In this lesson, I will be talking about the offensive formation known as the I-formation.

This formation is another that has been used extensively in past years within the NFL but has recently seen reduced usage due to the league moving to a more pass-first affair. This pass-first mindset sees more and more offenses lining up in the shotgun. Along with the Pro-Set, the I-formation is what could be described as one of the ‘base formations’ due to its balanced lineup and Jack-of-all-trades design.

The I-formation

The I-formation sets up with the same player personnel as the Pro-set with it’s 5-linemen(C, G and T), 2-Wide Receivers(WR), 1-Tight End(TE), 1-Quarterback(QB), 1-Fullback(FB) and 1-Halfback(HB). The HB in this formation can also be known as the ‘Tailback’ due to the place it lines up – at the tail end of the formation. See my ‘Team Positions – Offense’ page for more about the positions.

The formation gets its name due to the fact that the QB, FB and HB are lined up one behind the other forming an ‘I’. Also, before the play starts, the HB will be stood up in a 2-point stance with his hands on his knees and the FB will be down in a 3-point stance like the offensive linemen. This allows the HB to see over the FB and scan the defense’s formation to better prepare him for the following play.


As with the Pro-set, there can be a few variations. One could be to remove the FB and add in an extra HB, or remove the TE and add in an extra WR. Whereas in the Pro-set these are good things to do in an attempt to give different looks to the opposing defense and to allow for better running or passing of the ball out of that formation, it isn’t really something that gets done as often in the ‘I’. This is because it is mainly a running play formation and, as such, it is better to have a blocking FB and TE in there.

One substitution that could be seen often with this formation would be the removal of a WR to be replaced by an extra TE. This TE would line up either on the same or opposite side to the TE already in the formation. If lining up on the same side, it would be to add extra blocking for a running play to that side. If he were to the lineup on the opposite side, then the formation becomes more balanced and, in theory, harder for the defense to ‘read’ which way the play will go.

Adding in an extra TE would have, in years gone by, alerted the defense to the fact that it was probably going to be a running play that the offense was about to run. This was because, in those years gone by, the TE’s were seen more as extra blockers rather than receivers. In today’s game, though, the TE position has evolved. Today we see them used much more in the passing game as they are often taller, stronger and more athletic than they used to be. This causes what is known as a ‘mis-match’ against generally shorter, smaller-framed defensive backs. You’ll see TE’s referred to as a ‘Redzone threat’ because of their size which enables them to get up higher and make the catch above all others in the more cramped surroundings inside the opponents 20-yard line and endzone which the ‘Redzone’ refers to.

What I’m getting at here is that, in today’s game, adding the extra TE to the I-formation can give it more blocking power without giving up on the passing game as it used to. This can help keep the defense on its toes a little more than it used to with this formation.

I-formation with TE's set to the same side for more blocking on a run to the right side.
2TE I-formation with TE's on opposite sides of the offensive line in order to balance the formation and keep the defense guessing.

Why is it good for running plays?

What makes this a good running play formation is that the HB sets up 7-yards behind the line of scrimmage. Because he is so far back he gets to see how blocks are developing by his offensive linemen before he gets to where he’s supposed to be by the time he hits the line. If things aren’t going as planned, and he’s a good HB, then he has a little more time to read and react to what’s happening in front of him.

It’s also good because the FB and HB are in line and so can run to either side with equal ease and, depending on where the TE(s) have lined up, equal power.

The I-formation can be used as a passing formation but there isn’t as much room initially in the backfield for the QB to drop back into and the FB and HB can’t get out into the flats as quickly as they can in the Pro-set to catch a pass as they are lined up more centrally.

Offset I-Formation

The offset I-formation with the FB set up to the right (strong side - because the TE is on that side) of the formation.

Another of the variations seen with the I-formation is known as the ‘Offset I-Formation’ or just ‘Offset I’. In this variation, the FB sets up to one side or the other of the QB instead of directly behind him.  The HB (aka Tailback) still lines up 7 of so yards behind the line of scrimmage in order to get into his stride and read what’s going on before he ‘hits the hole’ within the line that he’s supposed to run through.

The reasons for this offset are to allow the FB to get to his target (the person he’s supposed to block) quicker on a running play, or so that he can get out into the flats more easily and quickly to catch a pass from the QB if the play requires it.

The same variations that can be done to the standard I-formation can also be done to this one. By that, I mean the swapping of TE’s and WR’s as mentioned above. It all depends on whether you want to stack one side of the field for a power running play or balance things out to allow for more possibilities and play options.

That’s all folks

That’s all there is for us to know, really, about the I-formation as it’s another pretty basic formation that has its strengths, weaknesses and variations.

Be sure to keep checking the NFL Fan School category from the drop-down menu in the sidebar as I’ll be adding more to it often.