By Joe Horning
Before the 2012 season, most offensive coordinators in the NFL only had two positions for quarterbacks. Either they started the play under center, or positioned about seven yards back in the shotgun. The arrangement of backs, tight ends, and receivers around him can vary, but those two positions were the norm.
However 2012 brought the revolution of the read option, a style of offense designed to take advantage of fast, running quarterbacks. More importantly it brought the pistol offense to NFL. It started out at the beginning of the year with Robert Griffin III in Washington. Mike Shanahan’s zone blocking scheme had produced numerous 1,000 yard rushers. But this year, Shanahan had a new toy, his prize 2nd overall pick Heisman trophy winner that he nearly sold the farm for the right to draft. For years Shanahan was known for making players adapt to his system instead of the playing to his players’ strengths. Now he had one of the most dynamic rookies to come in to the league, what was he going to do?
He decided to bring in the read option, which is what helped bring RGIII into national prominence in college. The entire system depended on reading a defender and making a decision to keep the ball or hand off to the back. And the idea took off. It expanded to other teams such as the 49ers and Seahawks who used it to fool defenses with their speedy young quarterbacks.
While most of the read option was run out of shotgun sets, these teams also employed the pistol set. In a shotgun set, the defense can usually key on which way either runner can go.
In the above image, The Eagles run a read option play with Lesean McCoy going left. Although he could go to any hole, the Redskins know he will come left. Michael Vick, if he had chosen to keep, could have gone up the middle, or to the right, depending on his read.
Now see what the pistol does for the read option.
Although fullback Darrel Young lines up on the right side of RGIII, the play is designed to go left end (off the end of the offensive line). At a given moment, Griffin could have switched the play and gone right and not a single man would have had to move. This way, the defense can’t exactly key on any given side. This can applies to standard offense teams as well. For more on the pistol and the read option, it is highly recommended you read this piece by Chris Brown.
The pistol itself was invented in 2005 by Chris Ault, then head coach of the University of Nevada. He wanted a way to start increasing his offensive production. While in a few years, Nevada became known for its high octane offense out of the pistol, in the early years, they ran basic plays out of it. It was not until he had a speedy quarterback by the name of Colin Kaepernick at Nevada did he start implementing aspects of the read option that produced three 1000-yard rushers.
All the standard run plays that most teams run out of a pro style formation such as the power, the gap, the counters, the zone can all be run out of a pistol set according to Ault. The running back is still lined up as deep as he would be in a standard formation. However, in a pistol offense, he now receives the hand off earlier, before he makes it clear which gap he is running to.
As above seen, standard shotgun runs are easy to key because the runner is usually running to the opposite side of the formation in an east-west style of run. Ault himself liked the style of spread offense, but still wanted to be able to pound the ball and have his runners go north and south into the teeth of a defense.
Passing out of the pistol also has massive advantages. In the play-action game, a shorter fake to the back means less of a window for the defense to be fooled, but the quarterback can get to a deeper drop in a shorter amount of time. Most defenses will treat the pistol like a single back or I formation, and want to commit to the run.
Above is a play action bootleg rollout by Alex Smith of the Chiefs. Alex Smith is not the speedy running QB on the level of RGIII or Colin Kaepernick, but he is athletic and mobile. The play started out as a play action to Jamaal Charles going left. The entire Jaguars front seven, as well as safety Johnathan Cyprien who moved into the box, bit hard. At this point, only weakside linebacker Russell Allen and Cyprien are reacting to Smith rolling out. By the time they start moving that direction, Smith is already at the line of scrimmage moving upfield with tight end Anthony Fasano out in front blocking. This is a good type of play other teams with athletic QBs, such as Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, could benefit from.
Another example is something that could be run off play action and is seen earlier in the Chiefs, Jaguars game.
The above play was a 1 yard run up the middle for Charles. The entire defense crashed down to stuff it. If the Chiefs had called this for a play action pass, look at the tight end at the bottom of the tackle box, Sean McGrath. On play action he could run the same seam pattern over the middle with no defender even near him. As you can see, the two LBs for Jacksonville are still caught in the run, and the two deep safeties are still back pedaling. A quick toss over the middle to McGrath would result in an easy 15 yard completion.
The extra bonus of passing out of the pistol is the pass protection from the running back. In a shotgun set, when a back is assigned to stay in and block he is usually moved to the side where the QB believes a blitzer will come from or the side where he is assigned to help an offensive lineman. However, there are times when he must cross the entire formation just to block someone from the opposing side.
The beauty of utilizing plays out of the pistol is that it doesn’t easily telegraph the type of play being ran. In the preseason, the Broncos used the pistol multiple times with All-Pro quarterback Peyton Manning. Manning will never kill defenses with his feet, but the pistol could be the solution for him to become the ultimate offensive guru. This year, the Broncos have effectively ran the ball most games with Knowshon Moreno. The pistol creates a unique opportunity for Manning in that teams can’t key in on whether Moreno will get the ball on a handoff or Manning will drop back.
Above you see an example. Angerer and Freeman, the ILB’s for the Colts stall when Manning fakes the handoff. They are positioned farther off because they are anticipating dropping into coverage. They break down in anticipation of Moreno running it before Manning pulls it out. This is the strain on defenses defending the pistol. The same play from a different angle shows the safety closer to the line.
Now Manning can run an offense with an effective running game so defenses no longer have to sit back in a cover 2 shell and wait for him.
Manning, despite being in peak form mentally, is getting older physically. Deeper drop backs from under center mean more work on his legs. A shorter dropback means less wear and tear and a safer pocket for Manning. The pistol is great for protecting injured or old quarterbacks. A shorter handoff means Manning has no chance of being hit in the backfield before the handoff. Also the ability to only take a three step drop but be in a position of a standard seven step dropback gives him more space vs oncoming pass rushers. In 2010, the Steelers ran a lot of their base offense out of the pistol due to Ben Roethlisberger having a bad food and unable to move around much.
It’s even more useful for untested rookies. Above is a screenshot of Case Keenum during his second start for the Texans against the Cardinals. The play began as a play action fake to the left. Facing a second year undrafted quarterback; the back seven was likely to key on the run. Starting from a pistol set, the play action gave Keenum enough time to get a deep enough drop and for his receivers to get past the defenders reading the fake. DeAndre Hopkins got into the middle of the field cleanly. The fake fooled the pass rush enough to give Keenum a clean pocket to read the field. This led to an 18 yard completion to Hopkins.
While Manning could already be at a seven step drop back in a standard shotgun formation, the pistol makes rushers read the play before they react. If Manning were in a shotgun snap, they would pin their ears back and go after him. The pistol forces the defensive line to read if it’s a run play before they decide their assignment.
The pistol is one of the greater offensive innovations in recent years. Manning proves it’s not just a gimmick offense designed for mobile quarterbacks to run read-option. Ault himself admits that it was originally designed to blend the spread passing systems that are popular among college teams, and north-south power running styles. Having a mobile quarterback just adds an additional element to attack defenses with.
Numerous NFL experts say the pistol will eventually fade away. But they’re confused. They think the pistol and read-option are one in the same. The pistol is a formation. The read option is an offensive system, like the Wildcat or spread offense. The pistol will remain. It is just a formation that teams can run numerous offenses out of. West coast, zone run, power run, spread, read option, or any other offensive philosophy can be utilized in a pistol. It helps a team achieve balance.
This is an opinion even shared by its creator, Chris Ault in interview with Fox Sports Radio.
“I don’t think it’s going to go away. I think the Pistol formation is gonna stay for a while. I think they can do different things with it.”