Breaking down the 49ers’ Pistol: Part 2 – The Read-Option

Shotgun Read 3

In part one, we took a look at some of the more traditional plays the 49ers run in their Pistol offense. Now that we’ve had a small taste of what the pistol has to offer, let’s dig deeper and take a look at one of the 49ers’ most effective plays – the read option.

For those who don’t regularly watch college or high school football, you may be unfamiliar with the option as it’s rarely seen in the NFL. Until recently, the option was deemed to be useless in NFL as the strength and speed of NFL players made it difficult to run effectively. Additionally, option runs use the quarterback as a ball carrier and therefore put him at a higher risk of injury. However, with a new breed of bigger, stronger, and faster quarterbacks entering the league, the option has become a possibility in the NFL.

An option run is a complicated running play that requires all 11 offensive players to be on the same page. Unlike regular running plays where the ball carrier’s running route is predetermined, the offense does not know who will end up with the ball before the play is snapped as the defense determines the ball carrier.

A common option run is the read option and it is normally run in the shotgun with a running back in the backfield. The defensive end or linebacker that is designed to take the running back is left unblocked and the quarterback will make the decision to either give the ball to the running back or keep it based on his actions.

There are some different variations of the read option, but the main two you need to know are the outside zone and inside zone. An outside zone read can be determined pre-snap by where the running back is positioned in the backfield. On an outside read, the back is directly beside to the quarterback while the inside read typically has the back a few steps behind the quarterback, or directly behind him like in the pistol. Outside zone read plays have the running back’s determined route going outside on a sweep while the quarterback takes it inside on a dive. The inside zone read is just the opposite with the back running the dive and the quarterback running an outside track. Typically, the read on an outside zone is the defensive end on the opposite side of the running back while an inside zone has the quarterback reading the play side end.

On the snap of the ball, the back will cross the face of the quarterback with his arms over the ball as the quarterback reads the defender. This exchange is called the mesh and it’s during this time when the quarterback makes the decision to either give the ball to the back or pull it and run down field. The quarterback will pull and keep the ball if the defender covers the running back and give it if he covers the quarterback’s track. The spacing is set up so that even if the read is cloudy and the defender tries to play both the quarterback and the dive, the defender will not be able to get more than an arm on the back, allowing the back to break his tackle and get a positive gain at the least.

Now let’s take a look at an example run by the 49ers:

This first play is an outside zone read run out of shotgun with trips right. The play side defensive end is the read for Colin Kaepernick who will give the ball to the back if the end stays inside. The right guard and tackle will double team the defensive tackle and then go to the linebacker. The left guard will pull and block the outside linebacker and the tight end Vernon Davis will outside release and climb to get the first player coming down in run support.

On the snap of the ball, quarterback Colin Kaepernick eyes the defensive end. The end takes a jab step inside to play the quarterback. This makes the read easy for Kaepernick who hands the ball off to LaMichael James. The receivers all do a terrific job to get in front of the corners, especially tight end Vernon Davis who drives his man toward the side line, allowing James to easily cut up field and get in the end zone.

You can see here the path that Kaepernick would have taken up the middle had the end stayed outside to stop the sweep. With the great blocking up front, you can see how dangerous the option can be as no matter what the defensive end did on this play, he’d be wrong as both James and Kaepernick had open field in front of them.

The 49ers have more commonly run an inside zone read option out of the Pistol due to the positioning and depth of the running back. This next play showcases just that as they run a weak side inside zone read out of the pistol. The read is the outside defensive end and unlike the outside zone above, the running back takes an inside track while the quarterback will go outside.

The end quickly heads up field to stop the quarterback as he is the outside run support. He receives a small chip from tight end Davis who then looks for the corner. The fullback crosses the formation and quickly gets into the hole to seal off the inside backer who is responsible for running back Frank Gore. While the Falcons defense knew their player responsibilities, the excellent blocking by the 49ers prevented anyone from making a play as Gore ran untouched into the end zone.

The next play is almost exactly same as the one above except the formation is slightly different. This time, the fullback is on the play side but all of the blocking assignments are identical.

The end once again stays outside to stop Kaepernick, giving Gore plenty of space to make a cut and follow his blockers, who do a great job of boxing out the defenders.

If you noticed from the three plays above, the Falcons did everything they could to keep the ball out of Kaepernick’s hands, playing him on every option and forcing the running backs to make plays. The reason they did this? Because film from the Packers’ game the week prior showed that taking the running back wouldn’t work as Kaepernick broke a single game rushing record for a quarterback with 181 yards. This play shows how poorly the Packers defended against the read option. The formation is once again the pistol with the full back to the left side of the formation.

