This could be what many NFL offenses look like in the future.
It may be a passing fad like the wildcat or run-and-shoot.
Either way, the Baltimore Ravens must find a way to disarm San Francisco’s “Pistol” attack for their best shot at winning Super Bowl XLVII.
The 49ers don’t use the formation on every snap. But when they do and the opposition is unprepared, it can have devastating results.
The Green Bay Packers learned this in painful fashion during a 45-31, second-round playoff loss. San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick set the NFL’s single-game rushing record for a quarterback with 181 yards and two touchdowns. Green Bay defensive coordinator Dom Capers and his charges were so confused that the 49ers finished with a whopping 579 yards overall.
“It is another way to put pressure on the defense,” 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman said this week. “That is what we want to do. We want to try to put pressure on 11 people on the field. Make it a bad day for them.”
A big reason San Francisco has enjoyed such success when deploying the Pistol is Kaepernick’s comfort and familiarity with Roman’s offensive concepts. Kaepernick became the prototypical Pistol quarterback shortly after former University of Nevada head coach Chris Ault unveiled the look in 2005.
The quarterback takes the snap roughly four yards behind the line of scrimmage rather than from directly under center or in a deeper shotgun formation. The primary running back is aligned behind the quarterback, who is called “The Bullet” playing off the Pistol moniker.
Ault’s intent was two-fold. He wanted defenses to lose track of where the running back was behind the line of scrimmage while also giving a run/pass option to his quarterback.
The read-option element makes this Pistol particularly lethal. With the football in hand, the quarterback’s duty is to “read” how the defensive end/outside linebacker will attack the play.
If the defender commits to the quarterback, the ball is handed off. If the running back is the defender’s target, the quarterback should keep the ball and head upfield.
When executed properly, the read-option creates huge running lanes because of the confusion it causes.
“It makes it 11-on-11 football,” Kaepernick said. “You’re actually blocking the defender by reading him.”
Assigning extra defenders to stop the run isn’t advised either. Unlike in wildcat formations that featured running backs like Ronnie Brown in Miami, Kaepernick is an outstanding passer with a strong enough arm to hit deep throws. Playing man-to-man coverage like the Packers did is another green light for Kaepernick to run because cornerbacks have their backs to him while trying to stick with the 49ers wide receivers.
Although the Ravens had an extra week to prepare for the Pistol, Roman also had more time to tinker with new wrinkles that could be unveiled Sunday inside the Louisiana Superdome.
“The way (Roman) has mixed the trap, the power, the wham plays into the pistol offense and conventional offense has been revolutionary in many ways,” said Jim Harbaugh, who brought Roman with him from Stanford University when becoming San Francisco’s head coach in 2011.
After he didn’t take the field as a rookie in 2011, the 49ers began using Kaepernick in Pistol packages early in the season. Kaepernick then took over the starting job on a full-time basis in Week 11 after Alex Smith suffered a concussion.
The Pistol offense has helped Kaepernick overcome some of his NFL inexperience.
“It freezes them a little bit,” Kaepernick said. “It gives you a little bit more time. If it’s just a split second, that’s an advantage for the offense.”
The Ravens aren’t tipping their hand as to how they hope to defend the Pistol. But a key will be remaining disciplined and insuring everyone is on the same page in executing the defensive game plan.
That should be a strength for an experienced Ravens unit.
“When you watch the film, a lot of people who played against them just never communicated at all,” Ravens inside linebacker Ray Lewis said. “I believe that’s one of the advantages of what we have as a defense. We do a job of communicating. Whether you have the dive, whether you have the quarterback -- how are you going to play this?
“You can tell that a lot of people played against the read-option just played as individuals. It’s really hard to play that type of package as individuals. You have to play it as a group. That is the only way to slow it down.”
Other franchises will be dissecting the read-option and Pistol offense during the offseason to not only stop the attack but determine whether this is the direction the NFL is heading with so many high school and college teams using them.
Harbaugh admits he doesn’t know the answer.
“It’s possible that it is here to stay,” he said. “Don’t make any predictions on that.”
But forecasting the importance of stopping the Pistol is a safe bet in this Super Bowl.