Unlocking the Secrets of the American Football Split Back Formation

Ashley Hopkinson

Football Split Back Formation

In American football, strategy and formations play a crucial role in a team’s success. One of the most versatile and historically significant formations is the split back formation, often referred to as the pro set.

This offensive setup features two running backs positioned side-by-side behind the quarterback, diverging from the traditional I-formation where one back lines up directly behind the other.

The split back formation offers a balanced attack, allowing teams to execute both running and passing plays with equal effectiveness. This formation’s flexibility has made it a staple for both professional and amateur teams, providing a solid foundation for various offensive strategies.

As teams continue to evolve, the split back formation remains a testament to the enduring importance of adaptability in the ever-changing landscape of American football.

Evolution of the Split Back Formation

The split back formation, once a staple in football, has undergone significant changes over the years. Its flexibility in both running and passing plays made it highly effective.

Origins and Historical Significance

The split back formation emerged in the early days of professional football, gaining prominence in the 1940s. Coach Don Faurot of the Missouri Tigers first utilized the set to maximize offensive versatility.

Positioned to attack both sides of the defensive line, the two backs allowed for a diverse playbook, making it difficult for defenses to predict the next move.

Historically, split backs were central to many successful offensive strategies, setting the groundwork for modern offensive concepts.

Evolution in Professional and College Football

In recent decades, the prominence of the split back formation has shifted, especially in professional football.

Despite its reduced visibility, its principles remain influential, with modern offenses using shotgun formations and spread run concepts like the zone read that mimic split backs.

These adaptations provide flexibility and unpredictability, keeping defenses guessing. In college football, the formation remains relevant, with option plays and spread offenses incorporating split back principles to exploit defensive weaknesses.

Characteristics of the Split Back Formation

The split back formation continues to influence modern football tactics. Its balanced approach offers versatility in both running and passing plays.

Key Positioning of Players

In the split back formation, the positioning of players is crucial. Two running backs line up behind the quarterback, spaced widely apart. The quarterback stands under center, while the two wide receivers spread out wide on each side of the field.

An offensive setup also includes a tight end, providing additional blocking or receiving options.

Strategic Advantages

This formation offers several strategic advantages. First, the split back formation provides a balanced attack, making it difficult for defenses to predict the play.

Second, it creates opportunities for quick passes to running backs or wide receivers due to their strategic alignment.

Lastly, the split back setup enhances running game dynamics by offering multiple rushing lanes and misdirection plays, effectively utilizing the running backs’ diverse skills.

Common Plays Using the Split Back Formation

The split back formation allows for a variety of effective plays that capitalize on its balanced structure and versatility. Three common plays are inside zone, power reads, and counters or misdirections.

Inside Zone Plays

Inside zone plays rely on simple, straightforward blocking schemes and the athleticism of the running back. The offensive line blocks in the same direction, creating lanes for the running back to cut through based on defensive alignment.

When executing an inside zone read, the quarterback reads the defensive end to determine whether to hand off the ball or keep it for a potential gain. By maintaining consistent blocking techniques and footwork, teams create opportunities for significant yardage gains.

Power Reads

Power reads introduce an extra layer of decision-making based on defensive reactions. In a basic power read, the quarterback reads the outside linebacker who reacts to the run motion.

Depending on the linebacker’s movements, the quarterback either keeps the ball and runs or pitches it to the running back. This adds complexity to the defense’s task of reading the offense and provides multiple options to advance the play.

Incorporating power read options into the split back formation enhances its adaptability against various defensive fronts.

Counters and Misdirections

Counters and misdirections aim to exploit aggressive defensive behavior by using deceptive movement and blocking schemes. For counter plays, the offensive line and running backs initially move in one direction before redirecting to the intended path.

This causes the defense to overcommit, opening up lanes for substantial gains. In a counter trey, for example, the quarterback reads the defensive end, deciding to keep or hand off the ball based on the end’s reaction.

This unpredictability keeps the defense off-balance, making counters and misdirections effective components of the split back formation.

Comparing the Split Back with Other Formations

The split back formation offers unique strategic benefits. It’s crucial to understand how it compares with other popular formations.

I Formation and Pro Set

The I formation positions one running back directly behind the quarterback and another trailing, forming a straight line, emphasizing power running plays and straightforward play-action passes, often using a fullback to lead block.

The pro set, or split back formation, aligns two running backs side by side behind the quarterback, facilitating balanced offensive tactics for both running and passing plays.

This setup creates multiple rushing lanes and opportunities for misdirection plays, enhancing versatility compared to the power-focused I formation.

Shotgun and Pistol Formations

In the shotgun formation, the quarterback stands several yards behind the center, which helps in reading defenses and executing quick or deep passes, while also allowing for draw plays and options.

The pistol formation, a hybrid of the shotgun, positions the quarterback closer to the line of scrimmage with the running back directly behind, enhancing both passing and running capabilities.

The split back formation, with side-by-side running backs, provides a balanced approach for both rushing and passing plays.

Frequently Asked Questions

Who popularized the split back formation?

The split back formation was popularized by Coach Don Faurot of the Missouri Tigers in the 1940s, making it a versatile and strategic option in football.

How does the split back formation enhance offensive versatility?

The split back formation balances the running and passing game, offers multiple rushing lanes, quick passes, and effective misdirection plays, making it versatile against different defenses.

Is the split back formation still used in modern football?

While not as prominent in professional football today, elements of the split back formation are still integrated into modern offenses, especially in college football’s options and spread plays.

What are common plays run from the split back formation?

Common plays include inside zone plays, power reads, and counters or misdirections, each capitalizing on the formation’s balanced structure and strategic deception.

How does the split back formation compare to other popular formations?

Unlike the power-focused I formation or the pass-oriented shotgun formation, the split back formation offers a balanced approach, effective for both rushing and passing, by placing two running backs side-by-side.


The split back formation is a testament to the evolution of football strategy, known for its balanced structure and versatility. While not dominant in modern professional playbooks, its principles still influence contemporary offensive schemes.

Coaches and players who grasp its strategic depth can gain unique advantages. Its legacy underscores its importance in football history, offering valuable lessons for developing flexible, dynamic offensive strategies.

By combining traditional techniques with modern innovations, teams can enhance their unpredictability and effectiveness, demonstrating how foundational football principles continue to shape the sport’s future.

Understanding the split back formation allows teams to adapt and counter various defensive alignments. This adaptability ensures that offenses remain unpredictable and can exploit mismatches efficiently.

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Ashley Hopkinson

Ashley Hopkinson is an esteemed American Football coach at South Gloucestershire and Stroud College. With a passion for the game and a dedication to mentoring young athletes, Ashley has played a pivotal role in developing the college's football program. His expertise and motivational skills have not only enhanced players' performances on the field but also fostered a strong team spirit and work ethic. Under his guidance, the team has achieved significant success, reflecting his commitment to excellence and sportsmanship. LinkedIn

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