Pistol Packing Offense

10/12/10 in NCAAF   |   elevenbravo138again   |   1163 respect

How The Pistol Is Gunning Down Defenses

As anyone who has seen Nevada or most other Pistol offenses can attest the majority of the passes are play action and roll outs. The QB can get turned around from a quick hand off faster than from under center, and it is much more deceptive than a sideways hand off like from full Shotgun. He can roll out like he is in Shotgun. As far as passing concepts, he could go vertical or horizontal and use any system out there.

The pass protection can be better than Shotgun because the running game and play action will be better. The pass protection will be better than under center because the QB has a head start on his drop, you have the option of putting your OT's in 2-Point stances, and roll outs will be better.

This “Pistol”, the offspring of the I-formation and the Spread offense continues to live and grow at the University of Nevada. The pistol offense was created by longtime and current head coach of the Nevada Wolf Pack, Chris Ault, and first implemented in 2004. Ault has credited the inspiration for his invention the dominant Tom Osborne led Nebraska teams of the mid 90’s .

Special plays deserve pretty pictures- Cocked Pistol

Cal is in a 4-2-5 nickel formation similar to TCU's; 2 outside linebackers (Mychal Kendricks and Jarred Price), 2 defensive ends lined as defensive tackles (Aaron Tipoti and Cameron Jordan), and Bryant Nnabuife in as the nickel back.

However, it's what Nevada does on this play that interests me more than Cal. This is a terrific wrinkle of the zone read that I want to explore. Both Nnabuife and Kendricks indicate to Marc Anthony to watch out for something. Wait for it
Kaepernick is watching this and takes notice. It doesn't seem to have any visible impact on the play, but perhaps someone will figure out what those two are doing. Again the wide receiver Brandon Wimberly pulls. If you remember the first down play of this drive, it's almost the exact same look, so the Cal defense should expect run, right?
Oh, But what is this? Fake jet sweepOh boy! Instead of turning back to Taua, Kaepernick keeps the ball in front and tries to draw weak side defenders toward Wimberly getting the handoff--since the receiver is turned away from the top cornerback. But Marc Anthony keeps on his man at the top of the screen and the linebackers don't hedge toward him. Perhaps this is what Kendricks and Nnabuife were indicating to Anthony [stay at home with your man?] Perhaps. Jarred Price is left unblocked on this play, but Kaepernick isn't really reading him on this play. It's clear from the way that the offensive linemen are backing up that this is a passing play. Price is probably left unblocked because Kaepernick is going to go deep.
Nnabuife comes well off the edge and seems to have Kaepernick in a good chase-down position, but Kaepernick has been eyeing Nnabuife since he came up to the line of scrimmage. Although tight end Virgil Green probably should have blocked him better, Kaepernick is instinctive of the danger and rolls out to the left. Ready, Aim
However, Cal seems to diagnose this play well and looks like they're about to get their third down stop. D.J. Holt comes over to get on the streaking Tray Session while Darian Hagan comes up to guard Vai Taua. Price comes up to get onto Wimberly, and that'll leave everyone covered on the play. Things seem well defended, but- Fire!
Price goes for the quarterback and leaves Wimberly open. Again, the aggressive mentality of Pendergast's schemes comes back to bite him here. If he'd just stayed with Wimberly this is probably a throw-away and a field goal. But Price decides to gamble and chase down Kaepernick when staying at home with number 4 might have forced an incompletion, a very tough throw downfield, even an interception. Bowing smoke Instead, first down. Avoidable, if the defense had stayed disciplined. It again shows the versatility of looks Nevada's offense threw at Cal's defense and how important it is for defenders to stay in front of their men.
The versatility of the pistol formation can be utilized in a variety of ways. Out of a 4-wide formation with the Y receiver lined up in what’s called “Y-tight” meaning the ‘Y’ is in a single wing type position one yard off the LOS and in a 3 point stance.  From this position, the Y  can motion pre-snap and block down on the left CB while the X blocks down on the FS or you can leave the Y in place and have him block down on the LOLB.

