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American Football Formations Explained

I've watched football all my life. My first word was "touchdown," literally. I love this game with a passion and I'd love for others to too.


Football Formations Explained

There are various ways a football team can line up before the ball is snapped, but identifying what kind of formation a team is in can be very confusing to someone who is new to the game. You'll often hear keywords such as shotgun, I-formation, blitz, 3-4, 4-3, etc. Without any knowledge, this can make a once enjoyable game seem complicated and difficult to understand. This article will break down many of the main formations for both offensive and defensive formations, how they came to be, and situationally when they may be used. This article will reference various player positions. If you're unsure of what these may mean, you can reference this article on American football positions.


The I-Formation is one of the most basic formations in football. This occurs when a quarterback lines up directly behind center, following by a fullback, and a running back lined up behind him. This can happen in a straight line, or sometimes the fullback will be slightly lined off to one side or the other, otherwise known as "offset." When looking at them, the backfield lines up straight like an "I", thus, how it gets its name. The formation is primarily used in rushing situations, allowing for the fullback to get ahead of the running back and clearing a lane for the running back to follow. The history of this formation is unclear in terms of who invented it, having examples all the way back in 1900. Various iterations have been established as well throughout the years, including the Maryland I-Formation that adds a second running back directly behind the first one.

What an I-formation looks like.

What an I-formation looks like.


A singleback formation, sometimes known as a "single set back," occurs when a single running back is lined up about five yards behind the QB. There is no fullback to help with blocking, and he is usually replaced with an additional wide receiver or tight end. While you can run out of this formation, it is primarily used in passing plays. The function of this play forces the defense to take a defender away from the line and focus on the additional WR. This opens the field up for passing plays or for a running back to get away with less resistance. This formation was first used by Coach Joe Gibbs in 1981 with the Washington Redskins. He would substitute WRs in to spread the pass or replace the fullback with an additional tight end to aid in blocking Lawrence Taylor, the greatest linebacker to ever play the game.

What the single set back formation looks like.

What the single set back formation looks like.

Pro Set

The pro set occurs similarly to an I formation, only the two backs line up 5 yards behind and to the sides of the QB, as opposed to a straight line. This set was developed for teams that had great pass catchers but wanted to involve their running backs in the passing game as well. It allowed the running backs to run out of the backfield and catch passes, while also spreading the defenses out for wide receivers as well. Coach Clark Shaughnessy developed this formation in 1949, but it is primarily recognized as a big part of Bill Walsh's West Coast offense with the 49ers in the 1980s.

What the pro set formation looks like.

What the pro set formation looks like.


The shotgun formation takes place when the QB no longer lines up directly behind the center, but is about five yards behind him. This allows for the QB to have a better view of the field, as well as gives him more time to throw the ball. The formation has many variations, including the standard version, the spread, trips, and others. The shotgun formation was invented by Coach Red Hickey in 1960 when he coached the 49ers, though it famously led to the success of the Cowboys in the 70's and the Bills in the 90's. The shotgun is used primarily as a passing formation but can be used to run out of on certain occasions. Most NFL teams with great QBs operate out of the shotgun because it compliments their skillset best.

  • The standard shotgun formation typically has the HB lined up next to the QB, with two wideout WRs, a slot WR, and a TE.
  • The spread offense has many variations within its own category but typically results in at least four WRs spread amongst the field on both sides, thus the name. This spreads out the defense and allows for bigger areas of the field to be open for WRs to catch passes. This formation is used much more today than in the early days of the NFL.
  • Trips formation is when three WRs are packed together on one side of the field. The name comes from the three, or triple, WRs. This can lead to crossing patterns at close range that aids in confusing opponents and losing a WR's defender. Depending on which side of the field the WRs line up you may hear the play referenced as "trips right" or "trips left."


The pistol formation is similar to the shotgun, except for the QB is only about three yards behind center, with the HB lined up directly behind him. This was invented in 2004 by Coach Chris Ault at the University of Nevada and has since been used in many colleges as well as some NFL teams. The pistol offers a few dimensions to the running options in a shotgun formation. Where running is seldom used in the shotgun, the pistol allows for a few plays because it disrupts the timing of the defense with handoffs being so far away. This allows for "option plays", where a QB and RB mask their handoff and read the defense to see who they'll pursue. This gives them the "option" to either rush the QB or RB. The pistol was used heavily with the San Francisco 49ers when they had Colin Kaepernick at QB and made their Superbowl run.

