Sometimes the referee will flag a team for having an "illegal formation". What are the restrictions on how a team is allowed to line up?

  • 1
    The NFL network was showing the superbowl from the year the Miami Dolphins went undefeated. I noticed that wide receivers were in the down position 3 point stance. Was this a rule back then or just the way it was done? They were on the line of scrimmage.
    – Bob
    Aug 22, 2013 at 15:35

2 Answers 2


From the rulebook:

Section 5 Position of Players at the Snap

Article 1: Offensive Team. The offensive team must be in compliance with the following at the snap:

(a) It must have seven or more players on its line (3-18); and

(b) All players who are not on the line, other than the receiver of the snap under center, must be at least one yard behind it.

(c) No player may be out of bounds.

An illegal formation for the offense would be one where there are not 7 men on the line. There are no restrictions on the defense's formation during normal play, however the defense can be penalized during special teams play:

During a punt, a field-goal attempt, or a Try Kick, a defensive player, who is within one yard of the line of scrimmage at the snap, must have his entire body outside the snapper’s shoulder pads.

  • 5
    There's also the need for the player at either end on the line to have a number that indicates he's an eligible receiver or needs to have reported to the referee as an eligible receiver with an ineligible number.
    – user252
    Feb 25, 2012 at 5:06
  • 1
    @AIE Actually, that applies to any player who lines up in an eligible-receiver position, whether it's on the end of the line or behind it.
    – Steely Dan
    May 25, 2012 at 3:08

Sorry I can't comment on wax eagle's answer, as I don't have 50 rep; I did, however, want to note that in 2013 the NFL added formation requirements to the Defense:

ILLEGAL FORMATION: The defense cannot have more than six players on the line of scrimmage on either side of the snapper during kicking plays. This rule is designed to protect players who are in a vulnerable position. Violations of this rule will result in a five-yard penalty.

NFL rules changes take effect, with greater player safety a goal

Some additional ways to view valid formation for offense at different levels:

Fewer than 7 players line up on the line of scrimmage (NFL/High School); more than four players in the backfield (NCAA only); eligible receivers fail to line up as the leftmost and rightmost players on the line in the NFL; or when five properly numbered ineligible players fail to line up on the line.

List of penalties: Wikipedia's article on Penalty (gridiron football)

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge that you have read and understand our privacy policy and code of conduct.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.