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Ravens’ formation exploits holes in Pittsburgh’s defense and the rulebook

The Ravens executed a well thought out trick play on Sunday night, but there’s one question that still remains: was it legal?



Midway through the fourth quarter of their win on Sunday night in Pittsburgh, the Baltimore Ravens ran a play that seemed a bit unorthodox, but led to an important third down conversion. On the play, Ravens’ tight end Maxx Williams lined up in the middle of the interior offensive line, directly to the left of the center. Williams lined up just slightly behind the rest of the linemen, off of the line of scrimmage, and at the snap, he ran upfield, turned out, and caught a crucial pass from quarterback Joe Flacco for a 22-yard gain. 

Let’s break down the basics of this play before it starts to become far from basic. Rule 7-5-1 states that in order for the offense to be in a legal formation at the snap, they must have: 

  • 7 or more players on the line
  • eligible receivers on both ends of the line
  • only ineligible players between the ends
  • all players in bounds.

On the play, Williams is not lined up on the line of scrimmage. He is lined up just slightly behind the rest of the interior linemen. In order for the formation to be legal, and for Williams to be legally off of the line of scrimmage, he needs to have his helmet up behind the plane of the beltline of the center. Sometimes, you may see fouls for illegal formation when ineligible linemen line up too far behind the center, but in this case, to be an eligible receiver, Williams needed to be lined up behind the center.

Terry McAulay, NBC’s new rules analyst, thinks this was a borderline illegal formation. He stated during the broadcast that Williams was very close to the beltline of the center, and that since it was a trick play, that he should be strictly in accordance with all the rules. If Williams was lined up in a normal tight end position, officials would give a little more discretion on his alignment. Also, the center’s beltline on this play is not exactly parallel to the line of scrimmage, but rather at an angle, which allows for more of a judgment call on the part of the line of scrimmage officials, so this may be borderline and could go either way, but it is for sure, not a definite foul.

By hiding in the interior line, as long as the required number of players stayed on the line, and there were eligible receivers on each end of the line covering up the lineman, the play is legal.

What would have happened on the play if Williams was lined up too close to the line of scrimmage? There would have been a foul for an ineligible player downfield on the catch, and potentially a foul for illegal touching if he made the catch. The line of scrimmage officials on the play, down judge Patrick Turner and line judge Tim Podraza, ruled that Williams was lined up well enough behind the scrimmage to be an eligible pass receiver. The Ravens are used to unorthodox formations, but this time, it led to a big, late game play for Baltimore.

Cam Filipe is a forensic scientist and has been involved in football officiating for 12 years. Cam is in his fourth season as a high school football official. This is his ninth season covering NFL officiating for Football Zebras.

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