Film Room: Lamar Jackson and the Pistol

Film Room: Lamar Jackson and the Pistol
Film Room: Lamar Jackson and the Pistol
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Derrik Klassen

It is no secret that Lamar Jackson brings a different flavor to Baltimore's offense than Joe Flacco does. Jackson is an all-time great athlete for the position, whereas Flacco resembles a sentient phone booth. The quarterback run threat was bound to expand with Jackson at the helm, but offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg has gone to great lengths to lean into Jackson's skill set, making extensive use of the pistol formation.

The pistol is similar to the shotgun formation in that the quarterback is lined up a few yards removed from the center, but rather than having a running back beside him, the running back is a few yards behind him. It is a blend of shotgun and traditional under-center formations. Chris Ault, head coach of Nevada at the time, pioneered the pistol offense in 2004, and the "new" offense finally came to the national spotlight when Colin Kaepernick ran the offense under Ault in the early 2010s.

In short, the pistol allows an offense to operate like a spread passing offense and a downhill, mirrored rushing offense at the same time. Likewise, the pistol formation can also open up the offense to pullers and different option plays in a way that may be tougher to execute out of shotgun, where the running back's rush paths are tighter to the line of scrimmage. Much like any traditional under-center offense, the pistol can be tweaked to 10 or 11 personnel as well as heavier 12, 21, and 22 personnel looks. It is as versatile as the offense wishes it to be.

Over the past two games, Baltimore has become a pistol offense. Pro Football Reference credits the Ravens with 139 offensive plays (kneeldowns not included) through the past two weeks, and I personally charted 60 of those plays as starting in the pistol formation. The offense hardly ever went to pistol when Flacco was starting, but the pistol has more or less become the team's base offense with Jackson playing. Even when Jackson was only coming in for occasional package plays, the Ravens turned to the pistol.

The following table shows the personnel Baltimore has used in its pistol formations, broken down by runs and passes:

Ravens Personnel in Pistol
Formations, Weeks 11 & 12
Personnel Runs Passes Total
10 1 0 1
11 14 3 17
12 9 2 11
13 1 1 2
20 5 0 5
21 7 0 7
22 12 2 14
30 2 0 2
12u 0 1 1
TOTAL 51 9 60

While at Louisville, Jackson operated a fair amount out of pistol looks. Louisville was more of a 10 and 11 personnel squad, while Baltimore currently leans more on heavier formations, but many of the same philosophies and concepts apply either way. Adding familiarity for Jackson out of the pistol is a healthy change to Baltimore's offense.

Among a handful of other concepts, arc read is a deadly rushing play out of the pistol. Arc read is effectively a zone read play, but with split-action from a tight end or H-back, rather than traditional inside zone. Kaepernick's Nevada highlights are littered with shots of him keeping the ball on this concept and torching Mountain West defenses up and down the field.

Baltimore is in a two-back set with a single tight end on this play. (Nick Boyle, nominally a tight end, is playing H-back/fullback.) The defensive end circled in orange is the read key for Jackson during the hand-off exchange. During the handoff exchange, the H-back lined up by Jackson's side will cross the formation and the read player's face, looping around the edge to meet the outside linebacker at the second level. Assuming Jackson makes the correct read and the H-back can get around the edge in time, Jackson should be sprung free out of this look.

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As designed, Jackson keeps the ball because the defensive end (read key) shuffles inside to defend the running back. Jackson is able to get to the edge and pick up 8 yards without even taking a hit. While arc read can be plenty effective out of shotgun, putting the running back farther away from the defensive end via alignment and path can coax the defender into following the back instead of playing the mesh point.

Later in the Cincinnati game, the Ravens doubled down on their heavy-personnel pistol formations with a "diamond" look in a third-and-short situation. Pistol diamond, or "full house," puts one running back behind the quarterback with two other running backs, tight ends, or H-backs on either side of him, creating the diamond alignment. This formation is specifically great in short-yardage situations because the abundance of players throughout the backfield presents the defense with a handful of potentially moving blockers and run gaps.

