December 28, 2009

Teaching Formations

There’s very little in football that’s original anymore. Half of the innovation that we see is mostly just old stuff packaged in new ways or extra-ordinary physical specimens doing things that most of us can’t. Most of what I learn these days is just stuff that’s been around and hasn’t been known to me, rather than anything terribly unique or special. I suppose that’s kind of a massive understatement, but we’ll just ignore my linguistic talents.

Something that I was introduced to in the last year was TCU’s concept of formation recognition that they install with their boys. To quote Gary Patterson, HC and former DC of the Frogs, “We don’t worry about formations any more. When you divide the formation down the middle, to each side there are only three formations the offense can give the secondary.” It didn’t take long for the logic of Patterson’s statement to hit me and make me reconsider how I’ve always done formations. I’d say most defensive coaches have a system for naming formations that’s some combination of arbitrary, logical, and unique. Me, I’ve more or less stuck with my system we used in college, which varied from such logical formation names like Pro and Trips to arbitrary terms like Bombers and Lucky. In our defensive terminology, there were approximately 40 different terms you needed to learn in order to accurately describe the entirety of offensive formations. With Patterson’s system, there’s about 6, plus backfields, which makes maybe twelve or so.

How It Works

There are six combinations you need to think about: Tight end-flanker, split end-slot, nub tight end, single split end, tight end-slot-flanker, split end-slot-flanker. Typical 21 personnel (2 back, 1 tight end, 2 receivers) formations boil down to these options: TE-FL with a single SE, nub TE with SE-Slot, and SE-Slot with Single SE. Naming these formation halves (because you gotta name them SOMETHING at the end of the day) went like this for me:

o “Pro”: Tight End-Flanker

o “Twins”: Split End-Slot

o “Nub”: Solo TE

o “Single”: Solo SE

o “Trey”: TE-Slot-Flanker

o “Trips”: SE-Slot-Flanker

So, as the offense breaks the huddle, our two safeties (we’re a 2-high defense) recognize their receiving threats in front of them and call out the corresponding term to themselves, the corners, and OLBs (we’re a 3-4 so about 90% of our adjusting happens with safeties and OLBs). Hypothetically as you’re installing and teaching the defense, you teach your guys how to line up to each possibility and then it’s done. The hope is that in the span of maybe two days you teach your guys how to line up to pretty much everything they’re going to see and then you’re done with it, move on to more pressing matters.

This isn’t rocket science by any means and I don’t claim to have any special wisdom to it, but it is VERY good info and a superb approach to packaging and relating to formations in a way that is cheap, efficient, and flexible. Put the work in regarding your coverages and how you want to relate to the formation components and you’ll eventually have a very easy to teach, very package-able scheme that really works for your players and your coaches.


  1. Like the blog so far..just to comment and I know you didn't make it up..there is another look that we often see at the HS level and that is unbalanced on the could be a ot or a te there...BTW..we lost a game like this cuz the F'ing refs didn't recognize it and the other team sent out an ineligible reciever

  2. What coverages are you looking to check into vs. these different sets? For example, do you play a 4 on one side and a 2 on the other vs some formations, do you roll to a 3 vs. others? Interested in changing coverages based on formation, but, like you, don't want to give the kids TOO MUCH to handle.

  3. We're have 2 coverage concepts: 3 roll and 4/2. We'll teach how to line up in 3 to those 6 formation pieces and how to line up in 4/2 to them. Once that's taken care of, we're set. It's just down to making gameplan specific or coverage specific calls.

    It's something we'll be introducing this year, but I'm excited for it and think it'll be a good long-term decision for us.

  4. Zach,

    How did this work out for your team? Just curious, I like the idea of simplifying the formations. We currently focus on learning by personnel groupings, we just call "21" or "12". This requires the entire group to learn each grouping front and backside though.

  5. Could you please teach me how to name different line up for 11 personnel? Thank you!