Formations Guide

Submitted by Seth on August 15th, 2012 at 1:59 PM

The following are images I created while putting together this week's Museday. I figured they might be useful here for future discussions of alignment and such. I can build more and add as we need.

Spread 5-Wide


The offense has gone 5-wide with an empty backfield. Rather than tip their hand  and delve into the 5th spot on the receiver depth chart, offenses will have a running back as one of the slot backs, and maybe a tight end too, so 005 personnel is pretty rare outside of Hail Mary situations. Some teams with a running QB will do this to give the QB and his line a 6-on-5 in the box. Defense counters with a dime back. In an obvious passing situation the 5-tech could easily be lifted for another linebacker to patrol the middle.



The diamond formation (there are variants, some of which are unbalanced) is all about creating space away from the box for a talented receiver to get a free release and/or lots of blockers on a screen. MSU used it a bunch last year to utilize Keyshawn Martin's skills. If you're going against defensive backs who can't tackle or avoid blocks very well, it can be devastating, however it's really just a wrinkle, not an offense.



This is another package rather than a full offense. Note that the QB is split out as a slot receiver. Also note the personnel: 2 backs, 1 tight end. This is part of the Wilcat's success—it creates a spread look but until they line up this way the defense is matching personnel to a two-receiver set.



I've shown just one response to an under-center spread formation that Michigan used last year. Note that the SLB is mismatched against a slot receiver here. The more the offense spreads the field, the more linebackers end up playing in space. Often a 104 will be matched with a  dime formation for this reason.



"Twins" or "Trips" refers to receivers lining up on the same side of the formation, or maybe motioning there. How the defense reacts can tip whether they're in a man or zone coverage. Michigan in 2010 liked to do this in order to clear out the boundary corner and run Denard left with the halfback as lead blocker, putting pressure on the filling free safety and backside pursuit to close it down before Denard was free. When it worked we usually exclaimed something to the effect of "Martell Webb: secret weapon." Note how the linebackers have essentially swapped jobs because of the shift. Rather than come across with the receiver, the boundary corner will often come in where the WLB is set up here, and the SAM is left to deal with the slot receiver.

The Shotgun, the Nickel, and the Okie


The most common offense Michigan has faced over the last four years, and is likely to see the most often again this year. Note the three WR draws a nickelback in to guard the space in the slot. However there's no rule saying the defense has to defend its 3rd and longs with a passive nickel. Here's the Okie:

Okie Okie Okie Okie Okie! This is a designer alignment that threatens rushers from all over the line in order to confuse blocking assignments, but is otherwise your standard NFL-style 3-4 zone blitz.


The Future


Michigan will continue to use many sets but this one is particularly good for running with power while still having a killer passing game thanks to the abilities of the tight ends to reach many different routes and the relative isolation of talented receivers against CBs. It's an even formation that can attack either side equally, so the defense can't pick any one side to overload. Some variants on the 122:


Putting the TEs on the line gives the WRs a better release and gets them closer to their blocks. The downside is the U-back can't move before the snap anymore, so motion has to come from the WRs or the HB.


Same look as the first except the QB is in the shotgun. This makes the quarterback more of a rushing threat and the halfback less of one, a decent trade-off if Devin Gardner's legs are part of your quarterback. In 2014 I expect this will be our base offense as we transition to the power game, though it will take some development from the tight ends to get there.

Things You Do With Fullbacks:


This is a good formation to run with even though you don't have tight ends because the defense has matched the receivers with a nickelback. The FB can motion and should have lots of room in the flat to receive. A favorite of West Coast enthusiasts everywhere when the offense thinks it can win up-front but doesn't want pesky OLBs getting all over things.


In the shotgun the fullback is a "Superback" and hardly different from the RB. This is another run formation without tight ends like above except, again, you are trading the RB's downhill head start for the ability to use your QB's legs or get a pass off quickly. Expect to see this formation on 3rd down this year as Michigan loves Vincent Smith's blocking ability and the tight ends are iffy.


