By Mickey Mays, Researcher, X&O Labs

During an S.E.C. game last year, the announcer stated that one goal of Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn’s game plan was to "wear down the opponent’s defense both physically and mentally by using a fast tempo, multiple formations, and pre-snap shifts and motions."  A confused football player performs with doubt in his mind instead of the inner confidence needed to excel.  Simplifying offensive formation recognition will help your players eliminate the thinking process by making precise run and passing strength calls, align correctly and concentrate on assignment and technique. This report will focus on one back and two back offensive formations, which will be divided into three categories:

  1. Two back formations.
  2. One back 2x2 formations (meaning two eligible receivers on both sides of the formation; a balanced set).
  3. One back 3x1 formations (meaning three eligible receivers on one side of the formation).
Through recognition simplification, the different possible one back and two back formation total is nine.   Although personnel groupings may change, man coverage match-ups and zone coverage drops can remain the same with one exception – some defensive coordinators flip the back-side corner vs. Twins or Trey when playing zone coverage.

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For the purpose of this report, we will identify the five eligible receivers as follows:

F: Running back

H: Blocking back or 3rd receiver

Y: Tight end

Z: Flanker

X: Split end

***U: Second tight end (two tight end formation)

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It must be noted that formation terminology can vary widely from team to team.  Regardless of terms used to label each formation, your players must identify and communicate all nine.  We will use the following terminology for the nine one and two back formations:

Two Back Formation Possibilities (diagram 1):

    • Pro: 2 Backs, 1 T.E., 1 Wide (receiver) each side
    • Flex: 2 Backs, 0 T.E., 3 Wides (receivers)
    • Twins: 2 Backs, 1 T.E., 2 Wides (receivers) aligned opposite the T.E.

One Back Formations: (2 x 2) Possibilities (diagram 2)

  • Ace (1 Back, 1 tight end, 3 Wides)
  • Deuce (1 Back, 2 T.E.’s, 1 Wide each side)
  • Quads (1 Back, 0 T.E., 2 Wides each side)

Formations: (3 x 1) Possibilities (diagram 3) Trips: 1 Back, 1 T.E., 2 Wides T.E. side, 1 Wide opposite Trey: 1 Back, 1 T.E., 3 Wides aligned opposite the tight end Trio: 1 Back, 0 T.E., 4 Wides – 3x1

Formation Tags: A tag may be added to any of the nine formations.  They include the following:

  • Tight: a second tight end added to Pro or Trips
  • Wing: an eligible receiver aligned off the hip of a tight end; Pro Wing, Deuce Wing, Trips Wing
  • Slot: an eligible receiver aligned off the hip of an offensive tackle; Flex Slot, Ace Slot,
  • Bunch: all three receivers in Trio, Trips or Trey aligned within 3 yards of each other
  • Close: two receivers in Twins or Flex aligned within 4 yards of one another
Diagram 4: two-back tags

Diagram 5: one-back (2x2) tags

Diagram 6: one-back (3x1) tags

Backfield Sets: Though the backfield sets I, Split, Strong, or Weak are critical in breaking down film and charting tendencies, they are not necessary for linebackers and safeties when making strength calls and coverage adjustments.  The exception for specific game plans may be identifying an off-set back as a "slot" or "wing."

Shifts and Motions: Understanding the big picture of possible formations will help your players not only recognize the new formation created by a shift and motion, but also anticipate the defensive adjustment before it happens. Motion will create a "new" number 1, 2, or 3 to the side of motion.  Below are examples:

  • Pro: "Z" across motion=Twins   "H" shift strong= Trips "H" motions weak= Ace (diagram 7, below).
  • Flex: "H" out weak= Quads    "H" motion strong= Trio (diagram 8, below).
  • Trips: "H" across motion= Ace (diagram 8, below).

Formation Into Boundary: Offensive formations into the boundary may change the coverage call, specifically if a defensive scheme includes aligning the 3 technique into the boundary or the wide side of the field.  For this reason, a "Boundary" tag may be added to any of the nine formations (i.e., Pro Boundary).

Researchers’ Note: You are reading the summary version of this Clinic Report. To access the full version of this report, please CLICK HERE.

Questions or Comments? X&O Labs Researcher, Mickey Mays, will be available to answer your questions. Please post your questions or comments below in the "Comments" section and Mickey will respond quickly.