Having the Y tight without motioning him can cause a defense to adjust to the formation’s right and away from the play as it is read as the strong side. Once this is established the Y can slow block to a delay, drag and Y-Stick series.     
Y-Stick it to them
The reason is that the quarterback is closer to the line of scrimmage than in a traditional shotgun formation, so he can see more easily over the line and make down field reads. He will also get the ball snapped to him faster, which can alter timing patterns greatly for a preparing defense. The pistol offense can effectively use draw plays, counters, and options using three wide receiver formations or multiple tight ends combined with a fullback for pass protection. Nevada has even employed the use of empty sets (no running backs) in the pistol formation. In a pistol formation, hand-offs occur 2-3 yards closer than in the shotgun, which can make for a more effective running game, while keeping passing efficient. This formation works well with dual threat quarterbacks who can both throw and run.
The true advantage of the pistol is that it can effectively employ dozens of concepts effectively that individually the spread, spread option, I-formation, pro-style, or single-back attack cannot do alone. Veer, zone run and play actions, naked boots, zone reads are all effective out of the Pistol. Furthermore, with the use of an agile quarterback like Colin Kaepernick the pistol becomes even more dangerous as a true option force, without losing any integrity in the passing game. The Y-Stick, when sharply executed I an OLB’s worst nightmare. The concept is pretty basic. Line up 3 WR’s or WR’s/TE’s to one side, or 2 of either with a RB to this side.

Y Stick with a RB in formation More Stickiness
In the diagram above, we are lined up with a WR, TE and RB to the right. F runs a passing route into the flat zone. The QB’s first read should be the SAM LB. If the SAM steps out  to cover the flat and the S is in zone, a quick completion is possible to the Y should be there.
If the OLB sits in a zone and the CB takes the short sideline zone, the Z will dart up field, forcing the Safety to cover deep. The Y should get behind the LB’s and proceed to read the Safety. If the Safety has gone deep the Y should cut  on a post if the weak side safety is wide in coverage. If the weak side safety is free the Y should cut on an out route.

Against Cover 2, the receiver will find an opening, against Cover 3, the receiver will find an opening. Against man, the F-Back is too much of a matchup problem to be stopped. If somehow he is covered, the rest of the passing lane behind the F-Back is going to be wide open to get a few grabs deep into the secondary.

This play concept is so valuable to an athletic player, so keep an eye out for those quick hitch passes in the middle of coverage.  The Stick Concept is used in every type of formation/offense, including the Pistol/Revolver.

How does it work? Most Nevada plays start the same way: the quarterback ( Colin Kaepernick) takes the snap, does a half-pivot, and either: a) hands off to the halfback; b) fakes the handoff (either a full sell, or just a quick pivot) and runs; or c) fakes the handoff and passes. Like the spread option, the guessing game can cause havoc with defensive timing.

Nevada's run-game bread and butter are zone runs, primarily an inside zone "slice" play and the outside zone, or stretch. They run the stretch to both the weak and strong sides, and typically run the slice -- aided by the strong side receiver, who "slices" in behind the weak side guard and tackle to pick up a linebacker or safety. Both are designed to play to the strengths (and/or minimize the weaknesses) of smaller, quicker offensive linemen, although Nevada's line is not tiny.
They run well: add quarterback draws and dives to that bread-and-butter lineup).  Though the inside zone and QB keepers may call to mind the Florida and other spread option attacks, Nevada's passing game is a bit more vertical. Those pass plays generally spring from play-action fakes off the slice and stretch. Kaepernick attempted 383 passes in 2008, 33rd most in the country, for 2849 yards in the air. In 2009 1183 rushing yards, 2052 passing yards, 58.9% pass completion rate rendered the passing attack slightly less efficient than the Wolfpack ground game, though Kaepernick still averaged a respectable 7.44 yards per attempt.  This year he has posted:
  6 games   639 rushing yards 1321 passing  yards
Another Pistol Passing Favorite is: Seam Concept
The Seam Concept is something that is fairly loose, so I’ll explain it only in one context; the Levels Play. I’ll avoid all of the different reads and junk for the different receivers, and just stick to the F-Back. The Levels passing concept is one that requires the orchestration of several different things by the F-Back. The concept of "MOFO" is one that requires a lot of natural football IQ and takes years to master.