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Again, the Ravens turn to arc read, but this time with an added blocker to the outside. In essence, the play becomes more of a sweep than a true arc play, but the goal remains the same: read the end man on the line of scrimmage and take out linebackers with an H-back coming across the formation. Though the play does not go for an explosive gain, Jackson picks up enough to move the sticks and keep the drive alive.

To layer on top of this newfound creativity in the ground through the pistol formation, the Ravens have also opened up their play-action passing game a bit. No, their play-action is not necessarily more successful because the team is running the ball more effectively, but adding the pistol to the team's arsenal adds another wrinkle and formation for defenses to think about. When Mornhinweg turns to deep shot plays out of the pistol, the results can be devastating, and it appears the Ravens are only scratching the surface in that department.

This play-action play blends a high-low levels concept to the left side of the formation with two vertical routes from the tight ends to the right side, not unlike one of Peyton Manning's favorite concepts back in the day. In theory, the short in route should be taken any time it is available pre-snap. However, Oakland is playing press coverage with a two-deep shell on the back end, which may signal either an aggressive quarters or Cover-2 look.

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Just before the snap, Jackson peeks to the left and sees the press coverage on the receiver set to run the short in. Jackson then calls for the snap, fakes the hand-off, and proceeds to confirm, or reassess if necessary, the coverage as his receivers go out into their routes. Jackson scans both safeties, from left to right, and sees both of them playing deep-half assignments. With that information, Jackson knows he has a one-one-one down the right sideline to tight end Mark Andrews. Jackson turns to Andrews and rips the ball more than 30 yards in the air as a pass-rusher pushes into his lap, leading Andrews perfectly to enable him to run after the catch. In one play, the Ravens went 74 yards to go from backed up inside their own 15-yard line to the opposing red zone.

This is a good concept for any quarterback, but it's a perfect fit for Jackson. At Louisville, Jackson became plenty familiar with play-action out of pistol and aggressive full-field passing concepts. Had the coverage called for it, Jackson would have been just as comfortable taking the 7 or so yards from the short in route, but he knew he had to go elsewhere on this particular play. Concepts such as this should pop up more and more as Jackson is eased into a heavier burden as a passer.

The caveat to Baltimore's pistol-based offense is that it typically gets phased out when the team is either in hurry-up or clear passing situations. This is not because the pistol is bad for those situations, per se, but shotgun formations can more easily allow for simple six-man protections with the running back, or allow the back to get into quicker checkdown routes. Rather than using the pistol all the time, Baltimore has more leaned on it as their base offense, then turned primarily to the shotgun when necessary. Though it looks a little different, this is similar to the Dallas Cowboys being an under-center, run-oriented offense that leans on the shotgun when passing is absolutely necessary.

Jackson still has a ways to go to become a top-flight quarterback, just like the rest of his rookie peers, but he is being deployed in an exciting, refreshing fashion. As the Ravens prepare to face three of the worst defenses in the league over the next three weeks (the Falcons, Chiefs, and Buccaneers), tracking Baltimore's usage and expansion of their pistol offense will be a fun mini-game for NFL fans to play as they watch Jackson come into his own. For the first time in years, Baltimore's offense is worth keeping an eye on and is at the forefront of an ever-developing NFL landscape.


9 comments, Last at 04 Dec 2018, 5:12pm

4 Re: Film Room: Lamar Jackson and the Pistol

I'm curious how much of this is Greg Roman's doing. He's currently the tight ends coach for the Ravens, but he was the offensive coordinator during Colin Kaepernick's best SF years and for (some of?) Tyrod Taylor's time in Buffalo.

7 Re: Film Room: Lamar Jackson and the Pistol

thanks for the write-up. haven't been too many noteworthy rushing QBs in the AFC so i haven't been paying much attention trying to learn these concepts. since 2000, AFC QBs only had 100 rushing attempts in a season twice (Tebow 2011 and Tyrod Taylor 2015) whereas it happened 16 times in the NFC.