Unbalanced Formations: Play Action Concepts

Dec 16, 2015 | Offense, Pass Game, Play-Action Pass Concepts

By Mike Kuchar
Senior Research Manager
X&O Labs
Twitter: @MikeKKuchar


Editor’s Note: When referencing unbalanced formations, we’re referring to any formation where there are no players on the line of scrimmage to one side of the formation. Rules say there must be at least seven players on the line of scrimmage.


X&O Labs recently published its research report on zone and gap runs from unbalanced formations. While we got tremendous response from our coaches, social media posted over 400 shares alone, we decided to conduct research on the "married" concepts that coaches use to throw the ball off these unbalanced run games. The first part of our study revolves around the straight data collected from our surveys. We included many of these numbers in our previous report because we wanted a pulse on the "why" behind coaches that use these formations.

The fact is 35.6 percent of coaches use unbalanced formations between 6-10 snaps a game, 33.7 percent use them five snaps or less. So when we developed our survey on unbalanced formations, we wanted to find out why coaches will use these formations and what they use them for. So we asked them. The results are below:

Case 1: Reasons for Unbalanced Sets, Various Personnel Groupings/Types of Unbalanced Formations:

Reasons for using unbalanced formations:

  • 27.4 percent of coaches will use unbalanced sets to get an extra blocker on the perimeter. This helps with perimeter run game schemes like toss, speed option, outside zone and jet sweep.
  • 26.5 percent of coaches will use unbalanced sets in order to create and extra gap in the run game. We’ve found this is more suitable to gap schemes like power and counter.
  • 15.6 percent of coaches will use unbalanced sets just to "create a different picture" for the defense. As one coach told us in our survey, "defenses just don’t know how to adjust to them."

Offensive "Structures" That Utilize Unbalanced Formations:

The common thought was that only unconventional offenses like the Wing T or option style systems employed "end over" or unbalanced formations, but the truth is various offensive systems are finding ways to create unique formations that give them an advantage at the point of attack. Perhaps it was the success that Boise State and Stanford University had (both of which we’ll detail later on) that triggered more coaches to utilize some of the same sets. While we are hesitant to label offenses into "systems" we were curious to find out which types of offensive structures will use unbalanced sets. Now, we realize this could be a measure of which kind of coaches are involved in our surveys, but in either case, our findings are below:

  • Spread Offensive structure: 41.6 percent (this surprised us)
  • Multiple "I" formation structure: 25 percent
  • Wing T offensive structure: 23.1 percent
  • Pure option structure: 6.9 percent

Popular Types of Unbalanced Formations

Once we analyzed which types of offensive structures most utilized unbalanced sets, we wanted to find out which types of formations they were using. We realize that there could be dozens of specific unbalanced sets (Boise State uses two dozen alone), we decided to group these formations into "types" of unbalanced sets. So, our data was collected in the following areas:

  • 4 or 5 man surfaces on the line of scrimmage (48 percent of coaches prefer this): Bringing and extra offensive lineman over to one side of the formation, or brining one into the game, not only creates an extra body (a big one) but it also creates an extra gap.
  • 3 man surfaces with two receivers on the line of scrimmage (22.9 percent of coaches prefer this): We’ve found that these types of formations allow for quicker access to the perimeter for runs like outside zone, toss and jet sweep. Many of the coaches we spoke with that run these formations will use those types of schemes.
  • 3 man surfaces with one receiver on the line of scrimmage (22.2 percent of coaches prefer this): We’ve found that many Wing T and unconventional offensive systems will employ these types of formations. In most cases, the widest receiver is the only player eligible in these sets, so we have found most coaches will get their better receiver there of the play-action pass game.

Types of Pass Concepts From Unbalanced Formations

We had an overwhelmingly positive response from coaches that choose to use run-action pass concepts in unbalanced formations. The reasoning behind this was two-fold:

  1. Defenses get "tensed" when they see heavy formations: Heavy formations are an apparent "eye" trigger for defenses to get on their heels, prepping themselves to come downhill quickly. Despite how much game planning a defenses does, once an offense gears up by bringing an offensive lineman in the game (like Stanford does below) or overload one side of a formation (like Boise State does below) it’s difficult to tell players to make sure they get their run/pass read, particularly when they are getting a mesh fake with a ball carrier in front of them. Their eyes tell them it’s run all the way, and offense can use that to their advantage.
  2. Simple Pass Protection Rules: We all know the most important part of installing pass concepts is in the protection. Many run-action pass concepts employ some form of turn back protection in which lineman have a gap responsibility (not a man) to handle. In fact, over 70 percent of the coaches we polled, choose to execute some form of gap protection when implementing these play action schemes.

Most Common Run-Action Pass Concepts Out of Unbalanced Formations: