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From tight ends to wide receivers: A brief introduction to NFL offences

Ever wondered what an empty backfield means? Step this way.

Soon you could know as much as Cleveland Browns offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan.
Soon you could know as much as Cleveland Browns offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan.
Image: AP/Press Association Images

THE NEW NFL season is nearly upon us and, once more, the American football audience is set to grow on this side of the Atlantic.

With that in mind, we’re putting together a number of guides designed to improve the viewing experience of rookies and casual fans alike.

If you already know the difference between a full back and a h-back, this may not be the guide for you. However, you can also check out our Coaches Film series – which explores the sport in greater detail – here.

In this edition, we’ll focus on the offensive positions and the personnel groupings that you’ll hear throughout the season.

Positions

Bills Raiders Football The Buffalo Bills offensive line. Source: Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP/Press Association Images

Center (C)
The man who begins the play when he snaps the ball, usually to the quarterback.

Offensive Guard (OG)
Two offensive guards line up either side of the center. Their job is to block defenders from getting to the quarterback or running back.

Offensive Tackle (OT)
Two tackles play outside the guards. They also block on both running and passing plays. For a right-handed quarterback, the left tackle is the most important player on the field as he protects against players coming from his ‘blindside’.

Lions Packers Football Many believe Aaron Rodgers is the best quarterback in the NFL. Source: Tom Lynn/AP/Press Association Images

Quarterback (QB)
Widely considered the most important person on the offensive side of the field, his job is to ensure the ball moves forward either by passing, handing it to another player or running with it himself.

Running Back (RB)
Anywhere from one to three running backs may be on the field during any particular play and their job is to primarily run the football. They can also catch the football in the passing game.

Full Back (FB)
Usually a stockier running back, their role is mainly that of being an extra blocker for the running back or quarterback but can also be used in the run/pass game when there is only a short distance to go for a first down.

CORRECTION Lions Cowboys Football Calvin Johnson makes another spectacular catch. Source: LM Otero/AP/Press Association Images

Wide Receiver (WR)
Though he can also be used in the blocking game, the receiver’s job — as the name suggests — is to catch passes thrown by the quarterback.

Tight End (TE)
Playing either side of, and directly next to, the tackles, a tight end is a sort of hybrid between an offensive lineman, running back and wide receiver. They are frequently required to block, particularly on running plays, but are increasingly used as receivers in a pass happy league.

Player ID

In any NFL offensive playbook, the players are generally identified by single letters — rather than the likes of RB, OG, TE listed above — with the notable exception of the quarterback. This helps the players and co-ordinators simplify what can be very complicated play calls.

Offensive players are ID’d in playbooks as follows:

  • QB – Quarterback
  • R – Running back
  • F – Full back
  • Y – Tight end #1
  • U – Tight end #2
  • X – Weak side wide receiver
  • Z – Strong side wide receiver
  • W – Slot receiver
  • H – Either a fourth wide receiver or third running back/tight end

A ‘typical’ play in an offensive playbook would, therefore, look like this:

Source: FootballXOs.com

Personnel Groupings

There are 11 different personnel groupings used by NFL offences. Depending on the team, these have very different names. Some use decks of cards, other use numbers. For this article, we’ll stick with numbers.

It’s also really important to understand that personnel groupings are not the same as formations, something we’ll get to below. Each grouping must have five eligible receivers, five ineligible receivers (typically the five offensive linemen) and a quarterback.

The numbering system is used to identify the amount of running backs and tight ends in any particular formation. The first digit identifies the number of RBs, the second the number of TEs.

Formations

There are also about 17 different formations in most NFL offensive playbooks with each having 11 variations, depending on the personnel groupings mentioned above, on the field at the time.

Here we’ll focus on five of the most common formations based out of the 21 personnel grouping.

Pro

A staple of all NFL teams, the Pro set, the threat here is from two running backs on either side of the quarterback as it will take the defence longer to work out through which gap the offence will run.

Slot

Similar to the pro set except that, instead of being lined up out wide, the Z receiver takes a position in the slot between the X receiver and the offensive line.

Empty

This is also known as five wide and is called empty because there is no player lined up behind the quarterback. This is almost exclusively a passing formation though a mobile quarterback can run with the football on the play.

Doubles

Once more, the clue is in the name. This formation has four receivers and a running back with two sets of two receivers lined up on either side of the offensive line. It can be used for running or passing plays.

Spread

So-called because it spreads the field, this is a very effective pass formation because of the number of receivers but also works well in the run game because it forces the defence to respect the pass which means they can’t be as aggressive when defending the run.

Of course, there’s A LOT more we could go into but this guide should help you get to grips with some of the terminology used by the commentators when your favourite team is on offence. We’ll take a more in-depth look at offences throughout the course of the season.

Read more of our introduction to the NFL here.

Everything you wanted to know about American football but were afraid to ask

10 terms you’ll hear in every NFL game this season

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About the author:

Steve O'Rourke

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