It’s only natural to see more teams implementing the pistol formation after a handful of teams had so much success with it last year. The NFL is a copy-cat league and even Peyton Manning isn’t going to ignore concepts that can make his offense more effective.
Manning isn’t going to be running the read-option out of the pistol any time soon, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t another tool he can add to his bag of tricks. In fact, don’t be surprised if Manning falls in love with the pistol because he can run the entire offense out of the formation.
The Denver Broncos lined up in the pistol formation several times on their opening drive of the preseason and showcased some of the plays that will make it useful to the offense going forward. The Broncos can use outside-zone (stretch) run plays, inside-zone run plays and the full arsenal of passing plays with or without play action in the pistol formation.
It’s hard enough to defend Manning when he is in the shotgun or under center, and the pistol is like combining the strengths of both. Defensive coordinators everywhere are cringing at the thought that Manning could be even better just by using a trendy new formation.
One of the key advantages of using the pistol is that the footwork is simplified. This is especially useful to teams starting a young quarterback, but it will also help Manning.
It may not seem like it, but Manning is 37 years old. Manning’s legs will get tired faster and he may not be able to move as quickly as he did when he was younger.
Enter the pistol formation, which requires the quarterback to take fewer steps than if he was under center to hand the ball off the running back. It’s simplified because there are actually fewer steps involved.
With Manning a few yards behind the center and the running back directly behind him, Manning will not have to take several steps backwards just to hand the ball. On a running play, Manning will turn, take one step and hand the ball to his running back.
On passing plays the same thing applies. Manning saves steps because he is already two or three steps from the line of scrimmage. Any kind of wear on Manning you can save is a benefit, even if it’s minor.
The much larger benefit to Manning with the pistol will be how well their offense runs out of the formation. It’s not just one or two plays that will work in the pistol, which is why former Nevada head coach Chris Ault referred to it as the “pistol offense.”
The Broncos re-hired zone-blocking guru Alex Gibbs this offseason to help offensive line coach Dave Magazu. Zone blocking was already a big part of Denver’s running game, but the team is even more committed to the scheme in 2013.
One of the ideal things about the pistol is the Broncos can run outside-zone plays out of it with a single running back. Wide receivers Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker and Eric Decker can all stay on the field on these running plays and Manning is in a more pass-friendly position to change the play to a pass when he sees fit.
Since teams will have to respect the pass even more than they do when Manning is under center, it will be extremely hard to stop the running game. Whoever is the running back in Denver will face a maximum of seven defenders in the box and probably six in a lot of situations.
One of the first plays the Broncos ran out of the pistol on their first drive of the preseason was the outside-zone run play. Without going into too much detail about the zone-blocking scheme, the outside-zone run is a staple and sets up the inside zone and the play-action pass.
Ronnie Hillman took the handoff from Manning headed right off the hip of the offensive tackle. After taking the handoff, Hillman decided to bounce the run outside when left tackle Chris Clark was blown into the backfield by Aldon Smith.
Had Smith not created as much penetration, Hillman may have had enough time to find a cutback lane for a bigger gain. As it was, it wasn’t a bad decision by Hillman because the outside-zone run sets up the inside-zone run by getting the second-level defenders all flowing in the direction of the run.
Once the defense starts flowing to the outside on outside-zone runs to keep a speedy back like Hillman from turning the corner, it’s time to dial up the inside-zone run. To keep it simple, the main difference is that the running back’s initial aiming point is off the guard instead of a tackle or tight end.
Since the defense is flowing hard to the outside, the offensive line should be able to seal off the second-level defenders and give the running back a big cutback lane. As you probably guessed, the inside-zone play can be run out of the pistol.
Smith thwarted the Broncos inside zone by screaming down the line of scrimmage and making the tackle. On many zone plays with a single running back, the end (or outside linebacker in this case) is left unblocked.
If the Broncos were having trouble getting the running back past an end like Smith, they could send a tight end in motion and have him block. Later in the game, Manning and the Broncos could have also taken advantage of an aggressive edge player with a play-action, bootleg pass to the left.
Pass (With or Without Play Action)
The play-action bootleg could be naked, with Smith taking himself out of the play and Manning rolling into the empty, or the Broncos could have the tight end coming across to mimic the block. Instead of blocking, the tight end would slip past the end to serve as a quick dump off in case a deeper pass isn’t open or the defensive end isn’t fooled by the fake.
Once the pass threat is established, the end can’t aggressively attack the inside-zone runs like Smith did. Zone-blocking teams like the Houston Texans use the bootleg heavily, but it’s probably not something the Broncos would do a lot if Manning was under center.
In the pistol, the bootleg is a little safer for the quarterback because he is already a few steps from the line of scrimmage. You still might not see it a lot, but it’s a tool Manning could use to keep his running game on track.
Manning doesn’t have to use the play-action bootleg to throw out of the pistol. The play can be a simple play-action fake, with Manning getting more time to read the defense and find whichever one of his stellar receivers are open.
The other option would be to pass out of the pistol without play action, as the Broncos did during their first preseason game. The pistol would just replace the shotgun, allowing Manning and the Broncos to use their entire arsenal of pass plays.
Manning completed a five-yard in route to Thomas for an easy gain out of the pistol. The defense appeared to be bringing a blitz and playing soft coverage on the outside.
The tight end ran deep to clear out any linebackers that decided to drop into coverage (none did) and to keep the safety deep. Manning hit Thomas breaking inside for the easy gain.
Had a linebacker dropped into a short zone, Manning could have hit the tight end in front of the safety. Had the linebacker dropped all the way back with the tight end, he just runs the play as designed to Thomas for the easy gain.
There really isn’t a pass play that couldn’t be run out of the pistol, plus Manning could incorporate a play-action fake on any of them. On a play normally run out of the shotgun, the defense doesn’t really have to respect play action—they do in the pistol.
Outside-zone runs, inside-zone runs and passes normally reserved for the shotgun can all be run out of the pistol. That’s a huge advantage for an offense because the defense doesn’t have as many clues based on the formation which plays might be coming.
Except for in the most obvious pass situations where it makes sense to use the shotgun to give the quarterback the extra second to survey the field, the pistol is one heck of weapon. Manning didn’t really need another way to school defenses, but that’s not going to stop him from using the pistol to make defenses look silly on game day.