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NFL illegal formation violations are increasing, and the league is cracking down

More and more teams are trying to get away with illegal formations. Here’s how the NFL is trying to curtail it.

New Orleans Saints v San Francisco 49ers
Officials do a lot of work on the line of scrimmage to make offensive formations legal, but it doesn’t always take.
Photo by Jason O. Watson/Getty Images

I’ve noticed an increase in illegal formations in NFL games this season, most of which aren’t being called by the officials. Dean Blandino told me the NFL has noticed too. The last few weeks there was an increased emphasis on the rule by Blandino and the league, resulting in a season-high 13 flags thrown for illegal formation in Week 8 — Though I guarantee you the foul was committed a heck of a lot more than that.

Before you start harping on the officials “missing calls,” understand that this rule can be officiated as a judgment call as much as any other. While there are clear rules distinctions on formations, officials at times need to apply the philosophy of whether there is a real advantage gained by breaking the rule and manage the flow of the game.

Nobody wants games bogged down with a litany of “illegal formation” calls. Trust me.

Officials across levels of football are told to work with the linemen and receivers to get them into legal formation before throwing flags. This practice is a good thing.

Still, the amount teams are trying to circumvent the rules seems to be increasing, and the number of flags you’ll see for it in college and the NFL are increasing too.

To understand what is a legal formation, there are two main qualifications you have to know (there are more, but these are the two biggies):

1) There have to be at least seven players on the line of scrimmage; and

2) At least five of them need to be wearing a number that makes them ineligible.

There are other bits and pieces here and there, but those two elements sum up 98% of it. And frankly, the second one is rarely an issue and is often tough to tell on TV.

What it means to be “on the line of scrimmage”

Like I said, there need to be seven players on the line of scrimmage. This includes any receivers who might be on the end of the line.

To be on the line, a player does not have to be lined up directly over the ball. In fact, he can be even up to a yard behind the ball and still be considered on the line.

By rule, to be “on the line of scrimmage,” a player’s head has to break the line drawn through the waistline (NCAA) or beltline (NFL) of the snapper.

You will regularly see linemen lined up well off the ball — And their positioning can give you some great insight on the impending play.

While the linemen are not directly over the ball, this formation by the New York Giants is legal:

This formation by the Giants is legal, with six linemen on the line and a receiver at the bottom of the formation you cannot see.

Notice the right tackle is lined up slightly behind the other linemen, but his helmet just about breaks the beltline of the snapper. While an official may mention to the right tackle that he’s close to the backfield, they certainly wouldn’t call him off the line here. This is a legal formation.

One little trick officials use to anticipate what kind of play the offense will run: When the linemen are lined up near the snapper’s waist, it’s a pass; When they are over the ball, it’s a run. Not always, but usually.

There’s a numbering mandate to an offense’s formation

At least five of the players on the line of scrimmage have to be numbered as linemen. In the NCAA that means their jerseys must be numbered 50-79. They are ineligible by number to catch a pass.

The NFL mandates five linemen be either numbered ineligible (50-79, 90-99) or wearing an eligible number but having reported to the referee. Yes, the NFL rule is a bit more complicated.

There are also exceptions to the number rule involving scrimmage kicks (punts, field goals). I talked about part of that in an earlier article about NCAA rules changes for 2016.

Philosophy-wise, there’s no getting around the numbering guidelines. Those rules need to be followed every time. Period.

How the players are positioned on or off the line of scrimmage is given some flexibility, and a “grey area” is created. That grey area takes two forms.

The grey area for linemen involve the snapper’s rear end

Remember that linemen in the backfield — particularly the tackles — gives the offense an advantage blocking on a pass play or a pulling run play. So officials are careful to not allow this advantage to get out of hand while not over-regulating the rule.

For linemen, there is a “no-man’s land” between the snapper’s waistline and his rear end. Philosophy says if a lineman’s head doesn’t break the waistline but breaks the snapper’s rear end, talk to him. Work with him. Try to get him to move up on the next play. If he doesn’t comply, consider calling a foul on the next play.

If his head doesn’t even break the snapper’s rear end, it’s a foul that many college assignors want called on the very first offense and that the NFL wants flagged on the second offense.

When you look at this formation by the Minnesota Vikings a couple weeks ago against the Detroit Lions, you can see five players clearly in the backfield:

This certainly looks like an illegal formation by the Minnesota Vikings, with five players — including the left tackle — in the backfield.

The left tackle doesn’t even break the rear end of the snapper, over a yard behind the ball. He is in the backfield, making the formation look illegal.

Receivers’ grey area revolves around a ‘blade of grass’

There is a clear advantage to linemen lining up in the backfield on a pass play. For receivers split out wide, not so much.

If three receivers are split out wide, the defense knows they are intended to be eligible and should be covered. While a receiver intended to be in the backfield may be technically “on the line” (in that his head breaks the waistline of the snapper), officiating philosophy says that as long as there is a “blade of grass” separating his depth from a receiver on the line, call him legal and in the backfield.

In this formation by the Cincinnati Bengals, No. 83 receiver Tyler Boyd is supposed to be lined up in the backfield, yet he’s actually right in line with the guards and tackles:

While depth may technically be an issue, this formation by the Cincinnati Bengals looks legal and No. 83 should be considered “in the backfield” and eligible to receive a forward pass.

The player’s intent to be in the backfield is clear, the defense is aware he’s a receiver, they are lined up to cover him, and no advantage is gained by him being technically on the line. It’s hard to think an official would ever throw a flag on this.

If, however, receivers are technically on or off the line and there is no distinction between their depth, officials will consider them both on or off the line depending on where they are in relation to the snapper’s waistline.

Illegal formation is a foul many officials just don’t want to call — And their supervisors would rather it not have to be called. They would much rather work with the players, in particular the wide outs and tackles, to make the formations legal.

But it’s something college assignors and NFL guys like Dean Blandino are watching and making more of a priority. As the amount of passing across football increases, we’ll continue to see more and more formations that try to get an advantage in pass protection by dropping back tackles.