2011 Copyright X&O Labs

Comments (14)
  • Mickey Mays

    Good question Coach Lewis. Empty formations can be tagged to any of the possible six one back formations. A 4x1 formation may be labeled Quads M.T. 4-1 with both the run strength and passing strength made to the 4 receiver side. Vs. a Tight End to the single receiver side (Trey M.T. 4-1), the run strength is still made to the Tight End, and the passing strength is made to the 4 wides.

  • Jeff Woodall

    We do a drill similar to that, but we do use our scout team OL. Early in the week, we just do formation recognition and walk/talk through checks and adjustments. As the week goes on, the defense will step to their stunt/blitz call and also see/read keys without running any play. By Wednesday, we are going fast as we can go, only stopping to correct mistakes. I like the pursuit idea though.

  • Mickey Mays

    I like your progression, especially the stunt/blitz calls without any running plays. The pursuit drill is usually done at the end of practice.

  • Michelle

    When the New England Patriots line up on offense with the center forward and the rest of the line back is that an illegal formtion? Looks like the "left trey slot" formation to me. Sick of listening to the Steeler fan I work with cry about Patriots illegal formation. Thanks

  • Mickey Mays

    Thanks for the comment, Michelle. His (or her) complaint is a fairly common one. Some offensive coaches teach their linemen to align with as much depth as possible in order to gain pre-snap separation from the defensive linemen. The rule states that the O.L.'s helmet must break the plane of the center's hip. Whatever the Patriots are teaching, it seems to be working out pretty well.

  • Jeff Anderton

    Hello all. I just found this site and I think it is amazing. Mickey, I as wondering, regarding formations, did you ever read Steve Belichik's book that talks about charting formations with numbers? He goes left to right, first noting receivers, the linemen to left of center, then linemen to right of center, then receivers on right. When he wrote the book there wasn't as many different backfields as now. So I started using letters denoting Shotgun or Under Center, then noting the backfield alignment accordingly. So a 2x2 with a QB in Shotgun and a RB to the left of the QB would be 2222SR. First "2" signals 2 Receivers to the left, second "2" signals 2 linemen to the leeft of the center, 3rd "2" signals 2 linemen to the right of the center, fourth "2" signals 2 receivers to the right. The the "S" signals shotgun and the "R" signals one RB to the Right of the QB. 1222SS would be one receiver to the left, 2 linemen left, 2 linemen r...

  • Mickey Mays

    Good morning Jeff and thanks for the compliment.
    That is a very interesting and complex system. Breaking down film and loading information into a computer is much different than players communicating formations, shifts and motions during a real game. Rather than calling out 0331UI2, eleven defensive players can simply recognize and communicate "Gun Quads"- Hope you continue to enjoy our website.

  • Greg Lewis

    Good Morning coach, or afternoon. My question is this...if the offense comes out in a true 4x1 set. For instance Quads Rt. will the run strength be Lt? and passing strength Lt? And or how do you label the empty sets?

  • James

    Good evening coach. In diagram 1 "left pro", why is the run stenght to the left? I am a little confused on things. I havent graduated yet, but would like to learn as much as possible before I get that first coaching job. Thanks coach.

  • Mickey Mays

    Thanks for the question,James. The defense makes a "Left" call because the tight end is aligned on the left side of the formation as the defense views it. From an offensive point of view, the strength of the formation is "Right." When a defensive coach draws all twenty-two players on the board, the defense is at the bottom and offense at the top. When an offensive coach draws up a play, the offensive players are at the bottom and defense at the top. Hope this has helped.

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  • Mickey Mays

    Thanks for the compliment.

  • Rodgau Pioneers Germany

    Hey Coach,
    I am a new coach in Germany where Football is still growing as i am in the position of Offense Coach. Everything i am reading here is alot of information for a new Coach but i am taking it in as much as i can and think it will be psoitive information for our first year in playing. I am glad to find this page and hope everyone will understand that American Football in Germany is not as far as it is in the States. My team is new to the scene of AF and this is a wonderful way to get us on our way to success!!

    Thanks for all this info!
    Rodgau Pioneers Germany Coach J.C

  • Mickey Mays

    Coach J.C.,

    Thanks for the comments. I had the opportunity to coach defensive line for the Berlin Thunder of N.F.L Europe several years ago, and it was a great experience. Also, I worked some youth camps; the players were passionate about the game and a pleasure to coach. Good luck to you and your team this year.

    Mickey Mays

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