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Football Illegal Formation Penalty

Football Illegal Formation Penalty

Football is a very creative sport where offenses use many different formations to try and move the ball downfield to score a touchdown. However, there are certain regulations they must follow while lining up. Learn about the illegal formation penalty here!


No matter what formation or personnel offenses use, there must be at least seven players on the line of scrimmage. Having fewer than seven players on the line of scrimmage makes the formation illegal. Typically, five offensive lineman are on the line of scrimmage to begin with. Tight ends and receivers will often make up the final two spots. If the formation is illegal, the officials will throw the penalty flag at the beginning of the play and it will negate whatever happens on the play.


Illegal Formation5 Yards (Offense)5 Yards (Offense)5 Yards (Offense)5 Yards (Offense), This is referred to as an illegal procedure.5 Yards (Offense)

If the formation is illegal, the officials will throw the flag at the beginning of the play and regardless of what happens on the play, a five-yard penalty will be assessed to the offending team and include a replay of the down. The five-yard penalty is universal across all football leagues and is referred to as "illegal procedure" in the CFL.

Additionally, in the NFL, when there is less than two minutes left in the game and the offense commits an illegal formation penalty, there will be a 10-second runoff from the game clock. The same runoff rule applies to the CFL and the AFL and can end the game.

This same clock runoff rule applies in college football as well. However, it is not automatic, the offense has the option to call a timeout to negate the runoff.

High school football does not have a 10-second runoff rule.

This heads up play by Cleveland Browns receiver Jarvis Landry saved his team from losing the game. Had he not gotten his teammate aligned properly, the Browns would have been hit with an illegal formation penalty and the 10-second runoff rule would have ended the game.

Penalty Signal

football Penalty Signal

As previously stated, the referee will throw the flag at the beginning of the play. Regardless of what happens on the play, a five-yard penalty will be assessed to the offense. At the end of the play, the referee will signal the illegal formation by rotating their hands over one another as in the image above.


  • An offensive lineman will be lined up off of the line of scrimmage.
  • A wide receiver who is supposed to be lined up on the line of scrimmage will not check with the referee that they are on the line of scrimmage and be lined up off of the line of scrimmage.
  • A tight end who is supposed to be on the line of scrimmage will not be aligned on the line of scrimmage.

Similar Penalties To Illegal Formation