Games of football, especially at the highest levels, often are decided by a single play. Even in blowouts, there are pivotal moments at which one team pulls ahead of the other.
Some of these critical plays happen by chance, but usually both offensive and defensive game plans are designed around team strengths and opponent weaknesses in order to land the decisive blow.
In order to understand why one team beat another of comparable strength, then, it’s important to understand how a play (either offensive or defensive) is planned, called, and executed.
Today we will cover some of the basics for understanding offensive plays. Specifically, the different offensive positions and basic formations will be discussed.
During the season, critical plays in both Chiefs wins and losses will be analyzed using the lessons from this article and subsequent ones.
One important disclaimer: every system and coach uses a unique naming system for offensive skill positions, formations, and even plays, so terms will mean different things for different teams. The set of terms used in this article won’t match the set of terms many or even most of you have encountered before.
Every play starts with the offensive line, so those are the players we’ll cover first. We’ll work down the line the outside in.
Left tackle (LT): the left tackle is probably the most well-known and the most maligned position on the offensive line. Generally the left tackle will protect a right-handed quarterback’s blindside and attempt to block the opponents’ best pass rusher on the edge.
Right tackle (RT): while many teams move their pass rushers around nowadays, the right tackle is still generally matched up against weaker pass rushers.
Instead, his focus will be on run blocking on the offensive line’s strong side. Still, he has to protect the edge just like the LT does.
Guards (LG/RG): there is not as big a difference between the two guards on the offensive line as between the tackles, although the left guard usually pulls and blocks on the outside or next level more often.
Either guard is expected to deal with large interior defensive linemen and perhaps blitzing linebackers, and they are the foundation of a team’s run game.
Center: the center, as the name suggests, most often lines up in the middle of the offensive line. He snaps the ball to begin every play. Centers are generally the smallest player on the line, and in addition to the snap must coordinate the lineman pre-snap and block blitzing defenders in the middle.
Next up are the offensive backs. In the NFL, there are three common backs: the quarterback, fullback, and halfback.
Quarterback (Q): the quarterback position is the most famous in football. Quarterbacks take the snap from the center, hand the ball off to running backs, make adjustments at the line of scrimmage, and most importantly pass the ball to receivers.
Fullback (B): fullbacks are used mostly for blocking in the modern NFL, but are sometimes incorporated in short passing and short yardage running situations.
Halfback (A): teams want halfbacks that are versatile threats in both running the ball and catching passes. Every running back has a different style, so he will fit one offensive system better than others.
Tight ends and wide receivers both line up out of the backfield on or near the line of scrimmage, but even within the positions there is plenty of variation. Both tight ends and receivers serve to catch and block, depending on the play.
Tight end (Y): modern tight ends are often moved out of a 3-point stance and flexed out, but they still spend plenty of time lined up just outside the offensive tackles, blocking or going out for passes.
Split end (X): the backside receiver on the offense is usually the #2 wide receiver on the team. Some teams prefer to put speedy receivers in the “X” spot to take advantage of busted coverage, while some prefer to put a sure-handed possession guy in for easy yards.
Flanker (Z): the #1 receiver on most teams plays on the strong side at the flanker spot.
The terms “split end” and “flanker” are somewhat archaic. Nowadays the “X” receiver could be lined up off the line of scrimmage and the “Z” on it, depending on how many tight ends the offense has on the field and what system the offensive coaches use for nomenclature.
For this series, it can be assumed that X and Y are the offensive ends (either split, tight, or flex), and Z is off the line of scrimmage.
To sum up offensive positions, you can (almost) always rely on there being 5 offensive linemen, 2 ends, a quarterback, and 3 other skill players—usually a mix of receivers and running backs.
Now that we’ve described the common positions in the modern NFL, it’s time to talk about the common formations in use. Of course there are dozens if not hundreds of formation variants, so we’ll just cover them generally.
Pro Set w/ 2 running backs
Pro Sets: the beloved “I-formation”, split backfields, and a few other formations are pro sets. These formations feature two running backs in the backfield, usually a fullback and halfback, and a mix of tight ends and wide receivers to fill out the three other skill positions (not including the quarterback).
Pro sets offer versatility, since either of the running backs could carry the ball, block, or go out for a pass. The picture above shows an offset I-formation, with wide receivers at the X and Z spots, a tight end inline at Y, and a fullback and halfback in the backfield.
Spread Set w/ 1 running back
Spread Sets: in spread formations, a wide receiver is substituted in for one of the running backs, giving the offense greater passing power. Spread formations can have two receivers on either side of the offense (called quads, doubles, or simply spread) or three receivers on one side and a single receiver on the other (trips).
The formation shown above is a variant of the quads formation, with the Y receiver flexed out to provide a better route-running start.
Big Set w/ 2 tight ends
Big/Ace Sets: these formations are similar to spread sets in that one of the running backs is taken off the field, but for these formations an additional tight end is added to the offense instead of a wide receiver.
This allows the offense to retain some of its run-pass versatility, but usually is an upgrade in passing since tight ends are generally better receivers than fullbacks. The standard Ace or Big Quads formation is shown above.
Other sets: offenses employ other kinds of formations with differing frequency. In empty sets, every skill player except the quarterback is flexed out of the backfield as a potential receiver.
Full sets, on the other hand, put every skill player except the ends in the backfield as potential ball carriers and blockers. Wildcat sets move the quarterback out of the backfield and put another player in his spot.
Occasionally the offense will line up with no quarterback at all (usually as a trick play).
Most formations have pistol and/or shotgun variants, where the quarterback moves back from under center. This requires a longer snap, but allows the quarterback to start with the ball at the back of his drop.
Consequently, passing-oriented offenses usually line up in the shotgun to take advantage of the easier field reads and pass protection.
To summarize: while NFL offenses line up in dozens or hundreds of different formations, there are a few basic concepts that teams build on to create their unique variants. These formations employ the various position players in different ways, allowing teams to run certain plays and take advantage of their roster strengths.
So when you hear someone say that the Chiefs have switched to a “spread offense” to enable Patrick Mahomes to shine, you will have some idea of what they’re talking about.
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