Football 101: Weak And Strong Sides Of The Formation


“Bruce Irvin and Cliff Avril will both be seeing time at strong side linebacker this season.” “Mayshawn Lynch started up the middle, but then bounced it to the weak side when there was nothing there.”

Strong side? Weak side? My left arm is strong than my right, does that count? (Nope, sorry. Nice try though.)

This is one of those things that writers like myself seem to take for granted. We throw these terms around and just expect everyone to know what we’re talking about. The problem is that we realize that for good portion of people, it’s all just gibberish. We just don’t want to take the time to explain it over and over again.

Hopefully this will help make some sense of the issue.

Strong Side vs Weak Side of the Formation

The basic definition is that the strong side of the formation is the side with the TE. It’s considered “strong” because it has an extra blocker in the run game.

If there’s only 1 TE, then it doesn’t matter how the other players are lined up. The side with the TE is the strong side, no matter what. I’m mentioning this now, because it’ll answer some questions that are bound to come up when we look at some of the more complicated formations below this.

Things get a little more complicated if there are 2 TEs, and they are on opposite sides of the line. If that’s the case, but the FB is offset (meaning not directly behind the QB), then the FB determines side is the strong side of the formation.

If the QB is in the shotgun formation and there are 2 TEs, then the strong side of the formation is generally determined by the HB who is in the backfield with the QB.

Finally, if everything is symmetrical (so there’s no difference between the right and left sides of the formation), then the right side is the default strong side of the formation. This is because the RT is usually the better run blocker, while the LT is usually the better pass blocker. Since the strong and weak designations are there for the running game, the right side wins.

This is also why you may hear that “NFL offenses are inherently right handed.”

I should have probably mentioned this earlier, but the strong and weak sides of the formation are entirely determined by the offense. Which one is which though matters mostly to the defense. How the defense lines up and defends the gaps is determined by which side is the strong side.

Linebacker Designations

Now that we’ve figured out the strong and weak sides of the formation, we can talk about linebackers. The 3 LB positions in a 4-3 defense line up based on the opposing formation.

The middle linebacker is self explanatory. The other two are set by the strong side and weak side of the formation, so you’ll often find them switching sides from play to play, and sometimes pre-snap if an offensive player goes in motion and changes which side of formation is the strong side. There is no right linebacker or left linebacker.

Unfortunately, “strong side linebacker” doesn’t exactly roll of the tongue. To help with this, and to make things more confusing for people learning the basics of the game, the linebacker position are referred to by other names.

Luckily, it’s easy to remember. The name begins with the same first letter as the actual position.

SAM = Strong Side Linebacker

MIKE = Middle Linebacker

WILL = Weak Side Linebacker

So if we apply this to the Seahawks, Bobby Wanger is the team’s MIKE linebacker. KJ Wright played SAM in 2011 and 2012, and will be moving to WILL this year.