Football Outsiders
Innovative Statistics, Intelligent Analysis

Cover-3: Way of the Gun

Cover-3: Way of the Gun
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

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.

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

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.

New York Jets 31 at Miami Dolphins 23
September 26, 2010

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

1 Re: Cover-3: Way of the Gun

Good article, thanks.

Here is the Brad Smith run

18 Re: Cover-3: Way of the Gun

Thanks for the link. It always fun to watch to a play after understanding exactly how it's supposed to work.

Captcha: oriental conehats...umm, is that PC?

2 Re: Cover-3: Way of the Gun

Awesome article. I don't think I've ever seen a current player talk X's and O's like this at any other site.

3 Re: Cover-3: Way of the Gun

Wonderful article Doug. I think this is best interview and use of the interviewee you've had so far.

It would be nice if you translated the play-calls though. 337 means something like slant-slant-corner route right? So I'm guessing the two left most receivers run slants across the field while the next guy runs a corner above the receiver running the comeback? The the QB rolls to his right, where all the receivers are heading towards.

If a team wanted to run behind a fullback couldn't they line him up next to the QB like where Green is in the Smith run?

Also, if the 49ers are going to continue with Alex Smith, they need to use the pistol. Well, they don't need to, but I really want them to. Smith sucks under center, Gore is a "downhill" runner. The only reason not to is lack of creativity.

Final thought: I'm consistently surprised by how poor some NFL coaches are. No one in Kansas City noticed that Thigpen's lower body mechanics were terrible? What was the QB coach doing?

4 Re: Cover-3: Way of the Gun

You might want the niners to use the pistol, I might want the niners to use the pistol, it might make sense for the niners to use the pistol but it ain't going to happen. Captain Caveman wants the niners to run up the middle from an I-formation. He thinks that if a team can run up the gut when the opposition are trying to stop them then that team will win. He's correct, but that too isn't going to happen in the modern NFL and the niners aren't that good.

Have a look at this article from Eric Branch:

The first play of every game has been a run up the middle, the first eight first downs of the Eagles game were runs up the middle, those eight first down runs against Philly totalled five yards and a fumble.

As the great Bobby Gillespie once said:
'Cry, cry cry cry, cry cry cry, I'm gonna cry myself blind'

5 Re: Cover-3: Way of the Gun

Comparing that play calling to the 85 Bears is an insult to Mike Ditka. Not even with Walter Payton did he run into the middle of the line every damn 1st down.

I think Singletary has within him the ability to be a good coach, but his obsession with running up the gut will be his downfall.

7 Re: Cover-3: Way of the Gun

I've read you complain about this a bit and, certainly, the strategy didn't work, but outside runs are generally a worse idea against the Eagles defense. The have great contain discipline and are built for speed (not power) so very few runs that attempts to stretch laterally have any success against them. Even if it didn't work, the best thing to do against the Eagles are up the middle runs (although, traps, counters and draws seem to do the most damage, rather than just plowing forward from the I.)

I'd say it wasn't even a terrible strategy on Sunday because Mikell & Bradley kept creeping up into run support in the middle, which allowed SF to exploit the middle of the field with deep passes to Davis later on. The story for how to beat this Eagles defense really is "pound the middle, make them focus on the power-rushing game and then bomb it to the TE." And EVERYONE has had success doing that this year, SF included.

9 Re: Cover-3: Way of the Gun

Well I'm sorry if I'm boring you but the niners are limiting their own chances. This wasn't just about the Eagles, it's been a constant for the whole season. Singletary couldn't hire an offensive coordinator because he insisted on overcommitting to running inside.

10 Re: Cover-3: Way of the Gun

Completely agree about that last sentence.

BTW chemical, I hope that like me you are looking forward to that great matchup : King Dunlap vs John Abraham.

15 Re: Cover-3: Way of the Gun

I'd be more bummed about King Dunlap starting if Peters hadn't been abused all season long. At least there is not any illusion that Dunlap does not need chip-block help. I still am baffled why Peters has such a huge reputation - and even made the Pro Bowl last year. He's no great shakes. And watching D'Brickashaw stonewall Allen on Monday, "All I could think is, now that's a left tackle worth paying big bucks."

13 Re: Cover-3: Way of the Gun

Just the week before Eagles were terrible against the Redskins on the outside runs.
And for SF inside runs did not work against Eagles (or any other except Saints). I don't think bomb it to the TE part worked for SF either. Vernon Davis did not have a catch until the last few minutes of the first half. Other TE (Byham) did not have a catch entire game.
The first catch by Davis in the middle was halfway in the fourth quarter.
You may be correct about "pound the middle, make them focus on the power-rushing game then bomb it to the TE." may in general work against the Eagles but you are wrong that SF had success with it.

14 Re: Cover-3: Way of the Gun

I don't remember many outside runs working against the Eagles in the Washington game - certainly, they were over-shadowed by Torrain going off tackle over and over and running directly through Ernie Sims, Akeem Jordan, Quintin Mikell and Nate Allen (like a gorilla rips through wet paper, you might say "cordon blue.")

The late game exploitation of passes to the middle of the field is exactly THE ONLY THING that worked for SF against the Eagles. You are right that it did not work until the end of the game... but there's no denying it worked.

16 Re: Cover-3: Way of the Gun

So you are saying that 3.5 quarters of unsuccessful inside runs were the reason that half a quarter of passes in the middle of field to Vernon were successful. Even though most of those passes came when they were running no-huddle hurry up offense where Eagles knew that 49ers were going to pass and despite ALL of the passes Vernon caught were from shotgun. Go check the game book. That sounds quite suspect to me. I think you are trying to fit the reality to your preconceptions.

The late game passes to the middle of the field was not really the only thing that worked for SF. SF was able to gain yards before, they did not turn them into points due to turnovers and the two fumbles were also during inside runs.

I am going to say not only the inside runs did not work for SF, they were terrible both in terms of putting the team in long yardage situations and in resulting in turnovers and had no role whatsoever in the success of passing game.

As I said that strategy may be good in general against Eagles but it did not help 49ers at all.

11 Re: Cover-3: Way of the Gun

Captain Caveman indeed.

That Sunday night game with the Alex Smith plotline was riveting. I get that he makes boneheaded plays way too often, but with that athleticism and moxie you can't tell me Alex Smith isn't at least an average NFL QB. I don't understand why he is hated so much by that fan base, and I don't understand why Singletary handles him the way he does.

8 Re: Cover-3: Way of the Gun

"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.""


More seriously, I really love the interview part of this year. Great addition.