While the Texans offense was defined in many ways by its reliance on play action, the Niners have their offensive wrinkle that Patriots fans should keep an eye out for this week in the pistol.
Developed in 2004 by Nevada head coach Chris Ault -- and run as a collegian at Nevada by current Niners quarterback Colin Kaepernick -- it gives a different twist for opposing defenses to consider. The quarterback gets the ball closer to the line than he would if he was in a traditional shotgun (usually four yards instead of seven yards deep) and because he’s closer to the line, the quarterback can sometimes get a better view of the field, making his downfield reads easier. The running back is traditionally lined up behind the quarterback, which means the quarterback can more readily run with the ball, hand it off or throw it.
(Of course, there are drawbacks. The pistol can make a running game more difficult to defend, but at the same time, because the play is taking place closer to the line of scrimmage, a defense can get a quicker read on a play-action fake, increasing its chances of a play blowing up in the face of an offense.)
Asked this week how you can combat the pistol, Patriots coach Bill Belichick said that it doesn’t necessarily fall on the shoulders of one or two defenders. Instead, you need a real commitment to team defense to try and slow it down.
“They attack you everywhere; everybody has to do a good job,” Belichick said. “They can run inside, they can run outside, they can keep it, they play-action off it. Really, everybody has to be at the point of attack. No one player can stop it, no one guy can. Eleven guys have to play good team defense. I’m sure that’s why they’re doing it -- to try to put stress on every player on the defense and they do.”
(For a deeper history of the pistol and its variations, check out this story by Chris Brown of Smart Football.)
The Niners have used several variations on the pistol this season -- and it is one of the reasons they’re one of the best teams in the league when it comes to running the football -- but they were extremely successful running the pistol out of a diamond formation last Sunday against the Dolphins. On this variation, San Francisco starts with a full-house backfield -- that is to say, three players surrounding Kaepernick like a diamond. The quarterback, who is in a shallow shotgun, then has a variety of options: He can keep it himself and try and find a hole up front. He can hand it off (or use a play fake). He can pass, or he can even pitch it in an option style. Against the Dolphins, San Francisco used it very effectively as part of its running game in a fourth-quarter, clock-killing drive that sealed the win. Here's a breakdown of what happened:
• On the first play -- a first-and-10 from their own 35 -- the Niners had Michael Crabtree split wide left, with three players surrounding Kaepernick -- running back Frank Gore lined up directly behind the quarterback, while tight end Delanie Walker was to Kaepernick’s left and fullback Will Tukuafu to his right. (The Dolphins, who were clearly anticipating the run, lined up with eight in the box.) After the snap, Kaepernick handed it off to Gore, who took a quick hop and headed straight down the gut of the Miami defense. However, that hole closed up quickly, so he jumped quickly to his left and just got past the first line of defense before being hauled down from behind for a four-yard gain. (Tukuafu delivered a nice block on Miami’s Jared Odrick that cleared some space for Gore on the play.)
• Now, in a second-and-6, the Niners came out with the same look -- only with LaMichael James in the backfield in place of Gore -- and with two receivers. Kaepernick was again in the shotgun. But even though Miami had five guys with their hand on the ground up front, loaded up to stop the run, the Niners went back to the same play. This time, it was James up the middle for six yards, thanks in large part to left guard Mike Iupati and left tackle Joe Staley, who combined to shove defensive tackle Paul Soliai out of the picture and create a nice hole for James. That, combined with the fact that defensive end Jared Odrick wasn’t sure what to do in the situation -- go after James or drop into coverage against Walker, who looked like he was going to head out on a pass route -- led to more positive yardage. (Odrick was left chasing after James -- his decision not to go after James led to a sizable gain and a first down for the Niners.)
• Back to first-and-10 at their own 45, the Niners revert back to form with Tukuafu at fullback and Gore at tailback, with two tight ends and one receiver. But why even think about throwing the ball in this situation? Walker starts in motion from right to left, but comes to rest in a spot between the right guard and right tackle, where he can try and allow Gore some breathing room. Gore goes off left tackle for a three-yard gain. (This was probably the least successful blocking action of this sequence for the San Francisco offensive line, which was beaten to the spot by the Miami defenders.)
• Now, with a second-and-7 at their own 48, the Niners go back to the pistol. Miami is loaded up to stop the run again, but after taking the snap, Kaepernick fakes the handoff to Gore and keeps it himself, trying to go off left tackle. The quarterback does get into open space -- most of the Miami defense falls for the play-fake badly -- but linebacker Jason Trusnik, playing on the outside, does not. He not only doesn’t fall for the idea of Walker going out on a pass route (the same problem that bedeviled Odrick two plays earlier), he makes a nice open field tackle on the shifty quarterback. (Karlos Dansby comes over to offer support and help clean up the play as well.)
• Facing a third-and-5, this is where the Niners drop the hammer. Going back to the pistol, Kaepernick has Walker to his left and tight end Garrett Celek to his right, with Gore in the backfield. Kaepernick takes the snap and fakes the handoff to Gore but keeps it himself. The Dolphins collapse in on Gore, but it’s Kaepernick with the ball, racing around left end on what appears to be almost the same play they ran previously. But this time, Trusnik isn’t there to step up and make the play in time. The containment breaks down, and the quarterback is off to the races, getting to the corner before any of the Miami defenders and going 50 yards down the Niners sideline untouched for the touchdown that sealed the game for San Francisco.
One of the more amazing things about the last play was that the two other guys in the backfield -- Celek and Walker -- didn’t even really have to engage any blockers. Kaepernick saw the hole that opened up because the Miami defenders all flowed to the center of the field after the play fake and just took off, using his speed to outrun the Dolphins. (If you have NFL Game Rewind, go back and watch the coaches’ film -- at least three of Miami’s interior defenders collapse on on Gore. By that time, it’s too late.)
A few things stick out about this sequence:
1. The Niners call it a full-house backfield, but the running back is always going to be lined up behind the quarterback (either Gore or James), with Walker, Tukuafu and Celek working at the other spots as blockers. Opposing defenses need to respect those other two as possible passing targets, but they are there more for blocking support than anything.
2. When it comes to defending the pistol, discipline is key. You have to be alert and quick enough to try and discern the variety of possible play fakes, and because the play takes place closer to the line, the play is on top of a defense that much faster. Then, there’s containing Kaepernick from getting to the outside. Trusnik did a nice job of containment on one play, but couldn’t follow that up on the next play, and the Dolphins were burned. Guys like Rob Ninkovich, Chandler Jones, Trevor Scott and Justin Francis will have to make sure they do not allow Kaepernick outside -- force him back to the middle, where guys like Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes and Vince Wilfork should ostensibly be waiting.
3. I can’t imagine that it’s a coincidence that we saw the Niners attack the Dolphins with the same offensive scheme on the ground again and again with the game on the line. Some part of me believes San Francisco saw what the Patriots did to Miami the week before -- when New England ground out a 16-play, 77-yard drive in the fourth quarter -- to finish off the game. (I wonder if the Dolphins felt as disrespected as they did when the Patriots did it to them in South Florida.)