Looking Into The Pistol
New terms like “Read option” and “Pistol” have been introduced to the average football fan’s vocabulary. With anything new, there is a period of adjustment that is to be expected. It seemed like only yesterday that successful NFL offenses were slinging the football all over the field and a glorified 7-on-7 drill was the future of the game. Quarterbacks like Drew Brees, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady would gather as much information pre-snap as they could, create as much space as possible for their receivers and then attack the most vulnerable defender or area of the field. That style of offense certainly hasn’t gone away but there is a new kid on the block and he isn’t going away either.
By nature, people avoid change and don’t want to be taken out of their comfort zone. Although they know this can be a professional hazard, coaches are people too but they need to be prepared to adjust to anything they may encounter during a game. The ability or inability of NFL defenses to stop the read option attack was a popular story line during the 2012 season. Teams like the Rams and Seahawks did a commendable job while most teams can sympathize with the bewildered Packers during their playoff game at San Francisco. There were only a handful of teams that made this part of their offense but defensive coordinators will definitely be focusing on how to stop it during the off-season.
The success of the read option cannot be attributed to just one factor. However the most critical component is a quarterback who not only can run the ball well but is also a consistently accurate passer. Players like Robert Griffin III, Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson and Cam Newton fit those requirements. This offense seems like it may be the best fit for a player like Tim Tebow but without game-breaking speed and passing efficiency he probably couldn’t move his offense quite like the aforementioned quarterbacks. For example, during the NFC Championship game the Falcons made a concerted effort to limit Kaepernick when he decided to keep the ball. He didn’t run for many yards but the attention paid to him opened up lanes for LaMichael James and Frank Gore. The threat at the line of scrimmage also opened up the passing game and the 49ers took full advantage. A dynamic quarterback allowed the 49ers to place enormous pressure on the Falcons defense.
For years offensive coordinators have been looking to find the weak link on the other side of the ball. Or they focus on placing a defender in conflict and then attack that player. Therefore following Sun Tzu’s theory, and I am paraphrasing, “never attack walled cities”. What we have witnessed with the read option running game paired with a dangerous passing attack is that multiple defenders are placed in to conflict and they are left to play a very vanilla defense or in some cases just guess and hope for the best. The traditional NFL rushing attack was basically a 10 on 11 proposition with the quarterback not being overly involved other than carrying out a good fake after the handoff. The read option evens up those odds and the defense now has another player to account for whether it is as a running threat or a potential blocker.
One of the most overlooked aspects of any sport is line play in football. The “skill” players get much of the attention and credit, but most games are won or lost up front with the big uglies. If your offensive linemen are losing their individual battles it doesn’t really matter what strategy you employ to move the football. Ideally, offensive coordinators want to block the most defenders with as few offensive players as possible. With classic run-based schemes like the Wing-T, coaches give their players as much of an advantage as they can by creating blocking angles, trap blocks and just not blocking certain players who weren’t deemed a threat at the point of attack. The read option helps the line by actually allowing a defensive player to go completely unblocked. That defender is now the “read” guy. This seemingly passive tactic will free up a lineman to double a superior defender or get up to block a player at the next level, typically a linebacker. If run properly, the “read” defender can never be right and he is eliminated from the play. Even with one less player to block at the line of scrimmage, the offensive line still must perform effectively for an offense to move the ball with any consistency.
On the game’s biggest stage the 49ers will be displaying their version of the pistol formation and the read option attack that they utilize with quarterback Colin Kaepernick. The Ravens defense has had two weeks to prepare. During the season, Baltimore’s defense had a subpar afternoon against RGIII and the Redskins. However, the Raven’s defense has been playing very well over the last few weeks. Against Luck, Manning and Brady their defense surrendered 9, 21 and 13 points respectively. A repeat of that kind of performance will probably win them the Superbowl. However, they haven’t played any team all season quite like the 49ers.
To some, the read option may look like a fad similar to the wildcat. There is one major difference that gets pushed to the side. The catalyst that receives the snap is not Ronnie Brown, it is an NFL quarterback who has exceptional running ability. If the components are in place, it is a threat that any offensive coordinator would love to have in his arsenal. I doubt it will ever become a ubiquitous staple of offenses around the league but it will at least be a package for the teams who have the correct personnel. There are legitimate questions to the sustainability of such an offense with the danger that comes with your star quarterback running around with the football. As valid as that concern may be, if it helps a team move the football and win, they are going to utilize it. It is such a departure from attacking a pocket quarterback that every defense must prepare for it. Adjust or lose, they are the only options.