What the pistol formation looks like.

What the pistol formation looks like.

Goal Line

The goal line formation is specifically used in short yardage situations, typically right at the goal line when the offense is trying to score from two or three yards away. It typically doesn't include any wide receivers, instead packing three tight ends on the edges of the offensive line and two running backs in the backfield. Sometimes the tight ends are even replaced with more offensive linemen in their spots. This is an old-school formation that is all about one team being stronger than the other and hoping to push a running back ahead a few yards. You can pass out of this formation but it's rare. While it's unclear who invented this formation, the Chicago Bears made it famous when they lined up their defensive tackle "The Refrigerator" at FB to score touchdowns in the 1980's.

This is what a goal line offense looks like.

This is what a goal line offense looks like.

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Which Offense is the Best in Football?

Defensive Formations

While there are many ways to set up your offense, there are even more ways to set up your defense because there are no rules as to how your defense has to align on the field. You can literally send out your eleven players however you'd like with no repercussions but there are still many traditional defenses that have withstood the test of time to be used regularly in the NFL. Many defenses can be identified simply how the team lines up, being ordered by the defensive line, linebacker, and defensive back. This is structured in a three number system x-x-x. For example, if you had 4 linemen, 2 linebackers, and 5 defensive backs you'd be in a 4-2-5 defense. However, some of these have specific names and circumstances where they would be used. Below are some of the most common defenses you may see on any given Sunday.


The 4-3 defense is composed of four down linemen, three linebackers, and four defensive backs. This is considered one of the base defenses in the NFL, being that many teams run it but can also have many different variations based on where the linebackers or linemen align themselves. A basic 4-3 would have the three linebackers lined up behind the gaps behind the four down lineman. The defensive tackles align in front of the offensive guards, and the defensive ends align against the outside shoulder of the offensive tackles. The MLB is responsible for tackling the runner on most plays, the strongside linebacker is responsible for covering the tight end, and the weakside linebacker can either blitz or fall into coverage.

In the 4-3 defense the defensive ends are much more versatile than other formations. They are typically more athletic and are called on to pressure the QB or RB more often. The defensive tackles are often smaller than usually as well and are used to attract double teams from the center and guards to force one-on-one matchups between the defensive ends and tackles, hoping for better odds of rushing the QB this way.

The 4-3 can be used in many ways, but two common adjustments to it are to shift the linebackers to either the weak or strong side, essentially taking a linebacker to the left or right of the defensive line and having the other two stand behind. If the linebackers shift to the weak side it is called a 4-3 over. If the linebackers are shifted to the strong side it is called a 4-3 under.

The 4-3 was first utilized in 1956 by the New York Giants but has famously been used in many defenses since then. Some examples include the Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney led Colts, the Michael Strahan and Justin Tuck led Giants, and the Legion of Boom Seattle Seahawks defense.


The 3-4 is the other traditional base defense. It is composed of three down linemen, four linebackers, and four defensive backs. In the 3-4 there is only one DT, known as the "Nose Tackle", who lines up directly in front of the center. The two DEs line up between the guard and tackle on either side. Both defensive ends and defensive tackles are bigger in the 3-4, which aides in grabbing double teams and forcing "gaps", or holes in the line. The benefit of the 3-4 is the opposing QB can't be sure which of the four linebackers are going to blitz, leading to more confusion. The nose tackle, who is often the largest player on the defense, aims to pull a double team from the center and guard, allowing for the defensive end next to him to engage the tackle directly. This can either allow for a linebacker to come through the gap or at least get a one-on-one matchup with a higher chance to get past the block.

The 3-4 was originally invented by Bud Wilkinson at the University of Oklahoma in the 1940's. It has since become a very prominent base defense for many NFL teams and is used even more than the 4-3. Similarly to the 4-3. the linebackers can be shifted the same way to create 3-4 under and 3-4 over looks.

