Coaches Say 'Versatile' Pistol Formation Here to Stay

When the San Francisco 49ers play the Baltimore Ravens in Sunday's Super Bowl, viewers will see plenty of the "pistol" formation when the 49ers have the ball. Contrary to what people first thought, the pistol formation may be here to stay like the West Coast Offense.

Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh says the "pistol" formation, which the San Francisco 49ers use often with versatile quarterback Colin Kaepernick, is not a fad. In the formation, the quarterback lines up halfway from where he would be in a typical shotgun formation and in front of the running back. 

'I think the pistol offense has staying power in the league it's a very versatile offense'" Harbaugh said, when discussing how tough it will be to defend against it. He said what makes the pistol formation great was NFL teams could run every play in their offense out of it and were not limited to just certain plays. In fact, the formation allows them to add even more plays to the their base offense.

Chris Ault, the former Nevada coach who invented the offense and formation and coached Kaepernick in college when Kaepernick became the first player in history to run for 4,000 yards and pass for 10,000 yards, said the pistol formation could be run by even pocket-passing quarterbacks like the Ravens' Joe Flacco, and that is why the formation can be enduring. 

Ault said on the NFL Network that the pistol isn't "isn’t predicated on a quarterback running the ball," contrary to what people believe. Ault believes that as NFL defenses focus on taking away the run out of the pistol, it will leave a lot of room up the middle for the running back or wide receivers.

“I think defenses will catch up, but here’s the beauty of the pistol: I know we saw Kaep run for 181 yards against Green Bay — that’s certainly the read part of the game, it’s great — but what you saw [against Atlanta] is what I believe our pistol brings to the table: Kaep didn’t run it," Ault said. "He read it and handed it off because Atlanta was taking away Kaep on the outside."

Ault said "those two plays, I believe, that Gore scored on, both of them were read-type plays. The beauty of what we’ve done in the pistol and what I’ve seen the 49ers and the Redskins doing, is, it’s not just the read play itself. It’s also the play-action pass off of it.”

Ault said he felt the pistol formation had staying power because even slower quarterbacks like Eli Manning, of the New York Giants, or Joe Flacco, of the Baltimore Ravens, can run the "pistol" formation. 

“They could run the pistol formation,” Ault said. “They don’t need to run the read part of it. When we first put the pistol in, in 2005 and 2006, that’s all we ran — we ran the power, the gap, 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.”

Of course, the formation becomes more dangerous when teams have a quarterback who can throw and run like Kaepernick, Seattle's Russell Wilson, and Washington's Robert Griffin III. 

“I don’t think the NFL quarterbacks are all going to start running the ball 15 times a game,” Ault said. “But if you’ve got the read in your offense, it is a threat, it’s something you’ve got to be concerned about, and of course if you’ve got a guy like Kaep who can run like a gazelle, you’ve got to be more than concerned with it. You’ve got to put one and a half people on him.”

Ault said these pocket-passing quarterbacks could run the "pistol" formation because the formation actually makes it harder for linebackers to read what the running back is doing, because the formation does not let them clearly see into the backfield.

“When that back sits behind the quarterback, the linebackers do not have a clear view of what he’s doing,” Ault said. “You can run downhill power games, counters, gaps and all that from the pistol.”


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