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[FAQ] The different offensive formations

[FAQ] The different offensive formations

If there are always eleven players, the attacks use different types of formations according to the games or according to their general philosophies. Among these eleven players, there is always a quarterback and five offensive line players so, when we decline certain diagrams, the detail will be done with the other five players. We will use RB for running-back (runner), TE for tight-end and WR for wide receiver (receiver). The Anglo-Saxon term is ‘Personal’, so since it sounds familiar to our ears and matches the intended meaning, we will keep it.

Most used

  • 11 Staff: 1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR

After 6 games in 2021, all 32 NFL teams have used this formation on 59% of called plays (60% for the entire 2020 season). It is undoubtedly the most balanced model, the one that allows you to attack on the ground or in the air at the same time. Normal that it is the most used. Some teams favor it more than others: the Steelers in “11 Staff” on 76% of their offensive plays in 2021 while the Ravens have only used it on 37%. Whether they use it more or less, during the 2020 regular season, no offense in the NFL has used a formation other than this “11 Staff”. This is the basic formation of any attack. Or almost, since in 2021, the Atlanta Falcons line up more often according to the formation that follows (37% against 28%).

  • 12 Staff: 1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR

This is the second most used formation type in the NFL (20% in 2020, 22% after 6 games 2021). The difference is therefore that an additional tight-end replaces a receiver. The addition of the second tight-end can have several purposes: to add a blocker to help the offensive line (to protect the QB or to open a breach to the RB) or to use one (or even two) athletic tight-end who will serve as receiver. It also allows to feign defenses not knowing how these TEs will be used. This formation has notably proven to be very effective for the New England Patriots over the past 15 years. Again, some teams use this formation more than others in the NFL. This is for example the case of the Falcons in 2021, after the draft of Kyle Pitts to accompany Hayden Hurst (37% of their offensive formations). This was also the case for Eagles in 2020 (35%).


Although “11 Staff” and “12 Staff” represent the vast majority of offensive lineups in the NFL, there are others. Here are three:

  • 13 Staff: 1 RB, 3 TE, 1 WR

The term tight-end, if it designates a specific position, this position can be played by any player. Thus, this 3rd TE is often a 6th offensive lineman aligned and counted as a tight-end (and therefore eligible to receive the ball). This formation “13 Staff” is often nicknamed “Jumbo Package” because the presence of a large number of imposing players, reminiscent of the immense wings of a Jumbo Jet plane. Feints are always possible in football but this type of formation is most often used for the running game, when there are few yards to gain. The 32 NFL offenses used it on average on 4% of games in 2020 (4% also after 6 games 2021).

  • 21 Staff: 2 RB, 1 TE, 2 WR

This formation is intended for the ground game because the second runner is an FB (FullBack). That is to say a stronger runner who at the start is responsible for running without the ball, in order to block for another runner who follows him, who wears the leather. It was the formation favored by all teams until the 2000s. Since then, attacks in the NFL have started in a crescendo to favor passing play and therefore, formations with 3 receivers. This choice was only made for 7% of offensive plays in 2020, on average across the 32 teams.

Choosing this formation today depends on the philosophy of a coach as is the case with Kyle Shanahan (49ers / 30% of offensive formations) or John Harbaugh (Ravens / 27%). And the use of this fullback differs: Kyle Juszczyk (49ers) received 14 balls in 6 games (targeted 16 times), where Patrick Ricard that of the Ravens captured 3 balls in 6 games 2021 (targeted only 4 times). Of course, it also and above all depends on the players available, in order to use the formation that best optimizes their qualities.

So in 2021, the Patriots have a new quarterback and Mac Jones is very different from Cam Newton: one is more of a thrower from the pocket while the other also knew how to gain yards by running. As a result, we can see that after 6 games in 2021, the Patriots have only used the “21 Staff” only on 16% of their attacks while they used this system on 37% of their games in 2020. The difference is notorious and therefore not a coincidence.

  • 10 Staff: 1 RB, 4 WR

This is the system of so-called “Spread” attacks, in particular the so-called “Air Raid” philosophy of which Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury wants to be the heir. Throughout the 2020 season, as in the first 6 games of 2021, this 4-receiver formation was only used in 2% of offensive plays by the 32 NFL teams. 13 teams have never even used it in the 6 games of 2021. The Kliff Kingsbury Cardinals use this “10 Staff” on 25% of their offensive actions!

The goal of this formation is to spread the defense as far as possible over the entire width of the field: in order to be able to attack it inside (most often) or in depth (sometimes). And this with 4 receivers moving along different paths. For example, two receivers will each trace from one side of the marks to the other and cross their runs, while the other two will go more outward and/or deep. All of these moves are meant to create chaos, with defenders forced to follow 4 attackers going in all directions.

And if this formation is mainly used to throw the ball, it is also sometimes used as a fake, and the space freed up by these movements benefits the runner, or the running quarterback himself. Moreover, with this system, the Cardinals have attempted 51 passes and 43 runs since the start of the 2021 season. The Cardinals use the « 11 Personal ” (42%) but with 25% in “10 Staff” in 2021 (22% over the 2020 season), this formation with 4 receivers marks a real difference with the other attacks in the NFL: the Bills are 2nd with 11% in this pattern and the Saints 3rd with 6%! We can therefore speak of a real philosophy of play for the Cardinals of Kliff Kingsbury.



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