Tyrod Taylor and the Pistol
An old friend of the pistol has reemerged as its new champion. The Tyrod Taylor-led Houston Texans look to be sudden believers in the pistol philosophy. Taylor is used to pistol formations thanks to his time back in Buffalo with Greg Roman in 2015 and 2016, but it has been a while since he was a consistent starter, so it was a bit tough to predict what this Houston offense was going to be with him behind center. Offensive coordinator Tim Kelly took it upon himself to shape the offense towards Taylor's comfort from the pistol, and boy did he do it well in Week 1.
The Texans ran 32% of their plays out of pistol formations on Sunday per ESPN's Stats and Info. That was the highest in the league (by far) for any team outside of Baltimore (45%). Kelly does not get credit from me just for volume, though. It was Kelly's clear plan in evolving the offense's use of pistol formations throughout the game to keep the defense on their toes that made this performance special. Truthfully, the Texans do not have the horses on offense to put up 37 points every week even with Kelly's thoughtful gameplanning around the pistol, but Week 1 was a glimpse at how well Kelly can put his players in a comfortable position through avenues most other teams refuse to explore.
The first handful of Houston's pistol plays were nothing special. Kelly started off with a few inside runs without any moving parts. No pullers, no split action, no quarterback run threat, just slamming it up the middle to get a feel for the defense. The vanilla approach initially gave me pause that Kelly might end up in the Jim Bob Cooter realm of predictable play calling from the pistol, but he quickly evolved over the next few drives. On a second-and-10 during their second drive, the Texans finally got some other pieces moving.
Moving the quarterback out of the pocket off of split-zone action is hardly anything new. It has been around longer than I have been alive, and every team in the NFL does it to some degree now. It is a great way to present safe, simple passing options and change up protection plans. Hitting the flat route to the tight end sliding across the formation is the goal of the play, but if that gets covered, as it does here, that usually means the quarterback gets a one-on-one with an edge defender who is forced to respect the run action. That is a nice matchup for an offense with a mobile quarterback.
The pistol, thanks to having the quarterback take the snap from depth, adds another layer to that by allowing Taylor to keep his eyes on the play side the whole time. Taylor can get a head start on reading things out compared to traditional under-center boot plays. Faking the handoff from this alignment also simulates option in a way that under-center boot plays can not.
Of course, the hard run fake from under center may be more convincing on its own, but a credible quarterback run threat such as Taylor is going to force edge defenders into a pickle as well. The point of emphasizing the pistol's value over under-center formations is not so much about which flavor of this play is better—the Texans use both—but that this team has a change-up other teams do not. That matters.
Houston kicked off their next drive with some quick play-action. This glance route Taylor hits is the same thing Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay love to feed their quarterbacks, especially when paired with the tight end coming across the formation to show split-zone. But it is more than just about showing split-zone for Houston. When paired with the previous clip, Houston has now given different run looks centered around the split-zone action. The first example had the quarterback turning into the side the tight end was going to and threatening a handoff through the backside of the zone blocking scheme, whereas this clip has Taylor turning to threaten the handoff into the frontside of the blocking scheme and away from the tight end like a more traditional split-zone look.
Kelly also adds the extra eye candy of the wide receiver looping behind the quarterback on an end-around path. Seeing as the pistol can be a less convincing run look than under-center formations on its own (in part because it is harder to hide the ball), throwing in an extra moving part to coax defenders into coming down and away from the glance route is a nice bow on top of this concept. This play is a good example of Kelly taking elements of a previous play, tweaking it enough to force hesitation from the defense, and adding another, entirely new wrinkle to drive that hesitation home.
Two plays later, after a 25-yard completion to tight end Pharaoh Brown, the Texans started digging a little deeper into their bag of run concepts from pistol. Rather than zone concepts, Houston turned to their power run game inside the red zone. Getting into power concepts at all was a nice change for the Texans, but how they did it made it all the more interesting.
The Texans are in 13 personnel for this play (one running back, three tight ends, one receiver). They had not done too much out of 13 personnel to that point, which makes it tougher for the Jags to get a read on what they might be lining up in coming off the sideline and out of the huddle. Two of the tight ends line up attached to the formation (Jordan Akins, 88, and Anthony Auclair, 83) on the left side into the boundary, while the third, Brown (85), begins in the slot to the right. Taylor motions Brown across, which might trigger the Jaguars into thinking split-zone is on the way, only to pull the right guard (Max Scharping, 74) with him at the snap and run power into the boundary.
Jaguars defensive end K'Lavon Chaisson (45) pulls off a weird circus trick by splitting both pullers instead of just taking on the guard, but his miraculous ability to get into open grass does not negate the quality of the play call. If Chaisson had taken on the guard, like a normal person, Houston would still have had this blocked up and gotten running back Mark Ingram into the hole against a defensive back, same as they did later on in this game with this same concept from a different look.
Kelly's offense kept their evolution of pistol use rolling into the next drive with a pair of passing plays. One was a riff off of a previous look in the game, while the other helped set up a run later on.
Houston's formation on this play is similar to the second clip from earlier in the article. The personnel grouping is heavier and the spacing of the bunch formation is flatter in this example, but it still presents a familiar look to the defense. Again like the second clip, the Texans run a play-action concept with only two receivers. This time they changed the run action to a more vanilla zone look, as they were running to start the game, rather than having someone come across the field, but the familiar formation and run action was enough to keep the Jaguars' pass rush from hitting the gas pedal to get to Taylor. The slowed-down pass rush gave Taylor a squeaky-clean pocket to find Brandin Cooks (13) working cornerback CJ Henderson (23) at the top of the screen.
Later that drive, the Texans dipped into their true dropback concepts from pistol. Their pistol passing approach to that point had been all about play-action, so calling some true dropback as a curveball was a nice call.
This is a four-strong passing concept that really just works like the Spot concept with a second receiver running a snag route to the inside. It is a good design that can catch teams not ready to match an overloaded side of the field. The design itself is not what is sexy here, but rather that Kelly found a new pitch to go to, as mentioned, and put this formation in the defense's mind so he could go to it with something else later in the game.
And here is that "something else." This is the same formation as before, but this time the Texans motion their tight end into the slot across the field to get him blocking power into the weak side of the formation. The red zone clip from before also had a tight end from the slot coming across to block power, but in that case, he was working weak to strong. Now Kelly has given the Jaguars the same spread-out look as a previous dropback pass, only to turn to a run concept they initially ran out of 13 personnel into a two-tight end surface.
That thoughtful blending of formations and concepts without getting too deep into one's own tendencies is how an offense generates consistent yardage. Good offenses find ways to stay ahead of the defense, and this appears to be Kelly's way of doing that.
Unfortunately for Houston, these 30-plus-point performances are not going to last. The Jaguars defense is horrible and particularly susceptible to some of Kelly's craftiness. Houston's run blocking and stable of running backs also still looked somewhat uninspiring despite how well Kelly teed things up for them, and it is probably fair to assume they will get less movement up front versus more competent defensive lines. There will not be a Jihad Ward on the opposite starting defensive line every week.
Still, all Texans fans can appreciate some signs of life from an offensive creativity standpoint after how stale most of the Bill O'Brien era was. Kelly is a familiar face in Houston, taking over as coordinator in 2019, but this was his first full offseason without O'Brien hovering around him, and we are already seeing what a difference that has made. That Week 1 game plan was as good as any for Kelly to prove his case as being a diamond in the rough and that the Texans may be scrappier than most of us imagined.