Breaking Down the Pistol Offense: Why Is It So Effective?


Feb 3, 2013; New Orleans, LA, USA; San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick (7) scrambles during the first quarter against Baltimore Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs (55) in Super Bowl XLVII at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The pistol offense is the new craze in the NFL. It has defensive coordinators such as Dom Capers scrambling to the college ranks for answers. Quarterbacks such as Colin Kaepernick, Robert Griffin III and Cam Newton have effectively ran this offense, and Russell Wilson has done so in a limited time as well. There are some things that teams need to effectively run such an offense.

The first thing to consider when looking at the pistol offense is that the quarterback lines up four yards behind the line of scrimmage instead of the seven yard alignment that we see in the normal shotgun. This allows the quarterback to still have better vision of the field in passing plays. The running back lines up three yards behind the quarterback. The depth of the running back ends up being the same at seven yards, but he is behind the quarterback and not beside him like he is in the shotgun.

The pistol offers a lot more versatility in the running game than the shotgun. The base run plays like power, trap, lead and counter all work well. The added advantage is the read option. You will see the 49ers effectively use all of these running plays when you watch them. They are able to run these plays from a variety of formations using motions and personnel groupings that almost always create an angle block that allows for a clear running lane to be created.

The importance of a move tight end that can block such as Delanie Walker is really enhanced by the use of the pistol, which is one of the reasons why I am very high on the 49ers drafting Travis Kelce (out of Cincinnati) next week. The 49ers will at times use a traditional 12 personnel (two TE) package and motion the tight end outside just enough to get a clean arc release and go get the safety. Walker also allowed the 49ers to use a diamond formation with ace personnel (two TE, two WR, 1 RB). Walker would line up besides Kaepernick on the strong side between the guard and the tackle while the running back lines up behind Kaepernick.

The 49ers typically run their read-option out of this ace personnel, diamond alignment. The NFL, for the most part, is right-handed in that they run best to the right side. True to form, the 49ers run this to the right side. This isolates the defensive end. Walker takes on the linebacker who has the running back as his assignment as Anthony Davis blocks down on the tackle. Kaepernick will make a decision to either keep the ball or hand it off to the running back depending on what the defensive end does.

It is hard not to take the bait and chase the running back. If the defensive end does, Kaepernick will keep the ball and be off to the races for a big gain. If the defensive end stays at home, Kaepernick will hand the ball off to the running back who will have a clear path if Delanie Walker gets a good block on the linebacker. The 49ers run this play almost to perfection.

In base running plays, the handoffs are closer to the line of scrimmage than they are from the shotgun. However, the handoffs are also deeper than pro style formations. This gives the running back a chance to really see the play develop. Frank Gore is the perfect running back for running out of the pistol. He is known across the NFL as a very patient back that lets the blocks set up. The pistol allows him to let the blocks set up and often times he will read the safety or linebackers’ attack point. If they attack inside he will bounce it out, if they attack outside he will simply cut it back in. That’s how he sets his blocks up. This kind of patience is exactly what LaMichael James had to learn and it kept him from playing a lot in the beginning of the season.

Running plays in the shotgun formation typically are to the running backs’ side unless its some sort of misdirection play such as a counter or a play that has a designed cutback. The pistol opens up more options because running plays can equally go to either side of the quarterback. Yes, most teams including the 49ers are right handed, meaning they run mostly to the right side but the option is still there to go either way.

So, that whole discussion was about one way to run the ball from the pistol offense. We still didn’t talk about the passing game. Now do you see why defensive coordinators can’t sleep before they play the 49ers? Having a dual threat quarterback like Kaepernick only makes it even worse for opposing defenses. A lot of assignments are given to the defensive players.

The linebackers and safeties are often assigned to the running backs and to Kaepernick. Play action passes work so well because the play fake will freeze the linebacker or safety just enough for Vernon Davis or Michael Crabtree to get open on crossing routes. A lot of times the safeties will crash down into the box on what seems to be running plays while Kaepernick throws the ball to his receivers running a dagger route right to the spot that the safety was pulled from.

Kaepernick is so fast that teams will devise a game plan specifically to keep him contained and not break long runs like he did against the Packers in the playoffs. The Falcons tried to do this in the NFC Championship and ended up paying for it. Vernon Davis was able to average 21 yards per catch in that game. The same thing happened in the Super Bowl against the Ravens.

Crabtree and Vernon Davis both had over 100 yards receiving and Kaepernick passed for over 300 yards. Walker also had a couple of long catches. If you notice, a lot of that work was done in the middle of the field with Ray Lewis and Bernard Pollard as the closest defenders. Both of these guys are thumpers who like to play the run. Neither of them are athletic enough to cover the 49er receivers and both were boggled down with their assignment against the run.

This is just a small part of the 49ers’ pistol offense. Many get caught up in the read option like as if it is the full offensive system. That would not be correct. The main thing to remember is that the pistol offense gives a lot of flexibility. The threat to run is just as great as the threat to pass. Kaepernick’s speed forces teams to commit fast. Greg Roman has done a great job of incorporating plays that have so many options. Take a look back at some of the 49er games and watch how confused the 49ers make their opponents look at times. Unfortunately as Greg Roman said, the 49ers are just getting started. Expect to see even more wrinkles from Roman and the 49ers in 2013.