Behind a few dozen computers, Jon Gruden sits in his chair with neatly organized stacks of paper to each side of him. The former Super Bowl-winning head coach is sitting in between an esteemed draft guru, Mel Kiper Jr., and a legendary ESPN sports show host, Chris Berman. He probably has more football knowledge than the two combined, but he’s been forced to pare it down to only a dozen words for his viewers (and colleagues) to understand during the 2011 draft.
It’s the San Francisco 49ers’ choice now and Dwight Clark, a receiver famed for “The Catch”, walks across the platform to announce it. More than 30 years earlier, he was the first player selected in the 10th round of the 1979 draft, but he worked his way up to become one of the most memorable pass-catchers in NFL history.
“With pick No. 36 in the 2011 NFL draft, the San Francisco 49ers select Colin Kaepernick, quarterback, Nevada,” Clark announced.
Gruden turned around, smiled and rubbed his hands together. He waited for Kiper to finish an evaluation of the signal-caller, which consisted of the usual scouting terminology that’s seemingly applied to every other “unorthodox” and “developmental” quarterback. Now it was Gruden’s turn.
“I think you need a guy that can create plays with his legs. This is a legitimate dual-threat. He can run and throw. I do think he needs development. He hasn’t been underneath the center. He’s been in that Pistol offense,” Gruden said. “The more you watch Nevada, Reno, the more you want to put their offense in. I mean, they shred people. That’s a heck of an offense.”
Heck of an offense, indeed.
When Colin Kaepernick lines up this Sunday to take his first Super Bowl snap, there’s a good chance that it’ll be in the Pistol formation, one aspect of the 49ers’ dynamic offense. That offense has spent exactly half of its playoff snaps in the pistol formation, and a big reason why is that the new school concept fits their old school ways.
The 49ers are unlike modern day teams. They don’t employ multiple receiver sets that spread the width of the field on a consistent basis. Snaps are spent punching defenses in the mouth with additional tight ends and/or offensive tackles. They utilize a fullback, a position that’s grown increasingly extinct in the NFL in favor of H-backs — a fullback-tight end hybrid. Play calls consist of base run plays that have been in the NFL for ages, and every now and then, offensive coordinator Greg Roman sprinkles in a run concept that sets football back even more years. Counter, power, inside trap and lead runs — all base run schemes that the 49ers use along with the read-option, and that the National Football Post’s Matt Bowen beautifully broke down in a recent article.
But it’s not all about what plays they run, it’s how they run them.
One of the biggest benefits of the Pistol formation, which teams like the Washington Redskins and Seattle Seahawks have also been using, is that it allows a team to continue what they have been doing. An example is the previously mentioned base run plays that the 49ers have been running, and Nevada itself, a offense that ran the same plays when it first installed the concept, as explained by former Nevada head coach Chris Ault.
When we first put the pistol in, in 2005 and 2006 (at Nevada), that’s all we ran. We ran the power, the gaps, the counters, the zones, the outside stuff. We did not run the read at that time. So, the pistol offense, the most important thing there, is you can run any offense you’ve been running. And this is how we created it, and then we advanced the pistol run game — the read part of it — two years later.”
The 49ers also still use endless shifts and motions before the snap to create a numbers advantage at the point of attack. Against the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship game, they were able to do just that on a Frank Gore carry early in the fourth quarter.
With the ball on the 10-yard line, Kaepernick stood five yards behind his center and was surrounded by “22″ personnel (two backs, two tight ends). Behind him, Frank Gore stood two yards deeper, creating a seven-yard deep alignment from the line of scrimmage. Gore’s alignment is key in this concept, as it clouds the defense’s view of where he’s going because he’s downhill and directly behind a shotgun quarterback.
The 49ers presented nine gaps (two tight ends = eight, a fullback brings it to nine) to the Falcons 4-3 defense, which featured seven defenders in the box. In other words, that wasn’t enough, and in the words of Bill Belichick, it would never be enough because of Kaepernick — a mobile quarterback who adds an extra gap. That gave the 49ers 10 gaps.
Standing tall, Kaepernick waved his right arm to suggest a shift by tight end Delanie Walker, who was to his near right. Walker moved across the formation and lined up just outside the left tackle. This shift caused linebacker Sean Weatherspoon to follow Walker outside of the tackle box, leaving the Falcons with even less defenders to defend the run.
In the tackle box, the 49ers’ gaps outnumber the Falcons defenders seven-to-four, which is exactly what they were looking for.
When the ball was snapped, Kaepernick took a lateral step with his left leg and opened to his right. Gore patiently stood up and then took a couple of forward steps. He took the hand off from Kaepernick, who read the unblocked defensive end who was waiting for him to run the ball. As Gore grasped the ball, his offensive line blocked down to its left and at the second level. Meanwhile, fullback Bruce Miller crossed the formation from left to right and was in the process of executing an arc block.
It was supposed to be a bluff of a block, which he correctly did, but if Miller would have gotten his hands on the defensive end, Gore would have likely scored a touchdown instead of just the five yards he gained.
Still, the play signified what the 49ers were aiming to do. Get a numbers advantage, get the ball running downhill, and make it hard for the defense to read the ball-carrier. Whether they run a traditional play like power or a “modern” zone read, the defenders still have trouble reading the play because of the Pistol formation’s balance between the quarterback and running back alignments. It’s likely that this lack of clarity and versatility is the reason NFL teams adopt the formation to their playbooks.
Preventing the Shredding
Gruden is still watching football from booths, but that’s not because he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He knew where he was going with his comments on the night of the 2011 draft, when he stated that the Pistol offense “shred[s] people”. The biggest issue in the NFL now is how to prevent that from happening. A coach’s best bet for help may be the league that many Americans don’t pay attention to: the Canadian Football League.
Wally Buono, the current general manager and former head coach of the B.C. Lions, recently spoke about the NFL’s offensive evolution to the Vancouver Sun’s Cam Cole:
“What’s happened to college football is now happening to the NFL – it’s almost like it’s evolving into the CFL,” Buono said. “This is what’s amazing. If Atlanta had called us, the defensive coordinator, they could have stopped San Francisco’s running game.
“You don’t put the defensive end up on the quarterback, because when you do, the running back is going to cut off that guy every time. He’s going to get big yardage. Right, Angus?” he said to the Lions’ 36-year-old, freshly re-signed center, Angus Reid.
“We all know that. They don’t know that.”
The Green Bay Packers, like the Falcons, didn’t know that when the 49ers offense ran for a total of 323 yards against them in the Divisional Round, but they know it now. The Baltimore Ravens should too.