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How Does Shotgun Formation Work in Layman’s Term?

Are you looking to find out what Shotgun Formation is all about – who created it and how it works? If so you came to the right article!

Key Takeaways

  • The Shotgun Formation is an offensive alignment where the quarterback lines up 7 yards deep behind the line. It gained its name because the receivers look like they are spraying around the field. The alignment of the players also shares resemblances with the shape of a shotgun.
  • The distance not only keeps him far away from rushing defenders but also puts him in an advantageous position to make sharp forward passes to one of its three rushing wide receivers. [1]

Who Invented the Shotgun Formation? 

The shotgun formation was invented by Howard “Red” Hickey in 1960 while coaching the San Francisco 49ers with John Brodie being the first quarterback who ran the Shotgun Formation in the history of the NFL.

Shotgun formation – Source: SB Nation

Its origin can be traced back to the 1930s and 1940s. Some considered Shotgun to be the advancement of Single Wing and Double-Wing Spread. Although Sammy Baugh claimed that Shotgun was effectively the same Double-Wing Formation he used to run at Texas Christian University in the 1930s.[2]

Subsequently, in the late 1940s, Coach Earl Neale of the Philadelphia Eagles employed a similar version with quarterback Tommy Thompson. Since then the formation has been widely used in college games and occasionally in the NFL

How Does the Shotgun Formation Work?

The shotgun formation starts out with three wide receivers spread out widely across the field of play. Two receivers on the right and one on the left. 

The quarterback is the only player in the backfield standing at  5 to 7 yards off the line. There are also two running backs lined up in front of the quarterback to provide block and pass protection.

To see the play in action:

  • The quarterback receives the snap off the center
  • Two of the running backs provide blocking and pass protection to help the quarterback arrive into a good throwing position for forward passes to one of the typical two running wide receivers. 
  • Running linebackers usually find it hard to tackle the quarterback due to the distance and blocking from the running backs on either side. 
  • Depending on the situation, the quarterback could also choose to pass the ball to one of two running backs, carry the ball to an open field before making a pass, or simply advance the ball himself.

The scheme is not particularly good for running plays due to how spread out the offensive players is. It’s also hard for the running backs to receive a handoff for a complete dive when the quarterback is not positioned at the deep backfield to allow him to pick up speed at the point of reception. 

Running Plays Can Happen

The Shotgun Formation has made the scheme somewhat more predictable to the defenders since they know that a passing play is coming. Therefore, they are able to concentrate their defense on the wide receivers and put less attention on the running backs. 

That said, what makes the play interesting is the fact that the quarterback can always surprise defenders and pull off a running play, although it’s not optimal for the formation especially when they least expect it to happen. 

Pistol vs. Shotgun in The NFL

The pistol is a variation of the shotgun formation in football. Pistol formation differs slightly from the traditional shotgun. The quarterback lines up 7 yards backward from the center and has the running back beside him in a shotgun. Meanwhile, in the pistol, the quarterback lines up just 4 to 5 yards back from the center with the running back standing 2 to 3 yards behind.

Pistal formation – Source: NFL

Why Hasn’t Pistol Replaced Shotgun in the NFL?

While Pistol can give pretty much every advantage of a Shotgun formation, the shotgun tactic is still widely used in the NFL.  

Due to the nature of the NFL as a pass-heavy league, going for the offset shotgun is a wiser strategy. This is because running backs can get into a route quicker, and eventually quicker to get into the pass protection. The running backs can benefit from a shotgun formation for a bigger passing threat, as it allows quicker routes from such an alignment.

In comparison with the college game, the NFL defenses and the pass rush are typically faster and therefore, the pass protections also need to be much faster. The shotgun formation is helpful for the offense side when dictating the defense’s strong side. It makes it easier for offensive linemen and running backs to find bubbles and execute. 

For the quarterback specifically, the shotgun allows him to have more time for reacting after catching snaps. Usually, catching snaps takes the quarterback’s eyes off the defense. In case of bad snaps, everything can be slowed down and eventually results in a pistol failure!

Final Thoughts

Now that you have learned that Shotgun Formation is good for passing play and it involves quarterbacks standing 7 yards away from the line. Tell us what you think about it! Do you use it in your college games or have you played against any team using it? Let us know in the comment section below. 

If you enjoyed reading the above article, you should also read about pistol formation offense, wishbone offense formation, triple-option offense, and the different football offensive positions.


[1]  “What Are the Shotgun and Pistol Formations in … – LiveAbout.” 30 Jul. 2018, Accessed 3 Jul. 2020.
[2]  “Shotgun formation – Wikipedia.” Accessed 3 Jul. 2020.

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