The pistol offense has become sports’ most analyzed package over the past few weeks. It’s all anyone has talked about with the San Fransico 49ers reaching the Super Bowl after having major success in the pistol formation. 49ers’ QB Colin Kaepernick is one of several quarterbacks who have helped revolutionize the National Football League this season. In fact, Kaepernick came from a school that essentially made the pistol formation popular.
University of Nevada’s former head coach Chris Ault renamed the “Shotgun I” formation to “Pistol” in 2005. In the formation, the quarterback lines up four yards behind the center, as opposed to seven. The running back lines up three yards behind the quarterback, instead of next to him, as you’ll typically see in the shotgun formation.
The pistol offense has been used for years on the college level, but Ault is strongly associated with it. Kaepernick was dynamic under the tutorage of Chris Ault in Nevada’s pistol heavy offense. But many questioned if he was simply a product of a “gimmicky” college scheme entering the 2011 NFL draft. No one thought the offense would ever work on the professional level.
The interesting fact about the pistol offense is, not only can it benefit mobile QBs but it can also be led by those without “world class speed.” The Pittsburgh Steelers were one of the first teams to display the pistol formation look on the professional level. In 2010, Pittsburgh used the formation with QB Ben Roethlisberger to help him play with an injured foot. The Buffalo Bills, Detroit Lions, Kansas City Chiefs, and Miami Dolphins have all run plays out of the formation without QBs with speed. However, having a world class athlete at helm has proven to maximize what teams can do out of the pistol offense.
”At first they said, that’s just a college offense,” said coach Chris Ault. ”Lo and behold, somebody came out and said you can do that in the NFL every so often. The NFL has been such a copycat league. The formation has expanded the landscape of football collegiately and pro wise. The pros see advantages of what you can do with these mobile quarterbacks in the pistol.”
Cam Newton, who was also drafted in 2011, ran numerous plays out of the pistol formation in his rookie season with the Carolina Panthers. The team utilized read option out of the formation, which is one of the base plays in the pistol package. But it wasn’t until the Washington Redskins drafted Robert Griffin III in 2012 that the formation evolved to another dynamic. Coach Mike Shanahan and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan took a page out of Griffin’s playbook at Baylor – mixing it with Shanahan’s patented zone run offense. From day 1, the Redskins used the pistol formation for the read option (zone read) and continued to develop it into a true football package.
The Redskins were super innovative throughout the season. So much, that Mike Shanahan dubbed the offense with a new name. “We ran the West Coast offense before,” said Shanahan. “Well, this is the East Coast offense.”
Washington was able to run their offense out of the pistol formation. From inside zone reads, to triple options and read option play-actions passes, it was difficult for opposing teams to defend. Washington’s offense had so much success early in the season that Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carrol drew inspiration from it. In early November, Carrol decided to watch tape of Robert Griffin III and Shanahan’s offense to help take advantage of his athletic rookie QB Russell Wilson. Coming off a week 4 – three interception game, Wilson was struggling. When Carrol went to study the Redskins read-zone option offense, he became highly impressed with how Washington advanced a relatively unknown package to the professional football world.
“I was impressed with how much they got out of it,” said Carrol. “They’re way ahead of everybody else in terms of their commitment to a really college style of offense and it’s been very effective.”
Even at that point, Carrol referred to the offense as “college style.” Not realizing that he was witnessing the future. That is, until he started installing the package into Seattle’s offense. It benefited Russell Wilson, who went on to have an outstanding rookie season.
Now, on the biggest stage in all of sports’, Colin Kaepernick has an opportunity to essentially put the league on notice against the Baltimore Ravens. What was often called “gimmicky” has now become the league’s worst nightmare.
Although, Ravens general manger Ozzie Newsome – who is well respected – believes it will eventually become extinct once D-coordinators study it.
At this point, it’s the toughest offense to defend. In pistol, there’s always a threat of the read-option. But not only does the package benefit athletic QBs, it’s even more dangerous when attempting to stop run plays. In fact, it can be argued that the ability to run out of the pistol formation benefits the passing game more-so than vice versa.
“I think defenses will catch up (with the Pistol),” Chris Ault told NFL Network last week. “But here’s the beauty of the pistol: I know we saw Kaep(ernick) run for 181 yards against Green Bay, but what you saw last week is what I believe our Pistol brings to the table – Kaep didn’t run it. He read it and handed it off because Atlanta was taking away Kaep on the outside,” he said.
Ault continued, “The beauty of what we’ve done in the pistol and what I’ve seen the 49ers and the Redskins doing, is, it’s not just the read play itself. It’s also the play-action pass off of it. I don’t think the NFL quarterbacks are all going to start running the ball 15 times a game. But if you’ve got the read in your offense, it is a threat; it’s something you’ve got to be concerned about.”
Washington, Seattle and San Francisco had the most success out of the pistol offense this season. The similarities with those teams are athletic QBs that can throw and all-pro running backs.
The Redskins somewhat used the pistol formation as a disguise for Shanahan’s patented stretch run plays. They mainly used the inside zone read, Seattle was mostly outside zone read and San Francisco uses a little of both.
In this week’s big game, it will be a difficult task for the Ravens to defend San Francisco’s offense. And it’s not mainly because of Colin Kaepernick. It’s the run game with Frank Gore that allows receivers to run free when calling play-action. It’s a task for defenders when facing the pistol offense because they have to think instead of just playing football.
Mike Shanahan began a trend of totally confusing an opposing team’s best pass rusher out of the formation. Shanahan would often leave the pass rusher unblocked and then chip him with a tight end or fullback. Once the pass rusher comes firing up-field, it opens up an opportunity to do several things. The QB can read to see if the pass rusher stays home and hand off or choose to keep it. Not to mention, when calling play-action out of the formation, it often freezes linebackers and forces them to go through a thought process. In turn, that opens up space for receivers.
The ability to use a pro style blocking scheme maximizes everything. For the 49ers, they tend to use what’s called a “kick-out” or “easy release” with their tight ends. In doing that, it opens up lanes for the running back.
The Baltimore Ravens have to limit what San Francisco attempts to do on the ground in order to have a chance at winning their 2nd championship in franchise history. It will take a collective effort from Baltimore’s front 7, led by Ray Lewis. But the guy who needs to have his best game of the season is Haloti Ngata. The all-pro defensive lineman has had a relatively down season. However, he has to eat up space and not create space against the 49ers. The Ravens have to stop San Francisco at the “point of attack” in order to slow down their offense. That, of course, is a task easier said than done.
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