Chalk Talk: the I-Formation

Offensive philosophies have come and gone over the years in professional football. Everything from the wishbone to the run-n-shoot enjoyed short-term success before eventually fading away, but the I-formation has stood the test of time. Correspondent Jeremy Stoltz breaks down the Xs and Os to teach us more about the genius of the I-formation.

Amongst the big money signings of players like Adalius Thomas and Joey Porter this NFL offseason, Atlanta's inking of fullback Ovie Mughelli went relatively unnoticed. Compared to how many teams have spent their new expanded budget, Mughelli's six-year, $18 million contract – including a $5 million signing bonus – does not seem noteworthy until you realize it is the largest contract ever given to a fullback.

Former Atlanta fullback Justin Griffith is considered one of the best at his position. But first-time head coach Bobby Petrino came to the Falcons looking for a more physical blocker to man the fullback spot in his offense. The player he was determined to sign was Mughelli, even if it meant making the former Raven the richest FB in the history of the NFL.

At surface level, Mughelli's numbers do not characterize a player worthy of such a hefty contract. In four years with Baltimore, he started only 12 games. Last season was his most productive by far, yet Mughelli touched the ball just 32 times for less than 250 total yards. Not the type of production a team wants from a guy making $3 million a year ... or is it?

What the numbers fail to show – and what Petrino saw in the 6'1", 255-pound Wake Forest product – is Mughelli's value as a lead blocker. The Falcons, who led the league in rushing last season, run the majority of their running plays out of the long-tenured "I-formation." In order for the I-formation to be successful, the offense must feature a fullback who is a punishing blocker. According to Petrino, no one fits that role better than Mughelli.

"Ovie is one of the top blocking fullbacks in the National Football League," says Petrino. "Adding a player of his caliber to our team immediately makes us better."

But how can a fullback impact a team's success so substantially? The answer can be traced back 50 years to the early days of the I-formation, the set that will utilize Mughelli's blocking skills most effectively.

In the early 1940s, Chicago Bears head coach George 'Papa Bear' Halas created the legendary "T-formation." The formation called for the fullback to line up four yards behind the quarterback, with a halfback on both sides of him. When looked at from above, the position of the four players resembled the letter T. While using the T-formation, Halas led the Bears to five NFL championships. The system was so successful that every other team in the league began using it, with the Steelers being the last to adopt it in 1952.

Around that time, the head football coach at Virginia Military Institute, Tom Nugent, began experimenting with Halas' T-formation. But he felt that by lining the halfbacks behind the fullback instead of next to him, the play would have more flexibility. Because this new set aligned the quarterback and running backs in a straight line, Nugent named his creation the I-formation.

Offenses can call almost any run, pass, or play-action pass from the I-formation

In 1954, Nugent took the head-coaching job at Florida State and immediately installed the I-formation into the Seminoles' playbook. Nugent's success with the I-formation caught the attention of other college coaches, who began working it into their game plan. Before long, NFL coaches began adopting the formation, and it quickly became the most common set in pro football – a distinction it still holds to this day.

The I-formation's popularity and longevity in both the college and professional ranks comes from its ability to consistently gain positive yards on the ground. It also lends itself perfectly to the play-action pass. It is a versatile attack that keeps the defense on its heels.

In the I-formation, the fullback lines up with the quarterback four yards in front of him and the running back three yards behind. Nearly every rushing play executed from the I-formation uses the fullback as a lead blocker for the running back. As the offensive linemen occupy the defensive linemen, the fullback gathers a head of steam on his way to a linebacker.

Since the fullback must attack the linebacker one-on-one and in open space, the block is known as an "isolation block." When successful, an isolation block gives the running back room to clear the line of scrimmage and pick up yards. I-formation plays are not meant to gain massive yards, but they will consistently allow an offense to gain four or five yards on each down. It is the definition of "smash mouth football."

In order to stop the I-formation's power running game, defenses are forced to bring a safety closer to the line of scrimmage or "in the box." The safety becomes the eighth player in the box, which is normally enough to stifle an I-formation run. But this also leaves just one deep safety, allowing more room for receivers and tight ends to get open in the secondary. When an offensive coordinator sees the defense stacking the line, he normally calls a play-action pass.

For each I-formation run play, there is a play-action pass play that looks just like it. The play-action pass is identical to the run except for one major detail: the quarterback fakes the handoff to the running back and then looks to throw downfield to his receivers. When the defense brings an eighth man into the box, the play action will serve to freeze the interior defensemen, exposing an already weakened secondary. When executed properly, the I-formation's play action can result in big yardage through the air.

Defenses are then left with a dilemma: do they bring the safety in the box to stop the run or leave him in the secondary to stop the pass? This constant guessing game has been giving defensive coordinators severe heartburn for over half a century.

If Mughelli's contract is any indication, the I-formation will not be going away any time soon.

Jeremy Stoltz is a graduate of the Columbia College Story Workshop program in Chicago. He is a regular contributor to Bear Report and

Jeremy Stoltz's Chalk Talk Archive
04/05/2007 - Zone Blocking
03/29/2007 - Cover 2
03/22/2007 - Counter Trey

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