Football 101: Typical offensive formations and roles

Below we cover the very basics to more detailed information on how teams typically run their offenses, the names of the positions and what they do. This is Football 101, so the word usually and typically can be used in most sentences. There is very few musts and always in the game. Most teams either use a West Coast Offense or a Spread/Air Coryell scheme. A few use a combo like Denver has attempted the last few years (what works best is dependent on the QB and OL). When it fails, it’s because coaches didn’t fit their scheme to their players. ALL teams do have their QB’s Under Center or in shot gun, the difference is how much of the time.


This first formation is often called a pro-set, most often associated with a West Coast Offense. The quarterback lines up “under center”. He takes a snap and then drops back, three steps, five steps or seven steps. How far he drops depends on the type of play being run and the time needed for a WR to run his route.

Pro Set Formation

Below are the positions from left to right.

Wide Receiver X, is what is called a ‘wide out’. He is splits out wide, as in, he’s lining up away from the front five. The front five will be in every formation the NFL uses except on Special Teams (another lesson) and occasionally on some trick plays.

On our team, Demaryius Thomas, is typically the X. The X lines up on what is called the ‘weak side’. That’s the side without a TE and the least players to the side of the Center. He is usually referred to as WR1. He’s the fastest and is typically who the deeper passes are thrown to.

The Left Tackle is considered the most important protector to the QuarterBack because he protects the ‘blind side’. Right handed QB’s in this formation (standing right behind the C) drops back after receiving the ball. In a pass play, when they do this, their back is to the left side of the line.

A LT is therefore protecting his blind side. He is most responsible for stopping Linebackers (edge rushers like Von Miller) and Defensive Ends (like Derek Wolfe) from running around the edge of the front five. With that said, more and more teams are having their premier edge rushers line up on the RT side, instead of the left which was the norm. Why? Because RT are considered not as good as LT’s.

Next is the Left Guard. His job his to fill the gap between the LT and the Center. This will require him to either pair up with the LT or pair up with the C, but often he’s alone. Whether he pairs up or is alone, depends on the play called. And the type of scheme a team is using. Most run plays happen in the middle of the field, this means that the front three – guards and center – are most resposible for blocking for the run. Guards also protect the QB on pass plays.

Center is a unique cat. He does more than just hike the ball. There are two sets of play calls. One the whole offense uses in the huddle and another just the front five use. While the QB is barking out his cadence, the C is doing his own. This helps fool defenses from knowing what red 32, red 32, hut, hut means. The C is reading a defense just like the QB. He can kill a play if he thinks it won’t work. He will use code words to the line and the QB. This why Offensive Linemen are often the smartest guys on the team and also why very few rookies start.

Not only do they need to learn the playbook, but learn defensive coverages, plus know another set of play calls. Plus, have suberb technique. The above ‘pro set’ lineup isn’t used by many college teams. Nor do they use a pro style of play calling where there are no que cards on the sideline. Making a jump to the NFL a big one. Most need a couple years, especially at tackle.

The Right Guard can have three duties. First, in a shotgun formation (see below graphic) his job is to watch both the QB and the defender in front of him. No matter the count, the C doesn’t snap the ball until the RG taps him on the leg. It’s a subtle move, but ensures that the QB is indeed ready to receive the snap. Remember SB48? That was a mess up between the C and RG. One of them blew it. The reason for the tap is to make sure that kind of utter disaster, doesn’t happen.

When the play is ready to go, the C doesn’t watch the QB’s hands because his eyes need to be split between the ball and the defender in front of him. When the QB is lined up directly behind him, the QB will tap his behind to let him know now is the time to snap it.

These taps from the QB and RG are especially invaluable in a loud stadium and/or when the QB wants the defense to think the snap count is one thing, when it’s another.

The LG’s second and third duties are like the others: protect the QB and create a hole for the Running Back or Full Back to run through.

As stated above, the Right Tackle position has become more important that it was. This is especially true on plays where the QB is in the gun and his blind side isn’t as blind. Edge rushers will be looking for the weakest link to get around and sack or rush the QB.

What is a Tight End? Tight refers to him lining up tight to the front five. End because he’s on the end of them. A TE can play on either side. There can be anywhere from 0 to 5 TE’s on any given play.

A TE is usually a player who once upon a time was a WR who got too big. TE’s are bigger than WR’s and RB’s, thinner and more athletic than the front five. They play many roles depending on their skill set.

The best TEs can catch, run a route. He can act as a slot (Y) receiver. (See below). He’s the Handyman. Because of his size, he’s hard to tackle. Rob Gronkowski is considered an elite TE. This is why teams have them. They can be a match-up nightmare because good ones need two defenders to take them down.

Some TE’s are more blocker than receiver, like Jeff Heuerman. Some are better Receivers than blocker, like Julius Thomas was.