What the 3-4 defense looks like.

What the 3-4 defense looks like.


The 46 should not be confused with a 4-6. The 46 defense is a specific variation of the 4-3, with four down linemen and three linebackers. The difference is that the linebackers shift so that both the outside linebackers, weak and strong, align on the weak side of the defense, with the weakside defensive end lining up on the outside of the left tackle. The safety would come up into the "box", or the area where the front seven aligns and would play the role of what a fourth linebacker would. This defense put immense pressure on the QB's blindside, and also made it very difficult to make reads as to what the defense would do.

The 46 defense was given its name for the jersey number of Doug Plank, a hard-hitting safety on the Chicago Bears in the 80's. During that time Buddy Ryan was the defensive coordinator. He used the 46 defense to launch the Bears to a 15-1 season in 1985, eventually winning the Superbowl. When talking about the greatest defense of all time, the '85 Bears are always in the conversation and the 46 is why.

What the 46 defense looks like.

What the 46 defense looks like.


The nickel defense is a term used for any time you take away a linebacker or defensive lineman and replace them with a defensive back. This results in five defensive backs, just like a nickel is five cents. The original nickel defense is a 4-2-5 setup but can be any setup as long as there are five defensive backs. Other versions include the 3-3-5, 2-4-5, among others. The defense is meant to match an offense when they include an additional receiver, such as in the shotgun or single set formations mentioned earlier. When a corner is brought in to take the place of one of the front seven they are known as the "nickelback".

This formation was first utilized by Coach Jerry Williams of the Philadelphia Eagles in 1960.

  • 4-2-5: This is the original nickel formation, with four down linemen, two linebackers, and either an extra cornerback or safety. This formation is used to combat passing plays, but an extra strong safety would sometimes be used like a linebacker to also help in the run game.
  • 3-3-5: This formation is rarely used in the NFL, but is a very good formation to cause confusion. It primarily uses zone plays but can be used for man-to-man coverage as well.
  • 2-4-5: This is when you have your two pass rushers play the inside position where your DT would typically be, with four linebackers. The two outside linebackers play in the traditional DE positions. This is a great way to utilize your pass rush, especially with larger DEs that can still get past blockers. This is a quality formation that causes QB pressure without having to blitz extra players.


The dime defense takes what the nickel does and simply doubles it, taking two linebackers or linemen and replacing them with two defensive backs. Two nickels give you a dime, so two nickelbacks make a dime formation. This formation can be any that consists of six defensive backs and is always used against passing formations. This is a defense used often when offenses have four wide receivers on the field. This can be used to stop the shotgun or an effective passing attack that utilizes a quick TE. The traditional dime formation is a 4-1-6, with four down linemen, a linebacker, and six defensive backs. It is unknown who originally developed the dime defense.

Traditional dime defense. 4-1-6

Traditional dime defense. 4-1-6


The quarter defense, also known as the "prevent defense", is one that Browns fans like myself can't stand. It was famously overcome by John Elway on "The Drive" when he drove the ball 99 yards against the Browns' prevent defense to send the AFC championship into overtime. The quarter defense consists of seven defensive backs. This defense is used when you don't want a team to score or get a large passing play. Often times the defensive backs will back up and try to keep the team in front of them, limiting large plays and eating away at the remaining time on the clock. Unlike the nickel and dime, the name "quarter" doesn't pertain to the number of defensive backs, it has to do with each cornerback handling a quarter of the field, and the three safeties covering as far deep as they can. The point of this defense is to simply stop desperation plays from succeeding and protecting a lead.

Quarter defenses are typically 3-1-7

Quarter defenses are typically 3-1-7

How to Read Defenses

In conclusion, the easiest way to read a defense is to learn the different terms and remember the hints that their names give. Identify how many down linemen there are, then linebackers, and finally defensive backs. Based on that number you should be able to know what kind of base defense it is, whether it be a 4-3, 3-4, 46, or something else. Then based on the positioning of the players you'll know what other variations of the formation they're in. In no time you'll be impressing your friends with your football knowledge, and learning even more about the game now that you have the key details!

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© 2018 Jesse Unk

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