What is "MOFO"? MOFO stands for "Middle-of-Field-Open." That means go up field, and go where the safety is not going. The seam pass is something that is really difficult to cover in Cover 2, and nearly impossible to cover in man (just check out Jahvid Best vs. Bosworth) with the F-Back going up field against a linebacker.

By the way, this play isn’t necessarily designed for the F-Back, but it can show you how effective it can be if the F-Back can attract attention from the Safety and Linebackers. 
All of the ‘Quick Game’ staples: Slants, Curls, Flats, and Shallows are available.  Another favorite Nevada pass play, the Zone Pass Boot. The Zone Pass Boot starts as a run fake -- the line sets up to block as they would the slice, and the strong side receiver (the receiver on the right side above, but left side in the diagram below), Boot Action

slices across the formation to block between the weak side guard and tackle. All of this tracks what would happen on the inside zone. But in the Zone Pass Boot, the quarterback rolls into naked bootleg (without a lead blocker) to the strong side, carries that out a step or two, and find either his slot receiver or wide out. As the following diagrams show, the slot receiver might draw a mismatched linebacker and cut out, or he might run a wheel route, turning up field, while the wide out runs a curl:

Nothing about these routes is particularly groundbreaking. The existence of a true vertical passing game, however, may give defenses pause in taking a send-the-house approach to stopping the Nevada run attack. Flat or flare
5 step drop
Theory -same for QB as Z Pivot,
again thinking stretch defense
horizontally. WE are just
switching #1’s in the same spots.
#1 - 5 yd split from OT
Pivot. ‘Switch Route’ to one side or the ‘ Deep Cross
Or take advantage of LBs that cheat close to the line with the ubiquitous ‘Curl/Flats’ combination.   Or the WCO derivative the China/Dig or Post/Shallow Cross/Comeback off of play action. All the other quick game, favorites work as well: look, bubble, and tunnel screen, 5 step combos, and some sprint action and naked boot type flood and bunch routes. 

And though most Pistol offense formations will have either 1 or 2 backs a few pistoleros will move the TB to a wing and put him into the pattern. The quick routes used, which include: double hitches, double slants or a slant bubble combinations that stretch the flat defender. The three-man side is where the spacing route occurs. Some OCs double call everything, letting the QB make the pre-snap read on the defense based on coverage and deliver the ball.
More common in today's game is the whip or pivot route. Once again, the receiver will do everything he does in the slant route. Only now, after he sticks, he will take one step and then plant his stick foot in the ground and literally pivot to "box out" the linebacker. This is eerily reminiscent of gaining low post position on a basketball court. The receiver then must work himself back toward the sideline,  flat or even comeback slightly. If he goes up field, the route is ruined.

QB reads pre-snap only if out leveraging the near safety. Hot - must be front side hot - inside blitz hot #1, outside blitz hot #3
Flat or flare
5 step drop
Can change backside combo to most any in/out concept (timing?)
Theory - out leverage flat
defender with #3 route
(flat/flare). This should be
someone you want to get the ball
to. Force the defense to defend
horizontally first! Then come
back inside moving to 2nd,3rd &
4th reads.

The West Coast Offense will still have its grasp on the Revolver Offense, and the F-Back will be a major part of that concept. One of the biggest staples of the West Coast Offense is the Play Action Bootleg play. Normally, a tight end will leak into the flats and the QB will get it to him from a foot away.

Let's take a 1 last look at a bootleg.  I've rsimplified the play dynamics to make the information clearer.
In a regular bootleg, one or two players may stay back to protect the QB.  The LT or FB may pass block while everyone else sells the run.  It is called the "naked bootleg" because this the QB with no protection..  Either the QB completes a pass, or he races down the field for anywhere from eight to fifteen yards before stepping out of bounds or sliding.