If a defense needs to have two guys watch him every play, someone else isn’t being covered. In the Red Zone (the area of the field between the twenty yard mark), and the End Zone, having a good catching TE is invaluable. Their height makes them an easier target to find in a crammed in space, plus if they’re double covered, frees up a WR to make the catch. The added bonus with their height, is their bulk.

The Z WR is another wide out and considered WR2. On our team, for now, that’s Emmanuel Sanders, although rookie Courtland Sutton most likely becomes the 2nd wide out. They play on the strong side in a formation like above because the TE is there to help block/jam a defender. The TE often can tag team with the Z. WR1 usually needs less assistance because he’s faster, bigger and stronger and therefore is a tad better at shaking defenders.

Our team has two types of Running Back; a Half Back and a Full Back. However, the terms don’t often apply anymore. It’s now more about skill. Also, rarely are HB called that, usually they just say RB and it’s implied.

The term half back meant that the RB was lining up half way between the Line Of Scrimmage (LOS)  and the QB. That is only the case in certain formations.

A Full Back lines up all the way back beside the QB in a shotgun formation (see below). However, today, a FB is usually a blocker who plows ahead making a hole for the HB. He can also run with the ball and be used a a slot, depending on his skill set and the play.

Very few teams employ a FB. In today’s pass happy NFL, they’re considered a waste of a WR since most teams like to use 3-4  in a play and they can’t if a FB is used. In a WCO, they employ a run first game plan, hence a FB is often used.

Moving on, the RB (HB) is typically smaller than the FB since he needs to be quick and shitfty. He’s finding holes to run through, not creating them. Teams with a RB who can also catch, have gold. A great RB can also block, read a defense, pick up a blitz (a bull rush of the QB) and be his QB’s best friend.

Any good QB has a good RB. They go hand in hand.


The shotgun is used primarily for teams that don’t use a WCO, ones with QB’s who can throw 30 or more times a game. With that said, teams will sometimes have their QB in the gun even if they’re a run-heavy team because they need more time or to fake out a defense. Lots of reasons why.
Shotgun formation

The above formation has the QB in the shotgun, five yards behind the Line Of Scrimmage. This is a pass play formation (unless it’s a fake). It’s called empty because no one is back there with him. Usually a RB or FB is back there so teams don’t know if a run or pass play is coming. Without a back, if they want to run, it’s on a trick play. The ball is hiked to him and he doesn’t drop back. This formation has the line make a ‘V’ called a ‘pocket’ and the QB steps up into it for protection. This typically gives him more time to throw than a WCO. A WCO OL usually uses a zone block scheme, we discuss different OL duties, here. While a spread offense uses a power scheme.

A QB in the ‘Pocket’

When you hear the term, ‘pocket presence’ or awareness, it means the QB is using the pocket correctly. Sounds simple, but isn’t. It requires him to notice what his OL is doing, make sure he’s in the right spot, and pay attention to where the pocket may be breaking down. On top of having good pocket awareness, the QB must also scan the field (read the defense) to see what the linebackers, cornerbacks and safeties are doing and go through his progressions.

If the play is supposed to be to the X, but he is double covered, the QB needs to read the defense and find the next ‘open’ guy. Sometimes this means going through three or four choices. That’s what going through his progressions means. Typically, a QB has up to 3 seconds under center and 3-5 in a shotgun formation.

The RB can line up beside him, in front of him like a real HF or use none at all.

Above we see the addition of a Slot (Y) WR. If there isn’t a TE, he will line up in the TE spot or inside a wideout. The slot is the safety net guy. He’s the one receiving passes in the middle of the field and within ten yards. Speedy, sturdy and gritty, with good hands is a slot.

I call him the sacrificial lamb. Usually the smallest of the WR’s because quickness is needed. When the QB wants to get rid of the ball quickly, the slot WR (or TE) is who he’s targeting. The last true slot we had was, Wes Welker. If the play called isn’t going to happen, and/or the pocket is collapsing quickly, the QB looks for his slot to dump off the ball.

Below is a common formation, an all hands on deck play. It spreads the defense out, usually decreasing the chance that any ‘WR’ is double covered. The 4 players could be a combo of TE’s, RB’s or even a FB. It merely means each player is in position to act like a catcher. In addition, the QB could also hand or pass to the RB.

Pocket Part 1
Pocket Part 2

Those are the basic formations and positions Denver will use. There are more, but it’s a good starting spot.

Hope this was helpful. You can comment below with any questions. This is beginning level. Bare basics. Football 101 is a continuing feature.

2 thoughts on “Football 101: Typical offensive formations and roles

  • April 13, 2017 at 1:20 pm

    Great information,easy to understand, this lady knows her stuff!!

  • April 13, 2017 at 1:39 pm

    A very rich content and informative site!


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