Cover-3: Saturday Night Special

Cover-3: Saturday Night Special
Cover-3: Saturday Night Special
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Doug Farrar

"When I presented this to my staff, they looked at me as if I had lost my marbles."

That was the reaction to the birth of the Pistol offense, created in 2005 by head coach Chris Ault of the Nevada Wolf Pack. Ault was trying to strike a balance between the ever-increasing shotgun spread concepts he was seeing in the NCAA and the vertical running game he deemed crucial to success at any level. Ault was a quarterback at Nevada from 1965 to 1968, and his offensive theories have helped make him as one of five active FBS coaches with over 200 wins.

"I coach the quarterbacks at the University of Nevada, and I love to throw the football," Ault told a Nike Coach of the Year Clinic in 2009. "From 1993 through 1996, we led the country, one way or another, in throwing the football." That said, Ault had to bring it back around. "We have always been a north-and-south running game offense. We led the country in rushing this year [2009], and the year before that, we were third in the country."

The vehicle Ault would use for this radical transformation came to him in early 2005, and he implemented it that year.

"I brought the staff together, and I told them that this is what I want to look at during spring practice," Ault told his fellow coaches. "I want to move the quarterback 4.5 yards off the ball in the shotgun set. We want our deep back to line up seven to 7.5 yards from the center. I wanted to know if we could move the quarterback off the line and still be able run our offense (Fig. 1)."

Figure 1: The Pistol Offense

The thought process behind the distance from center of the skill players became clear to Ault as he worked with the formation through those first practices.
"I started calling the offense the Pistol -- the quarterback was the trigger, and the deep back was the hammer of the pistol," he said. "We took the kids out on the field and ran all the tests on the depth of the back. We lined the tailback up three yards behind the quarterback (who was then 7.5 yards behind center). It was difficult to see the running back directly behind the quarterback three yards away. At five yards away, the linebackers could see the running back better. By having him seven yards deep, we can get the ball to him deeper than we would if the quarterback was under center."

Ault and his staff kept working on the theory, tied it to a zone running game, and unleashed it on college football that year. In that first season, the Wolf Pack went from a 5-7 record in 2004 to a 9-3 record (and a victory in the Hawaii Bowl) in 2005. Since the implementation of the Pistol, Ault's teams have never missed a bowl game. This season, they stand at 5-0.

New Damage
California Golden Bears 31 at Nevada Wolf Pack 52
September 17, 2010

"The first thing it helps with is that it removes any keys the defense can get from the alignment of the running back," Chris Brown of the indispensable Smart Football site told me when I asked him about the primary advantages of the Pistol (Chris has also written very well about this particular subject).

"If the runner is to the quarterback's left, any run play will probably be to the right," Brown said. "From the Pistol, the run could go in either direction. Moreover, the runner is deeper and set in the middle, so he can more closely emulate the downhill actions he'd take from under center. Relatedly, play-action can look more like traditional play action -- and thus hopefully be as effective as traditional play action -- than from the normal shotgun where everything looks more like a flash fake than anything else."

This was never more evident than when Ault took apart a Cal defense, that ranks ninth in Defensive S&P+, a few Fridays ago. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick ran for three touchdowns and passed for two more, as Ault displayed the difference in complexity between the Pistol formation (as it's often called) and the Pistol offense (which is what Ault calls it). As with the Wildcat, the Pistol concept has been marginalized to a degree -- not so much as a gimmick, but as a simple string of offensive ideas with an obvious stopping point. But after this game, Cal head coach Jeff Tedford had a different take. "Their offense is so tough," he said. "I think they can run that offense against anyone. They know what they are doing and they're hard to stop."

The first thing that stands out to me about the Pistol -- in this game and when I've seen it before -- 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 whomp them upside the head with "B."

Figure 2: Tray Session's Touchdown

The 15-yard touchdown pass from Kaepernick to Tray Session that opened the game's scoring (Fig. 2) 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 quickside end and our backside tackle."

Again, in Ault's hands, this is a fully functional offense -- not a subset of something else. And it's the combination of power and aerial explosiveness that makes it a legitimate high-percentage addition to a playbook. Still, even those who have inserted the Pistol formation (not the offense) in their game plans don't always seem entirely convinced.

Crimson and Clover
Alabama Crimson Tide 24 at Arkansas Razorbacks 20
September 25, 2010

Before the BCS Championship Game last season, NCAA rules required Alabama to break its "one voice policy" -- that Nick Saban is the only coach who talks to the media. Offensive coordinator Jim McElwain was asked why he stopped using the pistol offense, and he replied, "I just got bored."

