Eight weeks ago, the Vikings were undefeated and ranked No. 1 in DVOA. Now they're 6-6 and probably done. What went wrong?
13 Oct 2010
by Doug Farrar
Last week's Cover-3 on the Pistol formation morphed into a two-parter for two reasons. First, readers tipped me off to examples of teams running the Pistol in 2010, and second, I had the opportunity to do an interview with Miami Dolphins quarterback Tyler Thigpen, who ran the offense with great success in Kansas City under offensive coordinator Chan Gailey in 2008. We've covered how Thigpen started a few games for the Chiefs after starting quarterbacks Damon Huard and Brodie Croyle went down and how effective he was, but in talking to him last week, I finally got the story of how the idea was put into place.
"It was kind of an adjustment on the fly," Thigpen said. "The main reason we went to the Pistol offense in Kansas City was Larry Johnson. He was more of a downhill back, not an offset guy in a shotgun, doing zone runs. So, that was the main reason we were doing that kind of stuff. It allowed us to open up a lot of things, because you could go with regular personnel and still fool the defense. It was hard for the defense to see the ball, whether you're handing off or faking it, and it really allowed us to do a lot of different things."
"When Damon and Brodie went down, I think L.J. was still on a suspension, and we were able to do the regular shotgun with Kolby Smith from Louisville and Jamaal Charles from Texas. But once that suspension was up, and Larry was back in the lineup, that's when we went more to the Pistol offense. Kolby and Jamaal were used to that zone type of running, where you press the side and make a cutback, or whatever the case may be -- whatever lane they've got. We tried running that offense for one or two weeks when Larry came back, and then we realized, 'Hey, he's not that kind of back.' That's when we changed to the downhill kind of running. The Pistol is really like an I-formation, whether you put the back in the near set or the far set."
Johnson missed Weeks 7 through 10 due to team deactivations and a one-game NFL suspension, and the Week 7 loss to the Tennessee Titans was the beginning of Thigpen's run as the starter. Croyle hurt his knee and Huard injured the thumb on his throwing hand. Chris Johnson had run wild on the Chiefs, who were 1-5 after the loss. Kansas City would lose their next three games with Thigpen at the helm, but things were about to get a lot more interesting.
In the Chiefs' 20-19 loss to the Chargers in Week 10, Thigpen threw 41 passes while the team rushed just 18 times, and this was perhaps the most evolved version of the team's passing attack all year. He led the team to a 95-yard touchdown drive on Kansas City's first possession, operating primarily out of shotgun, single-back sets with three- and four-wide, and some bunch motion stuff to keep things lively. As Thigpen told me, this is when Tony Gonzalez made his biggest mark.
"It was definitely a great advantage, no matter what personnel you went with," Thigpen said. "Because if you went regular personnel, it was almost like you had three wides in the game. And if you had half personnel, which is three wides and a tight end, you really had four wides. A lot of times, when you have a tight end and you're matched up against nickel personnel, you have a 'backer on Tony Gonzalez, and you've got your advantage. If they wanted to go post high and put a safety on his side, it was one-on-one with guys like Dwayne Bowe and Mark Bradley and Devard Darling."
Before Thigpen and Johnson worked together in that backfield, the Chiefs ran base shotgun/zone looks most of the time as Thigpen said. It wasn't until Week 13 against the Raiders that the Chiefs really had the Pistol dialed in. In another close game that the Chiefs actually won, they had far more runs than passes (37 to 22), though several of Thigpen's 11 runs (totaling 48 yards) were predicated off the new system.
|Figure 1: Johnson's run|
Johnson's 15-yard run with 2:25 left in the game (Fig. 1) was a good example of how the Pistol cuts defensive read time, especially when any sort of delay is involved. On this play, Thigpen took just an extra moment before handing the ball to Johnson, which had linebacker Thomas Howard (53) over-pursuing inside as Johnson bounced outside right. Thigpen said that there were all kinds of effective schematic combinations.
"Whether it was a quarterback draw, a misdirection with a one-back offset, having the back go to the left and bringing him back to the right, it would look to the defense like a zone left run instead of a cutback to the right," he said. "The play action was really good, because you couldn't see the back, and whether he had the ball or not, with the offensive line up front. I remember a couple times, just running boots and faking to [the back], and it was just wide open when I came out on the boot. It was tough for the defensive end, when he's coming off the edge, to see whether you gave it or not. Normally, he has that advantage when you're coming out from under center to see whether you're close to the back or not -- what kind of fake it is."
To take Thigpen into the here and now, I asked him about the trade to Miami in 2009. He told me that one of the reasons the Dolphins made that move was that they'd had trouble against the Pistol in Week 16 of the 2008 season. He also said he's surprised that Gailey isn't using the Pistol more in Buffalo.
"I'm not sure what's going on up there," he said. "I saw a couple weeks ago where Ryan Fitzpatrick had about 70 yards rushing, so maybe they're doing that with him," Thigpen said. "I don't think he was one of those option guys where he ever read a defensive end, running the zone with him and pitching it off the outside 'backer. Those are some things we did from time to time. Maybe have two backs in the backfield, and one beside me to the right, and L.J. behind me, and run a zone with him."
