Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Why Am I Standing Here? Malzahn's Most Used Formations

What's in a formation?

Football is a game with many arbitrary rules. Why four downs to get 10 yards? Why not five to get 15? Each team can field 11 players. Why not 12 or 13, Tennessee?

Arbitrary rules also dictate the basic structure of offensive formations. Of the 11 on offense, four must be in the backfield, or behind the line of scrimmage. That leaves seven that must be on the line. Obviously, one of the players in the backfield is the passer (who may or may not actually be the quarterback), but the other 3 are eligible to receive a pass. Of the players on the line, each one on each end is also an eligible receiver.

Seven are on the line, and the X and Y are on the ends, so they are eligible receivers.
Everyone is the backfield is an eligible receiver.

The many looks of the HUNH

Gus Malzahn's wants to run his offense at a two-minute-drill pace for the entire game. In his book, The Hurry-Up, No-Huddle: An Offensive Strategy, he lists several benefits of using this pace. He talks about how it is fun for the players and fans and how it allows the offense to run more plays and score more points in a game. But many of the benefits are how it affects the defense. They cannot simulate it in practice, they cannot regroup after a big play, and their defensive coordinators get out of their play-calling rhythm.

Wait, why am I standing here?
One aspect of Malzahn's offense that complements the pace is that many of the same plays can easily be executed from several formations, especially when pre-snap motions are incorporated. In offense installation documents from his time at Tulsa (2007-2008), 21 formations are shown. I'm sure the offenses installed each of those years is not exactly the same as what was installed this year, but the basics probably have not changed drastically.  Below, I diagram each of these and explain how each formation melds into the next.

This post will be referenced in future posts so that I consistently name these formations when explaining other aspects of Malzahn's offense. Also, if you are wondering what the numbers mean in each formation, see this.

2RBs, 0 TEs, & 3WRs

You may have heard personnel groupings described as "11 personnel" or "21 personnel".  The first digit is the number of players in the backfield (halfbacks, tailbacks, H-backs, fullbacks).  The second digit is the number of tight ends. As mentioned earlier, there are always five eligible receivers, so whatever is left is the number of wideouts.

The prototypical formation in this offense is simply called "20". This name means that there will be two in the backfield (the 3 and the 4), zero tight ends, and three wideouts (the 9 on one side, the 5 and the 2 on the other side). Note that the 5 may technically be a tight end on the depth chart, but since he is playing off the line, the formation treats him like another wideout.

Within this 20 personnel setup, the two backfield players can be aligned in several ways. In fact, they mimic the classic I-formation backfield, but with the quarterback in shotgun.

In Stack, the 3 moves up closer to the line and over to the 5 side. The 4 is directly behind him, but further from the line than even the quarterback.

The Opposite tag just means that the backfield is stacked on the side away from the 5.

In Slant, the 3 is in the same place as he is in the Stack, but the 4 lines up on the other side of the quarterback, making the backfield slant toward the 5 side.

Similar to Stack Opp, the Slant Opp simply flips the 3 and 4 so that the slant is away from the 5.

Finally, the Twins formation is the same as the 20 formation, but the 2 moves further out and the 5 comes in. This puts a better blocker closer to the middle, but the 2 is less likely to be incorporated in the run game.

Single-back Formations (TE off line)

Starting with the Twins formation, seven more formations are made by moving one or both of the backfield players out wide.

In Trips, the 3 moves out to the 5 side so that the quarterback has three options to one side. This could be classified as a 3x1 formation.

If the 3 moves to the 9 side, it is a 2x2 formation called Spread. This formation has been made famous by the Air-Raid used by Mike Leach, Dana Holgorsen, Kevin Sumlin, and others.

Now what if the 4 moves out of the backfield? When he moves to the 5 side, it is the Triple formation. Notice that the 3 is sill in his H-back placement in front of the quarterback. He is no thread to receive a handoff, so if a run is called in the formation, either the quarterback is running or the 4 is motioned into the backfield pre-snap.

With the 3 still in his H-back placement, the 4 moves to the 9 side, creating the 2x2 look again with the Doubles formation. Notice that the 4 is at roughly the same depth as the quarterback. This is one of the formations used to get the 4 going on a speed sweep around the right side.

No-back Formations (Five-Wide)

For a wide open look, both the 3 and the 4 move out of the backfield. When the 3 goes to the 9 side and the 4 goes to the 5 side, it is called the 5 formation because there are 5 wideouts.
In Empty, the 3 is on the 5 side and the 4 is on the 9 side, the opposite of the 5 formation.
In Quads, the 3 and 4 both move the the 5 side, presenting a 4x1 look.

A Real Tight End!

The first two formations shown in the Single-Back section are redone with the 5 on the line. When the 3 moves to the 5 side this time, it is called Trey.

In the Single-back formations, changing the 3 from the 5 side to the 9 side changes the formation from Trips to Spread. Similarly, with the 5 on the line, changing the 3 from the 5 side to the 9 side changes the formation from Trey to Deuce.

Since the 3 is usually an H-back/fullback type, why not put him in as a second tight end, opposite the 5? This results in the Ace formation.

With this two-tight end look, the 4 can move out to the 5 side to create the Open formation.
In Trio, the 2 crosses the formation to join the 9 and 3.

What's he doing over there?

Perhaps the formation most closely associated with Malzahn is the Wildcat. Starting from the Doubles formation, the quarterback and 2 swap places, the 9 is subbed out for an on-line tight end, and the left tackle joins his counterpart on the right side. Notice that the TE and 5 are still eligible receivers despite the LT's placement.

In years with a runner at quarterback, it may not be necessary to move him out wide to use the Wildcat. The Strong formation is an example of the quarterback staying in shotgun and the 2 staying out wide, but with the two tackles still to one side.

Under Center...

All of the previous formations are from shotgun, meaning the quarterback is about five yards behind the center when the ball is snapped. I've noticed that on the rare occasion that the Malzahn's team huddles, they quickly run to the line of scrimmage, the quarterback gets under center, and the ball is snapped in about 2 seconds. It seems like the formation is different every time, but this is one example of what could be called. The Pro formation is Malzahn's name for the standard I-formation, with the quarterback, fullback, and tailback in a line behind the center.

In addition to the benefits listed above, the hurry up offense is bad for the defense because if they are caught off guard, the offense usually gets a big play. One way to catch the defense off guard is to throw a new formation at them, one they have not prepared for. So, while this post lists the most common formations in Auburn's offense, expect to see a couple new ones thrown into every game plan.

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