There's just one catch. The danger to the bootleg is the cunning defensive coordinator who tells his weak side linebacker to do one of several play busting maneuvers.
·         Zone on the offensive side of the ball where the QB will end up,
·         Blitz wide and keep the blitz even if the play turns into a run (because it might not really be a run),
·         Keep the typical weak side zone no matter what play is happening.

The first thing that stands out about the Pistol, both in this game and previously is how sudden the backfield movement is off the snap. It seems as if the decision time for a defense is cut in half. Cal set the middle to stop a run by Vai Taua on the first play of the game, but a fake draw option read by Kaepernick on second-and-7 sent him running outside for a gain of 17 yards.

Downfield blocking was set very adeptly by receiver positioning, and the run look off the draw or delay can be a devastating misdirection for any defense going on the first key it sees. Straight delays into the teeth of the defense don't seem to work well, especially against a 5-2 front that closes quickly like Cal's. The key (as with any option-based offense) is to get your opponent to start thinking that "A" is going to happen, at which point you slap them upside the head with "B."

Tray Session's Touchdown

The 15-yard touchdown pass from Kaepernick to Tray Session that opened the game's scoring  was a great example of how well play action works in this offense, and how in the Pistol, that major flaw common to most spread quarterbacks -- inexperience selling the fake -- is no longer a problem. On this play, the safeties were late, and the cornerback overran the comeback route that Session ran. Session bulled it on for the touchdown.
"We run the bluff pass off the downhill motion," Ault said. "It gives us a bit more variety. The quarterback had great depth position after the fake. The move by the running back is tough on the linebackers. When we open up, two things happen. First is the attack of the running back, which we call the attack phase of the play-action pass. The quarterback opens up and seeds the ball. He puts his left hand in the belly of the tailback and reads the end. He wants to get a depth of eight yards. We want to attack the corner, and very seldom do we run the naked (bootleg play). Most of the time, we run a slice action toward our quick side end and our backside tackle."

The Wolfpack, like most other teams, rely heavily on the inside zone and zone read, but because of the versatility of the Pistol formation Nevada can also employ veer option principles putting even more stress on a defense. Nevada’s version of the veer, a variety now coming into vogue again with spread teams like Florida, requires the line to “block down” to the side the run is going while leaving the play side defensive end entirely unblocked — that is the man the quarterback will “read.” The reason the veer works so well, including when compared to the zone read, is that with the veer guarantees two things the zone read can’t: Double-team blocks at the point of attack, and the ability to make the man the QB reads wrong, every time. Conversely, the zone read aims at “reading” a backside defensive end. What really makes Nevada different is their emphasis on old school plays in the context of its new school offense.

Nevada head coach, Chris Ault, was an I-formation guy for a long time, and you can still see it in his philosophy. He’s more than happy to follow up the zone read, jet sweep or veer with some basic off-tackle runs, which he can do easily because his tailback is in the same place he would be in the I-formation. Another aspect of the pistol that makes the set work is that Ault can dial-up rather traditional quarterback faking for bootlegs and play-action, which spread teams have usually struggled with making convincing. An athletic, versatile guy like Kaepernick can really emphasize the play-action to put the defense in a bind.

The defense sees the running play going to the strong side (as it has play after play after play through the game) and the guys in man coverage are pulled with their assignment to the strong side.  The guys in zone might break their zone to go after the run, or keep a zone that is away from where our play is really going.  The key is the weak side linebacker.  More on him later.
In the meantime, even the QB is moving to the strong side and then, you knew it, he breaks around and starts heading in the opposite direction!  At this point the defense is probably exposed to several pass threats.  One is the number two WR who probably faked a run play by stutter stepping before he took off for greener pastures down field.  Another may be the TE who breaks back late to give the QB another option.  The HB (who helped to sell the run) is now perhaps near the sideline, ready to bail out Kaepernick if he doesn't have a good option
Again, in Ault's hands, this is a fully functional offense -- not a subset of something else.