In truth, 43 of the 74 rushing yards Fitzpatrick rang up against the Jets in Week 3 came on two fourth-quarter plays in which Rex Ryan was dialing up deep coverage and interesting blitzes. Fitzpatrick found the inevitable holes in those combinations. The quarterback situation in Buffalo had devolved to the point where Fitzpatrick appeared to be on orders to run at any sign of potential conflict. What the Bills were doing with Fitzpatrick was a Flintstones version of the stuff the Chiefs were running before Larry Johnson came back to the team in 2008.
The Jets, however, had developed their own ideas on how to use the Pistol to their advantage.
I asked Thigpen for some of his favorite ideas out of the Pistol. "Something like a 35 Weak where [the quarterback] reads the defensive end. If the end closes down on the halfback, you pull it in and pitch it off the outside linebacker. I know the Jets run it -- we saw them do it with Brad Smith when we were preparing to play them. It's tough for a defense because you have so many responsibilities. One guy has to get the dive, another has to get the quarterback, and another on the running back. And if one guy misses his assignment, you can slash them for yardage, as the Jets did on that one play with us."
|Figure 2: Brad Smith in the Pistol|
The play Thigpen was talking about (Fig. 2) happened at the start of the fourth quarter. The Jets had third-and-15 from the Miami 22, and Brad Smith took a direct snap out of a different type of pistol look. They went unbalanced line left, and at the snap, Smith gave the play-action fake to Shonn Greene, who plunged into the line. This caused left defensive end Cameron Wake (and both linebackers) to bite inside as Smith ran outside. By the time Wake recovered, he was out of the play. Safety Yeremiah Bell missed his tackle on Smith, and the really cool part of this play was the move that LaDainian Tomlinson put on the Miami defense.
At the snap, Tomlinson whirled around in a counterclockwise circle and ran parallel to Smith a few yards behind. And that took cornerback Jason Allen out of the play, because he was forced to watch and see if Smith might pitch it back to Tomlinson. It was a brilliant variation on the theme, and it gained the 16 yards needed for a first down.
You may have noticed another hidden (and extremely valuable) aspect of this option concept -- it allowed the line to ignore Wake, instead using combos on the other defensive linemen and sending center Nick Mangold up to the second level. Because the Jets knew they had Wake on a string, Smith (and the scheme) provided the additional protection.
The point of this particular Cover-3 series was to investigate the possibilities of the Pistol as an NFL-level offensive concept, not just a gimmick scheme adopted by desperate teams. So, I put the questions to Thigpen. First, is there enough formation diversity to keep defenses on their heels?
"I don't know. I think it could be run," he said. "I mean, the only thing that changed was me standing back in shotgun, and we called our plays the exact same way. The only thing you can't do is line a fullback up in I-formation. You probably could do that, but it's tough on the fullback with the formation distance. It was just me being in the shotgun and calling the plays the same way, whether it was 35 Base, or 36 Power, whatever the case may be.
"I think that's what teams do a lot -- they'll run different formations to get to the same exact play. That's the way you fool defenses. If you see a certain formation ... say it's bunch, and the defense is thinking toss. So maybe you motion to bunch with the 'Y' receiver up tight, and a fullback in the backfield, and in all actuality, that's a bunch play right there. There are so many different things you can do to mess with a defense. And a lot of the time, while you want to give the defense credit, you just have to know what you're doing and go out and execute it. We feel that as an offense, we can win those one-on-one matchups."
The elements of play action and power running separate the Pistol from the standard spread attack, which Thigpen caught onto pretty quickly.
"The play action part, where you could boot out of it -- for some reason, that gave defensive ends a lot of trouble," he said. "A play like Gun Zero Near Pistol, or 337 Roll Right Z Comeback, something like that. It was definitely about getting out of the pocket and putting stress on the defensive ends because they couldn't see if it was a good fake, and they're trying to close down on the runner. That allowed me to get out of the pocket and work our receiver one-on-one with the comeback.
"It wasn't an option read; I would turn my back. It would look like I was coming from the line of scrimmage when I was doing the fake, but I was catching the ball in shotgun. More times than not, I'd come out scot-free on it."
Now that he's in Miami, home to quarterbacks coach David Lee (the man who brought the Wildcat from Arkansas), Thigpen's primary concerns have to do with the fundamentals.
"Coach Lee has done a tremendous job working with me and specifically my lower body," he said. "When I get that right, it's very evident that I'm a lot more accurate. I came here in the middle of last season, and Coach Lee was like, 'Oh my gosh, I have so much work to do!' And it's tough to do that during the season, because you don't have time. He's got by far the best attention to detail of any quarterbacks coach I've ever had. He definitely knows how to coach the position, and he's played the position, so he understands."
Right now, Thigpen is behind the Two Chads (Henne and Pennington) on Miami's depth chart. He's thrown six passes all season, and he's a work in progress. But in that one odd way, he was on the vanguard of something that is actually starting to make inroads into the league. The Jets and Bills are running it occasionally, and the Lions are using an offset version with rookie back Jahvid Best about a yard behind Shaun Hill, who is standing at the four-yard depth. It will be interesting to see if Thigpen can find a way to get back to the field, and if the offense he once used most of the time gets more of a look as well. After all, he's been third on the depth chart before ... you just never know.
19 comments, Last at 16 Oct 2010, 4:43am by Jerry