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Georgia Tech Football: Film School - Breaking down an Offense

How teams breakdown tape and scout

NCAA Football: Georgia at Georgia Tech Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

My wife hates watching football with me, but not because she dislikes football, she might be a bigger fan than I am. She hates it because I spend most of the game jotting down notes about play calls, formations, or protections, and tend to talk to myself about what is going on with the offense. I spent a few years as a quality control coach and this tends to color how I watch the game. I wanted to give an overview of how I break down tape and what I look for when watching a game.

Offensive Personnel

The first thing we need to look at is what skill positions are on the field. This is usually denoted by a two-digit number, where the first digit is the number of running backs on the field and the second number is the number of tight ends on the field. With this number, five offensive linemen, and a quarterback, you can quickly identify the players on the field. If you are watching a game, pay attention to the sideline of the team on defense, you will see a GA holding up a sign with the offensive personnel number on it, this is to communicate that to the coaches box and help with the defensive play calling.


Personnel Running Backs Tight Ends Wide Receivers
Personnel Running Backs Tight Ends Wide Receivers
21 2 1 2
20 2 0 3
10 1 0 4
11 1 1 3
12 1 2 2
30 3 0 2

The most used personnel groups for the Jackets last season were 11, 10, and 20. The biggest change I would expect to see this fall is more usage of 10 personnel. Tyler Davis leaving creates a hole at TE, and well as the new faces that Tech will have in the receiving corps.


Before I start discussing the different aspects and parts that go into identifying a formation, I wanted to say that football has extraordinarily little standardization in relation to what formations are called or how they are categorized. The terms and descriptions that I am going to use are the ones that I learned and used when breaking down tape. They are not the only terms or descriptions.

Field or Boundary call

Field position is not just about which yard line you are snapping the ball from. Many defenses are based upon a field or boundary call. Field or Boundary is defined by there the ball is in relation to the hash. If the ball is on the hash, then the Field side is the to the wider side of the field and the Boundary side is to the sideline. If the ball is in the middle of the field, then the call is related to the strength of the offensive formation.

Strength Calls

Defining the strength of an offensive formation is another way to set your defensive alignment and coverages. If there is a tight in the game, then strength is called to the side of the formation where the TE is lined up. If there is no TE, then the strength is called to the side with more wide receivers. If it is a 2x2 formation, then the strength is called to the field or is defined by the game plan for the week.

Formation Displacement

Formation displacement is a high level, quick and dirty way to classify formations. You first look at the backfield, if there is more than one running back there then it is considered a Two Back formation. If there is only one running back, then you draw a line down the center and count the numbers of receivers on either side, it will either be a 2x2 or a 3x1 formation. The exception to these is empty formations, they are their own displacement.

The Jackets used an even split of 2x2 and 3x1 last season, with a bit of 2back sprinkled in. I hope to see the Jackets expand on their use of two back, given the level of talent at the running back position.


Backfield sets are usually based on the strength calls. If the QB is in the shotgun, then the backfield is called as gun strong or gun weak base upon where the RB is lined up, if the RB is lined up behind the QB then the backfield is tagged as pistol. If there is more than one RB in the backfield the call is gun split, when the backs are on either side of the QB.

Player ID

There are two ways in which offensive skill players are identified. The first is noting where they are in relation to the formation. I have seen this done two different ways; the first is to number them 1 to 4 from the outside of the formation to the inside, the other is to number them 1 through 5 from strong to weak. This allows you to discuss which routes came from which player locations.

The second is using a letter to denote the player. The running back is H and if there is a 2nd one, they are F.

X, Z, S, and W all used for wide receivers. The X receiver is the on the ball receiver to the opposite side of the formation to the strength. The Z is the outside receiver to the strong side of the formation. The S receiver is the third receiver, regardless of their location. The W is the fourth.

Tight ends are Y and U. The Y TE is the on the ball tight end that the strength is called to, with the U TE being the other tight end in the formation.

This allows you note where certain players like to line up in each formation and where the ball likes to be thrown in each situation.


If you get more than one coach in a room to talk about formations, you will end up with more than one name for the formation. When identifying formations, the defensive staff will often us the terminology of the offensive staff to categorize their opponent’s formations.

Formation Tag

Formation tags are used then a formation falls within the normal family, but it just a little bit different.


Motion calls are tied to the alphabetical notation of a player and the motion they make. An inward motion by the Z receiver is a ZIN motion. A motion across the formation by the Y tight end is a YAC motion.


There is no definitive dictionary of football term, but taking the time to really watch the game can help you to understand why teams do the things they do.