Sometimes, desperation is the mother of invention. Chan Gailey, who was being swept away by the tide of suckitude that is the Buffalo Bills offense, found this out when he ran the offense of the Kansas City Chiefs in 2008 and saw his two primary quarterbacks, Damon Huard and Brodie Croyle, go down for the season with injuries. Coastal Carolina rookie Tyler Thigpen, who had been drafted by the Vikings in the seventh round and released in September, was Gailey's last resort. Given Gailey's experience with shotgun, option, and "gadget" plays at the college and pro level, it shouldn't have been surprising that he adopted the Pistol over the second half of the 2008 season.
In the first five games, Kansas City's passing game read like a JaMarcus Russell career retrospective: a DVOA [This is a brainchild of Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders. DVOA, which is an acronym for Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, is a statistical measure of the success of a given play compared to the league-average level of success for that play given the situation at the time (score, time remaining, down and distance to go, location on the field, caliber of opponent, and so on). The formula is calculated using every play of the season, and provides rankings for teams, individual units (offense, defense, special teams), and individual players. Schatz updates the formula every offseason, keeping only the changes that improve DVOA's predictive ability.
A DVOA rating of 0% is equivalent to league average performance. An above-zero number represents an above-average offensive performance, and a below-zero number represents an above average defensive performance. Since the baseline for "league average performance" is calculated over multiple seasons, the aggregate DVOA for the NFL will not necessarily equal 0% for any given season.

So the Bills’ DVOAs of -39.5%, -49.5%, -86.7%, -13.0%, and -75.3%, in the five games after the team's Week 6 bye, when compared to those after Thigpen had taken the reins and the Pistol was in full effect of : 32.1%, 39.0%, 51.2%, 18.4%, -5.8% are significant and this was against a Raiders defense that had seen a fairly dramatic transformation after the release of DeAngelo Hall, the Chiefs added a passing DVOA of 19.1%.
The Chiefs installed different formation wrinkles against the Raiders -- they'd roll a halfback out of the Pistol wide of a twins set, motion an H-back wide to stretch the defense, and Larry Johnson would hit inside gaps in protection schemes that looked very much like the one used to break Ingram free. The Miami Dolphins traded for Thigpen in September of 2009, ostensibly to reinforce their quarterback rotation, but also to help Pat White deal with more complicated defenses. The offense took advantage of New England's penchant for over-pursuit, and made the option quarterback look like he fit in the NFL for the first (and as it turned out, only) time.
       Key F-Back Concepts
These concepts, although very, very, very broad, should cover most common principles for the F-Back this:
  1. Run Block (limited)
  2. Stick Pass Concept
  3. Seam Pass Concepts
  4. Pro Style Flat Concepts
And that evolution is precisely why I think the Pistol will be used more often at the NFL level. In a league where the percentage of shotgun snaps has more than tripled in the last 10 years, any productive variation is a blessing. When the Tennessee Titans run into a wall with their mobile quarterback, speedy halfback, and triple-option concepts, why not use the Pistol to switch things up? Ault has implemented triple-option plays in which an H-back motions a sweep behind the tailback, and the quarterback can read the right play off the defense. The Pistol formation continues to grow at the FBS level. For about five weeks (a magical little moment in time), the NFL caught up and exceeded expectations, then threw the idea away just as quickly. And as far as I can tell, it wasn't a case of defenses catching up to the concept, but that no offense seemed desperate enough to implement it. The Bills have an offense that should be locked in a shed somewhere, and Gailey has seen massive improvement with the Pistol under his watch, but there's no imperative to find a quarterback who can run something different -- something that might actually work.
It just makes sense that Buffalo would use the Pistol. They could easily acquire the right kind of quarterback, and most certainly drafted the right kind of running back in C.J. Spiller. Nothing has happened there or anywhere else. I have to think that as NFL teams see more of the Pistol when they're evaluating college talent, the light will go on somewhere.
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