Offensive Schemes: Formations and Methods of Attack
Way back at the beginning of football, the rules didn't allow forward passes. Every play had to be a running play. The defense had an easier time because there was no need to defend the deep part of the field.
Even after the forward pass was made legal from anywhere behind the line of scrimmage in 1933, football was still a running game. Plays were designed for blockers to open holes for running backs. In the single-wing formation, the stack of two wingbacks (running backs positioned behind a tight end) and a fullback (a running back mainly used as a blocker) helped the offensive linemen block. The quarterback took the snap 5 yards in the backfield and usually ran behind his blockers on the strong side of the formation.
The T formation became widespread beginning in the late 1930s. In the T, the quarterback took the snap under center with his running backs behind him. This was an improvement over the single wing because the quarterback could hand off to any of the running backs, which meant the defense couldn't predict who would carry the ball. Furthermore, passing became easier in the T. If the quarterback faked a handoff, he would be in a good position to throw a pass.
Receivers Win the Game with Blocking!
Late in the 1988 AFC championship game, the Cincinnati Bengals were driving for a touchdown against the Buffalo Bills. A 15-yard penalty saved the Bengals's drive and gave them the winning score. What happened? Well, all day long the Bengals receivers had been blocking hard on every running play, even when the play was not in their direction. All these blocks were clean but tough. Finally, one of the Bills defenders got mad and shoved the Bengals receiver after the play, earning a penalty and allowing the Bengals to score a touchdown.
The Passing Game
As passing became a more important part of offensive football, receivers (called split ends or flankers) began lining up farther away from the center. This forced the defense to move players away from the middle of the field to cover the receivers, opening up the running game as well as the passing game.
The modern pro set eventually evolved from the T formation: two running backs behind the quarterback (under center), a tight end (part lineman, part receiver, the tight end lines up next to the tackle but is eligible to receive a pass), a flanker, and a wide receiver.
Words to Know
LATERAL: The rules about forward passes are very strict. But any player can throw a backward pass at any time. A backward pass is often called a lateral.
DRAW PLAY: Imagine your team faces third down and has 9 yards to go, so the defense expects a pass. The offensive line sets up to form a pocket, the quarterback drops back to pass, and the receivers run pass routes. But wait! Instead of throwing, the quarterback hands the ball to a running back, fooling everyone and allowing a long gain! That fake pass that turns into a run is called a draw play.
When a team has an athletic quarterback who has not developed into a first-rate passer, they might choose to run an option offense. In this run-based offense, the quarterback runs, intending to pitch the ball to a running back who trails behind him. If the defense covers the running back, though, the quarterback has the option to keep the ball and run upfield himself.
Many college teams of the 1960s and 1970s used the “wishbone” offense, in which three running backs gave the quarterback a triple option. Option offenses may only throw three or four passes per game, but these can be so surprising to the defense that they result in long gains.
West Coast Offense
In high-level college football and in the NFL, the quarterback is usually not the best athlete on the field, but instead is a deadly accurate thrower and an excellent decision maker. The goal of these offenses is for the quarterback to evaluate the defense and get the ball to a great athlete where he has room to run. For example, the West Coast offense is a passing offense, but one that pays more attention to short than long passes.
The strategy is to throw the ball quickly to open receivers 5–10 yards downfield. These receivers can sometimes break for long runs after the catch. Even if they can't, eventually defenders can be fooled into allowing a deep pass or a long run.
Some teams took the West Coast offense a step farther: they lined up four or five receivers on every play and only rarely ran the ball. This was called the run- and-shoot offense and was popular in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The Houston Oilers, with quarterback Warren Moon, and the Detroit Lions, with running back Barry Sanders, were the most famous run-and-shoot teams. But unless your running back was as good as Barry Sanders at breaking tackles, the run-and-shoot could be stopped by an athletic and disciplined defense.
The West Coast Offense on the Playground
It's exciting to make long gains, but when the defense knows the quarterback is going to throw deep they can usually break up the pass. Next time you're the quarterback, try running a West Coast offense. Throw quick, short passes and let the receivers run with the ball. You'll end up frustrating the defense, and you'll probably win the game.
Today, many college teams have found success with a different kind of run-and-shoot: the spread offense. A spread team usually lines up a running back and a shotgun quarterback—a quarterback who lines up several yards behind the center to receive the snap—in the backfield, and four receivers line up across the field far apart from each other.
Because the receivers and even the linemen are spread out so far along the line of scrimmage, the defense also has to spread out. The quarterback can decide who to throw the ball to or whether to run the ball by recognizing how the defense has lined up and reading how the defense reacts to the start of the play.
NFL teams take a spread offense one step further. An NFL offense often has to fool the defense by disguising what they're trying to do If they can make a defender take even one step the wrong way, they can manage a big gain Nowadays, NFL teams use multiple formations. They might run the same pass to their best receiver several times in a game. But if that receiver starts each play in a different spot on the field, the defense never knows what to expect.