An illegal formation in football is a penalty given when a team incorrectly lines their players up on the line of scrimmage.
There must be seven players on the line of scrimmage on each play. The two players on the outside of the formation must be eligible receivers. Any players on the line between the two outside players are ineligible receivers.
An illegal formation penalty in football can be confusing because it can be called for a large number of reasons. Below we will break down all the reasons a team may earn themselves an illegal formation penalty.
All players must be in bounds
If any player in the formation lines up out of bounds an illegal formation will be called.
There must be at least seven players on the line of Scrimmage
Teams are able to put more players on the line of scrimmage if they desire but they must have at least seven. In most cases, this is five offensive linemen and two receivers.
There has to be two eligible receivers on the ends of the line of scrimmage
Offensive linemen are ineligible receivers because ineligible receivers wear numbers between 50 and 79.
Lineman can become eligible receivers but they must announce it to the officials before the play.
If a wide receiver steps off the line of scrimmage and leaves a tackle as the furthest outside player on the line a penalty could be called.
This is because the outside player on the line of scrimmage is ineligible. If the tackle talked to the ref before the play and declared himself eligible this would not be a penalty.
This is referred to as leaving an ineligible receiver uncovered. If a referee says the tackle wasn’t covered this means there wasn’t a player outside on the line of scrimmage.
All players on the line of scrimmage between the two eligible receivers must be ineligible
There are generally seven players on the line of scrimmage, the outside two are eligible receivers. This means that the five interior players on the line of scrimmage are linemen.
You cannot put wide receivers as your ineligible receivers in the middle of your formation. This is because wide receivers wear jerseys numbers meant for players that can catch passes.
The five or more players that are not on the outside of the formation must wear be ineligible receivers.
Defensive players can also earn themselves an illegal formation penalty
This occurs when a player lines up over the top of the long snapper on special teams plays. Lining up within the long snappers shoulder pads when within one yard of the line of scrimmage will earn you this penalty.
This rule was added to the NFL in order to protect the safety of the longer snapper. These players are bent over when snapping the ball back for a punt or kick.
Due to their posture, they are unable to protect themselves after the ball is snapped. This rule ensures that a player will not be able to come down on top of these players after they snap the ball.
What Is The Purpose Of Illegal Formation Penalties?
When reading the rules of illegal formation penalties you may be thinking that the rules seem a little over the top. But the purpose of illegal formations is key to playing football the way we know it.
On any given play the defense is able to determine which players on the offense are able to receive passes. This way a defender is able to tell which players have to be covered and which players are blockers.
This is also why ineligible receivers like linemen are not allowed to travel more than five yards downfield prior to the throw on a passing play.
In order to give the defense a fair shot at stopping the offense you must be able to easily tell which players are eligible receivers.
When teams line up too few players on the line of scrimmage or put a tackle uncovered on outside of the formation it will be confusing for the opposing team.
By having a set of rules for formations teams can understand what they can do on offense as well as what defenses have to defend against.