Offsetting the fullback gives him a head start on blocking in that direction or leaking out into a receiving route. Putting him inline in a true I-formation makes him a quicker strike on the FB dive and better ISO blocker on a run down the middle.


Split-backs is a compromise between some of the shotgun's strengths and weaknesses and the I-form's. It's a great inside or outside running set that provides the passer a comfortable protection shell, is why this was used so much by Michigan in the Brady & Navarre periods, and why it's still found in the NFL.

Going "Big"


Big sets are for running with lead blockers. You can go big from a shotgun or whatever. Note that the defense will usually respond to this near sellout set with a bigger front and a stacked box (here another LB has come in for a safety while the original SAM has his hand down to give the defense a 5-man front). I meant for the field corner to come in tighter here, since he's now the edge defender. Michigan's Okie package sometimes riffed off of 4-4 personnel even though it's supposed to be a 3-man front technically, as the WDE and SLB acted as OLBs and the strong safety attacked from the edge.


Same thing, different defensive response. The safety has been lifted for an extra 3-tech. In this the nose tackle has two-gap responsibility but we've seen Michigan go with 5-3 personnel then put the SAM's hand down on the edge for a Bear look.

Goal Line


Close to the endzone the offense can no longer spread the field vertically, which hurts all offenses but the effect is felt greater on the passing game and its best formations, while running in a crowded area is still running in a crowded area. Teams will go BIG or forget about receivers altogether:


I'll update this cheatsheet as the year goes on and we see different things if people find it useful. Comments and suggestions welcome.


Michael Scarn

August 15th, 2012 at 2:21 PM ^

Genuine question, not snark:

In the diamond formation, and really anything where line strength and formation strength don't match up, wouldn't the line matchups be based on line strength? So in your example, the 5 tech would be on the tight end side? I could be totally off base but that was my understanding.


August 15th, 2012 at 3:25 PM ^

The 5T usually lines up on the tight end side because the tight end often makes that side the strength of the formation. I've seen both ways -- the DEs have to be able to be interchangeable, or at least hold up doing the other's job, when the offense goes with designer formations/plays.

If they were to run out of that formation, the 5T is taking on an OT for the edge, while the WDE is up against the tight end, so for this formation that's the correct alignment. Note when Michigan ran the transcontinental out of a diamond (what it is after the motion) that it was a burly end coming in and trying to deflect the pass.



August 15th, 2012 at 2:34 PM ^

This is easily one of the most useful pieces of football writing I've ever come across.  

I noticed last season that Borges used a lot of formations with stacked wide receivers.  I assumed he was doing that to help some of our smaller WRs get off the LOS--if so, then I imagine we'll see even more of that in 2012 since we have an even smaller group to work with.  Are those really separate formations, or just slight variations on the standard twins, trips, etc. sets?


August 15th, 2012 at 3:20 PM ^

Wow, I'm going straight to NCAA 13.  I always wondered what package I was randomly clicking.  Now I know.


In all seriousness, great informative post.


August 15th, 2012 at 5:39 PM ^

The bit about QB runs away from the twins side is the kind of thing that adds so much to folks with my level of knowledge – maybe 20% of the way between zero and Seth. Posts like this are so helpful.

M Wolve

August 16th, 2012 at 1:57 AM ^

this is awesome.  Secondly, sorry to nit pick, but it looks like a lot of the 3 techs are playing head up on the guard instead of the outside shoulder for some of these diagrams.  That may be intentional for some of the formations, and I've only briefly looked at this, but I thought I'd point it out in case you missed it. 


August 16th, 2012 at 7:59 AM ^

Thanks -- when I was making them initially I wasn't paying too close attention to pointing the points at the correct shoulder. However since I plan to make this a sticky once it's half-complete maybe I oughtta go back and fix those.


August 18th, 2012 at 9:35 AM ^

Not to be a dick, but having the formation run perpendicular to the yard line image in the background is a bit....illogical. In some cases it might be helpful to see hash marks.