Fullback Bruce Miller is circled in the next picture and is one of the main reasons for this play’s success. In the second play above, you may have noticed Bruce Miller lined up away from the play side, forcing him to cross over the formation before he can make his block. While typically it makes more sense for a fullback to be on the play side so he can get to the defender quicker, this is not without purpose. As Miller crosses the backfield, he obstructs the defense’s view of the mesh point. Brad Jones, Eric Walden, and Charles Woodson all had poor views of the mesh and were fooled by Kaepernick, coming inside to stop the dive. Linebacker Brad Jones was fooled so much that Miller didn’t even have to block him and instead blocked the actual read on the play, Walden. Walden was so confused that it took him a few seconds to even realize that Kaepernick was running down field behind him.

This is a textbook example of the option. Almost every member of the defense was tricked by the exchange and Kaepernick has 20 yards of open field in front of him. From here, it’s just a foot race to the end zone, which Kaepernick easily wins as he goes 56 yards to pay dirt.

For the final play, we’re going to take a look at something a little more uncommon – the triple option. It follows the same principles as the read option except there is a third option for the ball to go to and a second defender is left unblocked. We’ll be going back to week 13 where the 49ers took on the Rams. The 49ers put Ted Ginn Jr. behind Gore in what is basically an I-formation except the quarterback is in the gun. In the picture below, the dive read has a red box around him while the pitch read is circled. If the quarterback pulls the ball, he reads the pitch man and pitches it to the third option if the read stays with the quarterback. He’ll tuck it inside and run if the pitch read tries to cover the pitch back.

What makes things a little difficult for Kaepernick is that the pitch read, cornerback Cortland Finnegan, blitzes and pulls a stunt with the defensive end. All this does is swap the pitch and dive read, making Finnegan now the dive read. This can be confusing and make the play difficult to read but Kaepernick actually does a very good job of handling this as he makes the correct decision to pull and pitch the ball.

Everything plays out perfectly for the 49ers offense as the speedy Ginn is left uncovered with plenty of open field in front of him. However, a big mistake turns this play into catastrophe as Kaepernick pitches the ball over the head of Ginn. Because it’s a backwards pass, the ball is still live, and Janoris Jenkins quickly and unexpectedly sprints past Randy Moss, who’s supposed to block him, and recovers the fumble. Had the pitch been accurate, this would have more than likely been a touchdown. The pitch is one of the biggest risks of the triple option as it’s a home run when done right, but can result in a huge error when not executed properly.

While the triple option is not something we typically expect to see on Sundays, it is another wrinkle that teams need to prepare for and can be a big play for an offense.

So far, we’ve looked at all of the positives of the 49ers’ pistol offense and what makes it so effective. In part three, we’ll take a look at some of its weak points, and what the Baltimore Ravens will have to do to stop it on Sunday.

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About Riley Babcock

Riley Babcock
Riley Babcock was born and raised in Maryland where he took a big interest towards sports at a young age. The Baltimore Ravens soon became his main interest which led to his eventual hiring as Editor of the Ravens blog, Ebony Bird, in early March of  2011. Riley is an...more

7 Raves on “Breaking down the 49ers’ Pistol: Part 2 – The Read-Option

  1. Scott on said:

    Excellent article, Riley (Part 1, as well). I am looking forward to reading the next installment.

    I also now hate the pistol formation.

    • Riley Babcock on said:

      Thanks for reading.

      As more of an offensive guy, the pistol is my favorite formation but I absolutely despise it while looking at it with a defensive mindset. It’s versatility makes it really effective and with the right personnel, it’s almost impossible to stop.

    • Riley Babcock on said:

      Thanks for the insight. The reason I call it inside and outside zone read is because that’s typically the terms used when it comes to the spread option out of the gun (specifically Chip Kelly’s offense at Oregon). While it is still technically the veer and inverted veer, I usually only refer to the triple option run out of flexbone, wishbone, i-form, etc. as the veer, but that’s just me.

  2. GG on said:

    Great series! Their offense definitely worries me, so I’m looking forward to your next article because I was not aware there were any weaknesses. I have faith, however, that if any defense can stop them, the Ravens’ can.

  3. Paul on said:

    Nice analysis Riley. Need to consider the Ravens wildcard – Tyrone Taylor. Didn’t he run the read option at Va Tech? I’m sure he’s “simulating” Kaepernick with the first team defense.

    The Ravens are in good shape defending the Niners.

  4. Riley Babcock on said:

    Thanks Paul.

    Tyrod Taylor did run some read option at Tech but the Ravens will be using Dennis Dixon to run the scout offense this week. Dixon put up some incredible numbers under Chip Kelly at Oregon running the read option and simulated RGIII for the Ravens before they played the Redskins this season.

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