Over the past two years, the NFL has seen an influx of quarterbacks with skills that don’t necessarily fit the prototype mold. Cam Newton and Tim Tebow were the first two quarterbacks to regularly run college football offenses in the NFL last season. Since then, we’ve seen an increase in both mobile quarterbacks and college schemes. This year, Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson, and Colin Kaepernick have taken it to the next level, bringing success to an offensive scheme that was not supposed to translate to the NFL. Defenses have been unable to stop it and the Baltimore Ravens will be faced with a difficult challenge during the Super Bowl in trying to stop Kaepernick and the San Francisco 49ers’ dynamic pistol offense.
The pistol is a formation combining the looks of a single back and shotgun formation. The quarterback lines up three to five yards behind center instead of five to seven (as in the shotgun) and the tailback sets up seven yards deep behind the center and quarterback. From this set, there are various different looks that can be utilized in different situations. For example, a full house or heavy look would consist of two additional backs standing directly to the left and right of the quarterback. Additionally, pistol formations often consist of just one additional back to the right or left of the quarterback, as well as the usual double tight, twins, trips, bunch, etc. looks that you see in any other offensive formation.
So, if the looks are so similar then what’s the big advantage of the pistol?
Well, one of the main advantages to the pistol is that because the quarterback is just a few yards off center, he has extra time to avoid blitzes yet can still make accurate reads of the defense due to how close he is to the line of scrimmage. Additionally, the timing of a pistol offense is generally quicker than a traditional offense because the ball reaches the quarterback much faster. While faster is usually better in the NFL, this also brings up some other challenges as the timing is thrown off for receivers and blockers.
A common misconception of the pistol offense is that it must be run by a dual threat quarterback. Although the developer of this particular pistol, Chris Ault, designed it specifically for the benefit of dual threat quarterback Colin Kaepernick at the University of Nevada, more traditional-style quarterbacks have both run and had success with the pistol offense. Some Ravens’ fans may remember Steelers’ quarterback Ben Roethlisberger running the pistol against the Ravens in 2010 because of an ankle injury that limited his mobility. The pistol greatly benefited Roethlisberger as he had more time to set up and throw and did not have to move as much while still being able to run the ball traditionally with various counters and misdirections.
The San Francisco 49ers’ Pistol Offense
Now that we know what the pistol is, let’s take a look at how the 49ers run it with Kaepernick at the helm:
The first play I’m going to show you is classic power out of the pistol full house formation. It’s the same power that you’d see out of any other formation except there’s an additional blocker in the backfield.
Kaepernick reverse pivots and hands the ball off to Frank Gore. The left fullback will kick out the defensive end and the right guard will pull, leading the way through the hole as the right fullback follows.
Gore simply follows his two lead blockers for a decent gain that sets up 3rd and short. As you can see, the pistol formation is still a decent running formation, despite the quarterback being off the center.
The next play we’ll look at is another basic running play that nearly every offense runs – the inside belly. The 49ers line up in Pistol ace and run belly to the right. The right guard and tackle double team the defensive end and then the guard goes to the linebacker. The right slot back will leave the outside man untouched and look for the safety.
In the next picture, you can see the double team by the guard and tackle as the center walls off defensive tackle B.J. Raji. The man circled in red is the outside defender that’s purposefully untouched.
The reason for this is that he must contain the outside as Kaepernick has the ability to pull the ball and run outside if the end starts to crash down to stop the belly. This creates a huge running lane for Gore as the only unblocked defender cannot make a play on the runner. Once the offense starts to notice the end come in to stop the inside run, they can turn around and hurt them outside with the read option that we’ll talk about in part two.
The final play we’ll look at will be a pass. The play is drawn up like this:
In this play, the 49ers lineup in a full house pistol set before motioning the left back, Delanie Walker, across the formation into the right slot. Gore is the deep back and Vernon Davis is lined up as the right back.
The Falcons bring out an extra defensive back in Robert McClain, but make the mistake of blitzing him, and Gore easily picks him up. Because McClain blitzes, it leaves no defender in the flats and forces linebacker Stephen Nicholas to cover Davis – who runs a sub 4.4 forty-yard dash – on a wheel route. This is an obvious mismatch and leaves Davis wide open down the sideline after both Walker and Michael Crabtree clear out the safety and corner with two vertical routes.
The play design leaves Davis with a seven-yard cushion in all directions, allowing Kaepernick to easily float the ball to him for a 20-yard gain.
What makes this so hard to defend is that the full house pistol set gives the offense so many options and easily creates mismatches. With two big tight ends in Davis and Walker standing in the backfield, the threat of running the ball right up the gut with Frank Gore is still there. However, their pass catching and route running abilities leave the defense with a tough decision when it comes to personnel. Bring in an extra DB and risk getting hit with a big running play, or leave a linebacker out there and force him to cover Davis.
The pistol formation is an incredibly tricky offense to defend, due to its versatile nature and unpredictability. The 49ers run it so well because they have so many dynamic players on offense. Kaepernick can hurt you through the air and on the ground, Gore is a great pass protector and will break through arm tackles, and Davis is both an excellent blocker and receiver.
In the next part, we’ll be digging deeper into the 49ers’ pistol offense, looking exclusively at the option game, which has been unstoppable since Kaepernick has taken the reigns.