the same side of the offensive line.


This differs from "Trips" because it requires close spacing. Three WRs must be set close to one another in a triangle shape formation.


This is a three WR set where two of the three receivers line up on one side of the formation. The presence of a tight end attached to the formation on either side does not matter. Only detached receivers count towards play designation.


This is four WRs set on one side of the offensive line. Some screen plays may utilize a diamond-shape formation here with the ball played quickly to one receiver with three blockers out in front.

End notes


'Take Your Eye Off The Ball' by Pat Kirwan

Pro Football Focus Player Participation manual

Summer School Revision:

Understanding the 4-3 defense