"There's only so much there -- all we're doing is moving the running back slightly," said Chris Brown of Smart Football. "When Bill Walsh or the Miami teams of the '70s used to go from split backs to a 'near' or 'far' formation (the halfback lines up offset but the fullback moves behind the quarterback), nobody said it was an entirely new offense. There are things that are easier (veer reads, fewer defensive keys), and tougher things (in pass protection against dog blitz up the middle, the running back has to step around the quarterback to make the block). To me, it's still just part of your repertoire but not the foundation for an entire philosophy."

That said, the Pistol has become a key part of several college offenses -- Rick Neuheisel's UCLA squad is perhaps the most popular example of a recent convert -- and the allegedly bored Alabama team used it in a statement game against the Razorbacks.

Figure 3: Ingram's Touchdown Run

With 6:21 left in the first quarter, the Tide had the ball on the Arkansas 46-yard line with first-and-10. At the snap (Fig. 3), quarterback Greg McElroy didn't engage in any sleight of hand -- he held the ball straight out for running back Mark Ingram, and Ingram took it up the strong-side A-gap, where slide protection had blown a hole wide open, for the 64-yard touchdown. Arkansas had this one defended pretty well. They brought six to the line and used a safety for a run fill, but Alabama stood Arkansas' linemen up and opened that huge lane.

Shotgun flexibility and pro-set power were mixed perfectly once again. How tedious!

Do the Evolution
Kansas City Chiefs 20 at Oakland Raiders 13
November 30, 2008

Of course, the next question is whether the Pistol can be used at a championship level in the NFL -- the ultimate laboratory for every supposedly "hare-brained" college idea. Brown, who has spent years following offensive trends as they spring up at the collegiate level, said that "the Pistol is most useful as a way to marry shotgun spread concepts, traditionally option ones like the veer, and power run concepts like those popular in the NFL. To commit to the pistol you'd need a reason to marry them, and the pro guys mostly stick to the latter."

Sometimes, desperation is the mother of invention. Chan Gailey, who is 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 DVOA read like a JaMarcus Russell career retrospective: -39.5%, -49.5%, -86.7%, -13.0%, and -75.3%. The five games after the team's Week 6 bye, when Thigpen had taken the reins and the Pistol was in full effect: 32.1%, 39.0%, 51.2%, 18.4%, -5.8%. And against a Raiders defense that had seen a fairly epic 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.

"There's no reason not to use the Pistol, but less compelling reasons to use it," Brown said. "Any NFL coach who refuses to use it is being backwards and closed-minded, but I'm not sure how much help it will give a team, beyond just shuffling the running back around pre-snap as is common already. That said, maybe there's another wrinkle I'm missing. Football is always evolving."

And that evolution is precisely why I think the Pistol needs to 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. When Michael Vick is running the Eagles' offense again, why not use this as a different option to further confuse the defenses trying to catch up? And certainly, when the Miami Dolphins were running their "three yards and a cloud of fail" offense against the Patriots in the second half of a blowout loss last Monday, why wasn't Thigpen, who only came in for garbage time, allowed to try something ... anything with Ricky Williams in a different look?

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.

Before the season started, I hypothesized over at Yahoo! Sports 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.


9 comments, Last at 03 Nov 2010, 10:20pm

#1 by Dean // Oct 06, 2010 - 12:09pm

Wouldn't Ingram have run through the 1-hole? Defensive players monitor lettered gaps. Offensive players run through numbered holes.

Points: 0

#3 by puffbronfman // Oct 06, 2010 - 12:55pm

Great article, as usual.

I charted the 2nd half of the Dolphins-Bills game from week 1, and the Bills used the Pistol once in that game, with the added wrinkle of using a 2 RB set of Spiller behind Trent Edwards and Fred Jackson to Edwards' left. I wonder if we'll see more of that formation now that they've made the switch to Fitzpatrick, who's fairly mobile but not a good QB. I know I certainly would - it's not like they're going anywhere this year anyway.

Points: 0

#4 by Doug Farrar // Oct 06, 2010 - 4:26pm

Thanks. About when did that happen on the clock? I'd like to go abck and check that out.

Points: 0

#6 by lionsbob // Oct 07, 2010 - 11:17am

The Lions actually used the Pistol offense this year against the Bears as well and I know it is something they have been working on.

Points: 0

#7 by Doug Farrar // Oct 07, 2010 - 12:38pm

Thanks! Any more examples of the Pistol anyone's seen this year, please let me know in the comments. I'd like to do a follow-up later in the season.

Points: 0

#8 by Andy (not verified) // Oct 19, 2010 - 11:34am

The Lions used it again, in spots, vs the Giants Sunday.

Points: 0

#9 by Ryan (not verified) // Nov 03, 2010 - 10:20pm

Lions used it again against the Redskins, so it seems to be something more than just a little experiment (like the one wildcat play they used this season).

Points: 0

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